Emotions are too hot to handle. Equanimity in all circumstances seems a much better friend. That sums up the awkward relationship that many of us have with our feelings. Should we love them? Should we hate them? We are uncomfortable with negative emotions and wary of positive ones. Emotions feel like a liability, or we rarely even notice them. Some of us gravitate to early Christians like Clement and Origen who believed the perfected Christian would be completely free of any emotions.
In Untangling Emotions, J. Alasdair Groves and Winston Smith show how emotions are, in fact, an essential way humans bear God’s image. Emotions reflect what we love—and what we love supremely, we worship. Emotions can help or hinder us from fulfilling the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor. Engaging our emotions is therefore not peripheral to the Christian life. The authors recognize this as they seek to help Christians handle emotions in a way that honors God. The book is divided into three parts: Understanding Emotions, Engaging Emotions, and Engaging the Hardest Emotions. A helpful appendix also looks at God’s emotions in light of the doctrine of impassibility.
The first section helps readers understand emotions by dispelling some of the common myths we believe about them. It’s easy to think we should embrace positive emotions and suppress negative ones. We might label joy and peace as good and fear and anger as bad. Instead, the authors argue that all emotions are good in their proper place. We should not feel happy when a loved one is in pain, and we should feel fear when a car almost hits us. As the first chapter makes clear, sometimes it’s good to feel bad and sometimes it’s bad to feel good! Emotions don’t come “single file” either (p. 41). We usually have many feelings at once. The reason we have various and often conflicting emotions is because we “love lots of things” (p. 42).
The second section explains how to respond to our emotions and the emotions of others. Two pitfalls we often fall into are believing emotions are everything and thus embracing all that we feel, or believing they are nothing and trying to suppress what we feel. Groves and Smith offer a better option: we should engage our emotions. We engage our emotions with four helpful steps: (1) identify what you are feeling, (2) examine why you are feeling it, (3) evaluate the good and bad aspects of the emotion, and (4) act according to the evaluation. Engaging emotions ultimately means engaging God, the Giver of emotions. Our emotions are not something we should keep to ourselves—to truly engage our emotions, we need to bring them to God in prayer and to others in vulnerability. We should also empathetically help others as they try to do the same. Empathy says, “I want to know what this situation was like for you, rather than just imagining what your situation would be like for me” (p. 115). Emotional connection is important for intimacy with both God and others.
The third section lays out how to engage the hardest emotions: fear, anger, grief, guilt, and shame. The authors analyze the good purpose of each of these emotions and the way our sinful nature steers them in the wrong direction. Fear, for example, motivates us to seek safety, control, and certainty. In a moment of danger, fear is necessary to cause us to flee what will harm us. Often however, fear contemplates “what-ifs” and worst-case scenarios while “writing the presence and help of God out of the picture” (p. 158). Nevertheless, even sinful fear can point us back to the truth of Scripture that God cares for each of us, that he is “a Person you can trust with your very life” (p. 164).
Groves and Smith are balanced in the way they help readers engage their own emotions and the emotions of others. They help readers examine their own hearts, but they do not stop there. Even the reflection questions after each chapter enable readers to better relate to others’ emotions. They are also detailed in their explanation of emotions. For example, they touch on the issue of numbness and how those who experience it are usually troubled by their lack of emotion (pp. 61, 79). They give a nuanced explanation of anger by naming its subtler expressions of frustration, irritation, and annoyance (p. 175). They investigate both the objective and subjective realities of guilt and shame: sometimes we feel guilty when we are not, other times we do not feel guilty when we are (p. 202). Overall, their explanation of emotions is nuanced, reflecting the complex ways different people experience and process emotional responses.
I greatly enjoyed reading this book and only have a few suggestions for improvements. I struggled with the idea that “every emotion you ever feel reflects your loves, or what you worship” (p. 39, emphasis added). I appreciated the chapter explaining how emotions happen in our body, but what about how our body affects our emotions in ways that do not reflect our heart? For example, a woman may avoid coffee because every time she drinks it, the caffeine makes her anxious. While I’m not certain, I do not think the authors would say this anxiety stems from her disordered love for God, but instead is a physiological reaction to the caffeine. Or perhaps they would not classify this kind of “anxiety” as true anxiety (or a true emotion) since it is not a reflection of the heart. I agree that most of the time anxiety reveals the concerns of our hearts, but there could have been more clarification here for the few instances that our emotions do not reflect what we worship.
I also appreciate that the authors kept the book to a reasonable length, thus making it accessible for a wide readership. And yet, a chapter on joy would have been helpful. As the authors say in the beginning, “Christians are sometimes uneasy even with positive emotions” (p. 15). We often do not embrace happiness out of fear of idolatry, or we suppress feelings of accomplishment to keep ourselves from pride (p. 15). I have no doubt the authors could have helped us distinguish the difference between righteous and sinful joy. Along these lines, a section on the feeling of God’s absence in the “Engaging Grief” chapter would have been valuable, as many believers experience the sense that God is distant at some point in their life. Interestingly, the authors never tackle the role of cultural and ethnic diversity. Christians from other parts of the world often have a very different understanding and experience of emotions. Are these trivial differences? Do they point to shortcomings in non-Western contexts, or do they suggest that emotions in the Christian life have an even richer, more complex meaning than the categories developed in this book? I would have liked to hear the authors speak to these and related questions.
Amidst a culture of uncritical emotional expression and various Christian traditions of hyper-critical emotional suppression, this book is timely. Written by two CCEF counselors, Untangling Emotions is theologically nuanced and pastorally helpful, making it a must-read for any Christian. Groves and Smith recognize that emotions are not the ultimate end, only God is, but in order to worship God we cannot neglect the emotions he has given us. This book will enable many to better love God with mind, soul, and strength—emotions included.