BY WHITNEY MORET
According to the various online incarnations of the Myers-Briggs personality tests I’ve taken, I am a “rational.” This is good news, and I’d be disappointed if I were anything else. I mean, wouldn’t that make me irrational? I, being rational, use logic to make the means I use fit the ends I pursue. The irrational person, I reasoned, bypasses the whole “thinking” part of decision-making altogether, and emotion is no basis for a decision. Erratic and easily manipulated, those who navigate their lives according to an emotional compass remain at the mercy of external conditions. In looking over reports on my own personality, I couldn’t help but be pleased that I had scored on the correct side of that ancient divide between passion and reason.
This sort of logic has given emotion a terribly bad rap these days. Even the term “emotion” has a certain gooey-ness to it. It’s certainly less reliable than, say, “instinct.” Conceptually, however, the two terms aren’t too different. Furthermore, scholarship on the workings of the brain seems to indicate that emotion isn’t so divorced from rationality as we may have assumed. Not only does emotion operate in partnership with rationality, it, like our conceptions of reason or instinct, can be trained and used for God’s service. Emotion is unfairly discounted as irrational, devalued by intellectual-types, and sorely missing from our understanding of God, who not only expressed strong feelings throughout the Old Testament, but, in the form of Christ, subjected himself to the winds of human experience and all the emotions, rational or otherwise, that come with it.
Clear-headed thought may seem distinct from the gut-churning, heart-pumping, tear-jerking distractions of a fit of emotion. The human brain, though, remains obstinately complicated and its functions refuse to be compartmentalized so neatly. Study after study confirms that decision-making is, ultimately, an emotional process. If we think of rationality as the suitability of a means to a given ends, emotion is what signals the link. “There must be a goal at stake for an emotion to be aroused. The more important the goal the stronger the resulting emotions. Most emotions are simultaneously accompanied by stress which also results from progress toward or away from the goal.” How do we recognize when something is illogical? We sense it. Psychologists call this sense “cognitive dissonance,” and it is an emotional experience of disharmony that motivates a rational reconciliation between contradictory ideas.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio reports that “people who lack emotions because of brain injuries often have difficulty making decisions at all.” He goes on to conclude: “What makes you and me ‘rational’ is not suppressing our emotions, but tempering them in a positive way.” Damasio describes emotions as a means of storing the meaning of previous decisions to provide the motivation for future ones. Emotions, then, are key to good decision-making, and can be quite measured, regular, and reliable.
So if emotions are compatible with our faculty of reason and functions as a useful resource, we must consider how to best utilize them for God’s service. I suggested earlier that the term “instinct” holds more currency as a legitimate source of intuition than “emotion.” Instincts come from basic survival mechanisms and can be developed for practical ends. Think Hatchet. Drop a kid off in the Canadian wilderness for a while, and before long he’s fighting bears and catching fish with his bare hands. Instincts are practical and consistent. They save you when you only have a split second to decide whether you should run away from the bear or whether you can take him down.
Emotions can be developed in the same way, and for similarly practical ends. God gave them to us because he created us in his image, and, throughout the Bible, he demonstrates how emotions should be used. Training our emotions to make good decisions and to fit God’s model requires the same kind of discipline as training our brains to perform well on exams.
We find guidance in God’s explicit verbal expressions of emotion, his behaviors throughout the Old Testament, and the life of his human Son. God’s feelings run the gambit from sadness to love to holy anger. Although he has powerful feelings, God does not have “off-days” or mood swings. We can always count on his constant love. God’s is not mechanical love, but passionate love infused with feeling.
According to the prophet Hosea, God’s love is that of a parent. God is disappointed, hurt, and angry with Israel, his people and his disobedient children, but nonetheless, he never fails to love them:
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
My heart is changed within me;
All my compassion is aroused. (Hos 11:8)
On a more material level, Christ was just as susceptible to all the forces we associate with emotional volatility and irrationality as any other human being. His emotional repertoire was just as rich and varied as yours or mine. When his friend Lazarus died, he wept (Jn 11:35–36). Sometimes he wept to grieve with his companions, and sometimes he faced his sorrow alone (Heb 5:7). Sometimes, he was angry. In Mark 10:14, he snapped at his disciples for sending the children who sought his presence away. There were times when Jesus was tired, and in Gethsemane, he was afraid.
When he was overcome with his emotions, Jesus offered them to God the Father in prayer and faith for direction. When Christ waited with the disciples in Gethsemane, he told them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Mt 26:38). Then, he began to pray. He asked the disciples to keep watch with him, but they were tired. How should they cope with their weariness? “Watch and pray so you will not fall into temptation,” Jesus told them (Mt 26:41). In response to his own feelings, Jesus prayed that he would fulfill God’s will. He advised the disciples to do the same.
It’s not easy to let go of all the mental babble of a given moment and really focus on God and his will for us in prayer. Prayer is work that requires emotional and spiritual discipline. It takes dedication to develop an “instinct” to surrender one’s will to God and pray. The beauty of prayer, though, is that it’s a conversation, a chance to both listen and speak to God. And the humility and surrender that come with listening are also an opportunity for us to offer our feelings to God and invite him to change them and use them.
What’s so beautiful about Jesus’ life is that it was so filled with feelings we can understand. The relationship between God and Jesus was that between father and son. It’s easy to think of an all-powerful, immutable God as impervious to pain and emotion. God, however, is neither remote nor cold, but full of the passion of a loving father. We can connect with him on an emotional level and better serve his purposes for our lives not by sacrificing our capacity for rationality, but by offering our feelings to his direction and training them into accordance with his perfect example in Christ. For a Christian, it’s the most rational choice.