Emotions in the Dock

by | Feb 12, 2024 | beauty, courage, faith, grace, healing, love

This post on emotions and the one that precedes it had its genesis following my own questioning of emotions and their place within the context and conduct of life for myself as a disciple of Jesus. I found so many conflicting opinions on emotions, from blame to banishment. Our difficulties and failures when processing emotions may be a causal agent in the current interest in stoicism within the ranks of Christendom.

My first post was about where and what the heart is, from the perspective of ancient Hebrew. Now let’s explore the place of emotions, in ancient Hebrew, in God’s interaction with humanity as seen in scripture, and through insights from my own study and experience. 

“God in the Dock” is the title of a series of essays on theology and ethics by C.S. Lewis. I’m doing a riff on this idea by placing our emotions “in the dock” and allowing them their day in court. 

Where are our deepest emotions located?

In Hebrew culture we’ve learned, the heart lev includes the mind, will, and intent (see my Part 1 post here.) So where are the emotions, you may ask? The seat of our deepest emotions are described as being the “kilyah,” literally the “kidneys.”⁠1 That might sound unusual to Western ears, but wait a minute. What do we know about the kidneys? Kidneys are vital to life and are located deep inside the body. Kidneys as part of the renal system keep our body fluids in balance and clean the body of toxins. 

There is something amazing and beautiful about that metaphor. What if our emotions are God’s way of keeping us in balance and clearing what is toxic from our inner being?

In scripture we are told God formed our kilyah (Psalm 139:3) and that our kilyah can also chastise, admonish and instruct us (Psalm 16:7.)

As I contemplate those two verses, I notice two big distinctives about my emotions God wants me to know. First, the seat of my emotions is something that God made and isn’t part of my fallen nature. Sure, the emotions can be used by the fallen nature, the sarx in Greek as Paul calls it (what many English bibles translate as the “flesh”) or what some call the “false self.” But my capacity for emotion is part of what God called “very good” when the first human was created. 

The second is that my emotions can admonish and instruct me. I find this interesting, since Christians often want to do the exact opposite and use our thoughts to chastise, admonish, and instruct our emotions. 

The problems with emotions isn’t the emotions

Why do we often feel so ambivalent about our emotions? Or sometimes feel like we have to haul our emotions out into the middle of the street, tie them to a pole and then beat the metaphorical tar out of them? Or put them in handcuffs and hide them away? Often it’s because they feel too much, too strong, maybe sometimes overwhelming. 

The feelings of overwhelm are also why we often act inappropriately on our emotions, which is in reality another way of shutting them down and shutting them up. Road rage, abuse, suicide, murder and addiction are just some of the ways people hurtfully mismanage the emotions that rise up inside them. Emotions feel dangerous and frightening, and I get that. I’ve lived enough life that I’ve experienced all of the above, either for myself or in doing life with others. But it’s important to note this: It’s not the emotion itself, but the actions and choices we make that have the ability to cause destruction, hurt, and pain.

So, we shut down our emotions, vilify and run from them, and as Christians, spiritualize those choices. The problem is, the emotion doesn’t go away. Anxiety, depression, psychosomatic illness, and other disorders of our bodies and minds bear witness to this reality. My emotion isn’t the problem. How I respond to it can be a problem, but it can also be a great gift.

Emotions, good and God-given

We Christians do admit (sometimes grudgingly) that God has emotions. but we seem to feel that we’re not entitled to have them as image bearers. Or if we feel an emotion, that we must immediately doubt it, discount it or erase any importance it has. 

As an aside, if you’ve read my last post, you know about the issues concerning the left side or “rational” part of the brain. And yet that is often the part of us taking our emotions to the woodshed or locking them in the basement. 

What I see in scripture is that God understands that we are emotional beings. He acknowledges and respects that part of us. When Elijah was discouraged and exhausted after running away from Jezebel, God gave him space. God fed him, allowed him to rest, and then gently spoke to him.  When Jonah got angry that God allowed for repentance in Ninevah, God gave him time, then asked him about His anger.

The Psalms are replete with emotional content — venting of anger, frustration, fear, passion — the whole spectrum of emotional response. Paul tells us to “be angry, but don’t sin” which implies that even a so-called negative emotion like anger can be felt without sinning.

God examines and tests our emotions 

We’ve all experienced tests in our lives. From our early school years we had multiple choice and true/false questions. Then came the word problems, when memorization became practice. If you went  further in study, you’d inevitably get to oral exams and defending a thesis. This is when your understanding of the subject was really tested. 

This brings us to another question. Unlike teachers, who are testing to find out if we know our subject matter, God already knows us down to the molecular level. So why does God test our kidneys? Not for His sake, but for ours. He invites us to have a curious stance toward our emotions. 

When God tested His people’s emotions in scripture, He often used oral exams. He asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry?” He invited Elijah to be curious about His emotions, and asked him to express and explore His feelings of being alone and under a death sentence. Only after this did God encourage Elijah with what is true. 

God heals our wounds

I love that one of the ways God names himself is Jehovah Rapha  — the Lord who heals. Rapha means to restore, heal, stitch up. God stitches our wounds. 

He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. Psalm 147:3

Something that surprised me in my scripture exploration is that this word “brokenhearted” actually is not about the kilyah, but about our “lev” — which includes the thoughts, will, and intentions. Often these parts of us keep our emotions hidden, so it’s not the emotions that are wounded, but our ways of encountering them, through thoughts and inner vows formed through life experiences. God can help us heal here as well. 

God invites us into the process

Should we examine our emotions with God? Absolutely, as He is the best judge of our emotional responses. David asked God to explore and know His anxieties, to see make visible any hurtful pattern in his life, and guide him in the path that is eternal (Psalms 139:23-24.) The eternal path is one characterized by the fruit of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Entering the experience of healing

Sometimes our emotional responses are rooted in old experiences that caused us to feel one way, and are appearing in a new situation because of that old experience. 

For example, when I was a child our family struggled financially for several years. There were times where I witnessed my single Mom’s great anxiety over keeping a roof over our head and food in our mouths. I felt afraid, out of control, and a sense of shame. 

Fast forward several decades, and I got a bill that was unexpectedly large. I immediately felt the fear, lack of control, and shame, even though financially I wasn’t struggling and could afford to pay the bill. Was it a bit of an “Ouch!” to my budget? Yes, but it didn’t warrant the initial emotional response. God the Holy Spirit helped me explore where those feelings came from and how it was understandable that a child would have felt as I did. Then He reminded me that the two situations were different, and assured me of the Father’s promise to supply all my needs. That experience and my willingness to test my emotions with God not only healed the current situation, it healed my past wounds.

Sometimes despite our best efforts, we can’t figure out our emotional responses. Through my life I’ve had a particular negative emotion just show up and I’ve never been able to connect it to anything, and trust me, I’ve tried. Maybe it’s something from my early childhood that is part of the “childhood amnesia” that happens to most of us when we get to about age 4. When it comes, I acknowledge it, bring to prayer, ask God to remind me that I am His and I am loved, and move forward. 

God heals with the skills of others

Some of my personal most profound healing has come through the wisdom and presence of another. Spiritual directors and companions, coaches, counselors, and dear friends have been the parts of the body of Christ that God has used to facilitate and bring about my own healing. Therapeutic work through Internal Family Systems has helped me identify and understand the parts of myself that needed healing and integration. 

God has placed us in community for a reason. We don’t have to take this journey in isolation. It’s okay to seek safe and skilled people to help you heal. 

The holistic mystery

I hope what we’ve talked about so far has been helpful to you. Whenever I do a an exploration like this into what makes us who we are as image bearers and human beings I am blessed. There is also an inevitable discontent and longing because words and definitions can only take us so far. 

The God who created us is mystery. the Trinity that is One and yet individual, eternal and yet became incarnate in space and time. And that is just the tip of the mysterious iceberg. As image bearers we also are mysterious to ourselves. But Jeremiah 17:9 and 10 give me hope. God understands what is mysterious to me. He examines my thoughts, will and intent and tests my feelings and emotions. The stories of saints in scripture show us that He invites us into the process as well. I recall the scripture that says it is the glory of kings to explore a matter. And sometimes that matter, (speaking as a one of a kingdom of priests) is our own selves. 

Emotions are part of our formation and conforming

Our lives consist of both being and doing, of reflection and action. When I ignore parts of my God-given being that a loving Father invites me to explore with Him, I wrongly exercise my free will to keep my formation stunted and shallow. When I accept God’s invitation, I deepen my relationship with Him, and grow into the person He created me to be. I am brought into closer and deeper alignment with the image of Jesus, who was also a person with “heart and kidneys” — thoughts, will, intent, feelings, and emotions. Jesus walked the path of humanity and we as disciples are being conformed into the image of the Father’s dear Son. Let us not get in the way of that process of restoration by shying away from our emotions, but welcome God into the process of understanding, healing, and growing through our emotions, not in spite of them. 


1 https://www.torahapologetics.com/language–word-studies/hebrew-anatomy-part-2-The-kidneys

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