Acknowledging Our Emotions With the Truth of God

by Robert Jacobs

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar. Psalm 42:5-6

In his 2013 book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them, Joshua Greene “attempts to lay out the basis of a moral philosophy that enables the peaceful resolution of conflicts among groups holding different values.” (Bekesi 2016) To accomplish said resolutions, Greene contends that we must rely on our emotions during moral decision-making rather than logic or reason. For, “we can [either] use our big brains to rationalize our intuitive moral convictions, or we can transcend the limitations of our…gut reactions.” (Greene 2013, emphasis in original) Greene’s thesis resonates with a general move in our culture away from a reliance upon logic and reason and toward a worldview that pressures us to root all our choices in our feelings. While I can appreciate an empathetic approach to conflict resolution, making choices based upon how you feel leads to a chaotic, unstable, and anxiety-producing life.  The poet of Psalm 42 recognized this same truth, ultimately choosing to turn to God’s truth rather than his emotions.

Throughout Psalm 42, the author repeatedly acknowledges his feelings, abjuring the temptation to brush them aside.  Unabashedly, the psalmist acknowledges his personal turmoil, his very soul, “cast down within [him].” To some, this kind of raw acknowledgment of pain feels almost “unchristian.” Many of us can remember the platitudes that have rung in our ears when we have verbalized this kind of searing pain to a fellow believer: “God never gives you more than you can handle.” “Let Jesus take the wheel.” “Just Let go and let God.” Often these kinds of cliché phrases are used as a pacifying salve, a quick and impersonal attempt to assuage pain without truly facing it. Worse, they teach that the “true” Christian does not feel this kind of emotional tumult. If the psalmist teaches us nothing else, it is that this kind of emotional repression or dismissal is anything but Christian. However, he also shows us that we cannot allow these acknowledged feelings to rule our lives.

After acknowledging his emotions, the Psalmist reminds himself of what he knows to be true, the immutability of God.  Instead of allowing his feelings to determine his outlook, the author chooses to “remember” who God is and what He has done, invoking images of His faithfulness by alluding to the crossing of the Jordan and the taking of the Promised Land. In doing this, the poet critiques what he feels and offers himself counsel. (Keller 2008) In other words, he compares what he feels to what he knows to be true. This reflective posture is vital to the believer, allowing him to talk to himself—reinforcing what he knows to be true—instead of only listening to his emotions. Rather than being Pollyanna and emotionally disingenuous, believers must simultaneously acknowledge their feelings and embrace the unchangeable truth of God.

Are you listening solely to your feelings or are you remembering the truth of God? Are you unhealthily moving past the acknowledgment of your emotions to a place where you allow them to call the shots? We must not simply listen to our hearts, but instead talk to our hearts, instructing them with truth. If we do not, we will live in an unstable world of our own making that shifts with changing emotions, a capricious force effected by any number of factors.

Bekesi, Aron B. “The Scientific Discovery of Emotions – A Turning Point in Philosophy?.” Existential Analysis: Journal of The Society for Existential Analysis 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 144.
Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us. New York: Penguin, 2013. 16.
Keller, Timothy. Praying with the Psalms. New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2008. 124.