Perhaps few words are as mangled as the word emotion. In this word is a cacophony of confusion. For some, emotion is nothing more than the superficial states of the body: neither moral, nor important. For others, emotion is the gold standard of sincerity: if you feel it, then you mean it, and lack of feeling is a lack of sincerity. For some, feelings never lie; for others, they nearly always do.
Misunderstanding this word can have catastrophic effects. The ideas associated with emotion lie at the very heart of worship. They enter our understanding of counselling, discipleship and biblical change. Misunderstanding this word leads to the extremes of stoicism and hedonism, to brutality and sentimentality, to abuse of the body and idolatry of the body. It can lead us to place the emphasis on the mind instead of the heart, or it can lead us to being controlled by bodily appetites instead of the soul’s reason.
As with the other words we have studied, much of the problem is equivocation. Emotion means different things in different contexts, and the same person may mean different things by the the use of the term, even in the same sentence. In fact, I would say that this particular word has been saddled with the burden of about three or four other ideas.
One of them is motive. What moves or inclines people to action or thought is sometimes called emotion or feeling. “He just doesn’t feel very interested in the topic.” “She has mixed feelings about speaking in front of those people.” “He feels strongly about this cause.” Here, emotion or feeling describes how strongly, weakly or ambiguously someone is inclined to an action. Here, emotion is actually referring to what someone loves or hates.
A second idea which emotion subs for is responses of desire or dislike, in many forms. The various species of desire are often called emotions: joy, anger, sorrow, fear, disgust, or surprise. Of course, each of these may come in further species. Anger could be fury, irritation, rage, frustration, or bitterness. Joy could be contentment, hilarity, happiness, satisfaction, amusement, pleasure, and so on. Each of these is not simply a difference in degree, but a difference in kind- in actual form. Anger comes in different forms, as does fear, sorrow and surprise. These may be more or less rational, more or less voluntary, more or less pleasing to God. If you consider the lists of virtues and the lists of sins that the New Testament gives us, you will find on those lists several words which would be named “emotions” by moderns (Mark 7:21-22; Ro. 1:29-31; 1 Co. 6:9-10; 2 Co. 12:20; Gal. 5:19-24; Eph. 5:3-6; Phil. 4:8; 2 Tim 3:2-5; James 3:14-17; 2 Pet 1:5-7).
A third idea that moderns mean by emotion is mood or temperament. One’s mood can refer to a bodily state of lethargy or excitement, fatigued lowness or anxious alertness, giddy expectation or cold-sweat dread. General temperament is a strange mix of inherited traits, bodily constitution, unique personality and learned character habits. As embodied souls, or ensouled bodies, we are beings whose spiritual desires have bodily effects and manifestations, and whose bodies produce effects upon our souls.
Untangling this word will mean separating out these meanings and suggesting some synonyms.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.