The Emotional Support We Need

Recently, a well-known airline denied a woman’s attempt to bring a peacock onto a flight.  She claimed that the peacock was her ‘emotional support animal’, and that it should have its own seat next to her and be allowed to fly free.

We may chuckle at this headline story, but there are many in the world today who believe they need something to rely on to help them cope with difficult emotions that the world views as a disability. So how should we view emotions? Are they a disability? Should we turn to an ESA animal to facilitate peace and joy in our life? These are important questions to ponder because biblical counselors often encounter many who will come to them looking for help on this matter.

Emotions Begin with God

When it comes to building a biblical-theological foundation of emotions, we should look to the Triune God who displays a variety of emotions in Scripture.[1]  In it, we discover that God the Father perfectly loves and delights in His Son Jesus Christ (Is. 42:1; Mt. 3:17), rejoices in His people (Is. 62:5; Zeph. 3:17), experiences sorrow (Gen. 5:5-6; Ps. 78:40), displays righteous anger and hate toward the wicked (Ex. 22:22-24; Prov. 6:16-19). The Holy Spirit also experiences grief at the hands of disobedient man (Is. 63:10; Eph. 4:29). Furthermore, Jesus experienced emotions such as righteous anger and sorrow over the hardness of men’s hearts (Mk. 3:5), grief (Jn. 11:33,35), and compassion over lost people (Mt. 9:36, Lk. 7:13).

An encouragement I often share with counselees who struggle emotionally is found in Hebrews 4:14-15. There we learn that although Jesus is God, He became a man so that He could become their sympathetic and understanding High Priest, sharing in the believer’s temptations when they suffer.[2]Not only does our Triune God feel intensely, but when His people are troubled and despairing, we can draw near to Him to share those difficult emotions and needs because no one understands us as perfectly and lovingly as He does. In our weakness, He becomes the believers true help in their time of need.

Emotions are Part of the Imago Dei

People are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), so it’s no surprise that man possesses and expresses emotions.[3]  Unfortunately, the Fall corrupted our emotional state. Consider Cain. When he learned that God had no regard for his offering, he responded to that rejection by becoming sinfully angry (Gen. 4:5). Sadly, Cain did not heed God’s warning to repent even though He offered Cain hope. Consequently, Cain fell deeper in sin – an effect of failing to repent of ungodly emotions.[4]

However, not all emotions are sinful. Believers are often commanded to engage in godly emotion. For example, in Romans 12:9-15, Paul begins by exhorting the body of Christ to “let their love be genuine” and “love with a brotherly affection” (vv. 9, 10). This is referring to an emotion of deep affection for one another which is a central theme in the Christian life and defines our relationship with God and others.

From this passage we learn that when deep affection is evident, what follows are emotions like hating what is evil, delighting to honor each other, serving the Lord fervently, rejoicing in hope, practicing hospitality enthusiastically, weeping with others, and having joy.[5]

Knowing that we have the capacity to engage in godly emotions can encourage a troubled counselee who is tempted to succumb to their own ungodly emotions. They possess God’s authoritative living Word which renews the spirit of their mind, assists them in abandoning ungodly emotions, while engaging in godly emotions (Eph. 4:31-32; Col. 3:12-14). This biblical process points the counselee to Christ who is their perfect example and the Holy Spirit as the means by which sanctification of their own emotions can come about (Eph. 4:20-32, Col. 3:1-17).

Emotions Reveal our Hearts

Emotions give our hearts away. There are two components to emotions: an inner man experience and an outer man expression.  They become an assessment of a situation relative to what a person values, which prompts a feeling state which then drives behavior. [6] Therefore, it would be wise to pay attention to your counselee’s emotions. They become important in data-gathering as you seek to interpret what they are treasuring in the heart.

Although emotions are important to acknowledge, there should be balance. Counselors should not give the impression that we should do whatever we feel (Jer. 17:9). Rather, the counselor ought to instruct their counselee how to evaluate their emotions in the light of the inerrant, objective absolute standard of God’s Word.

Rather than leaning on an emotional support animal, inspire your counselees to strengthen their relationship with Christ through the development of good spiritual discipline habits. These habits include: prayer accompanied by reading, studying, memorizing, and meditating upon the Word of God. Truth is the only lasting support that will give the counselee true hope in their time of need.

Emotions Can Be Cultivated and Developed

Emotions are part of being image bearers, they reflect what we believe and value.  Believers have the capacity to root out ungodly emotions and cultivate godly ones.  Developing and cultivating godly emotions happens while we worship God in song, listen to godly preaching and live life together in church community. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, but they will never facilitate everlasting joy and peace.

[1]This section is highly influenced by Brian Borgmann’s work, Faith and Feelings. An incredible resource that all Biblical Counselors should own and have accessible on their bookshelf.

[2] John F. MacArthur Jr., Hebrews, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 111.

[3]Brian Borgman, 48

[4] Jay Edward Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Manual (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1973), 377.

[5]Matthew Elliot, Feel the Power of Listening to Your Heart, (Create Space, 2014), 161.

[6] Jeff Forrey, “The Biblical Understanding and Treatment of Emotions” in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling (Harvest House Publishers, 2013), 393-407.

Additional Resources

Emotions and Biblical Counseling | a blog by Rebekah Hannah

Handling Emotions and Biblical Counseling | an audio session by Nicolas Ellen | Get it free this week only with promo code blogpromo42618

Shelbi Cullen
Dr. Shelbi Cullen has been an Adjunct Professor and Office Manager for the Biblical Counseling Department at The Master's University for the last 6 years. She completed her masters in Biblical Counseling at The Master’s University, her doctorate in Educational Ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and her ACBC certification in 2005. When she’s not grading papers, she enjoys short-term mission’s trips with her husband Sean. They currently reside in California and enjoy spending time with their four grown children and their spouses. You can reach her at