“…feelings are neither good nor bad. They do not have any moral weight or value; they just are.” – Natalie Feinblatt, https://www.inclusivetherapists.com/blog/emotions-are-value-neutral
“Anger is like gasoline; it’s just energy. When anger rises people become active. It’s a neutral energized state. It’s like gasoline before it’s applied to some function. Gas can be applied to run great engines or be used to create horrific firebombs, but the fuel itself is neutral until someone chooses how to apply it.” – Monica Berg, https://rethinklife.today/the-biology-of-anger-101
“Sear this into your brain: There is no such thing as a good or bad emotion. Emotions are morally neutral phenomena. Like the weather, color of your skin, or your preference for coffee ice-cream over mint chocolate chip, good or bad has nothing to do with it. Just because some emotions feel bad, doesn’t mean that they are bad.” – Nick Wignall, https://nickwignall.com/5-signs-you-have-an-unhealthy-relationship-with-emotions
The quotes above represent a point of view (common in certain circles) that perceives emotions to be morally neutral. That is, that they are neither good nor bad, they simply are. They come on us unbidden, sometimes unwelcome, and often overwhelming. If emotions such as anger, sadness, or happiness are uncontrollable (so the reasoning goes), how can they have any moral value attached to them?
It is frequently claimed that it is not the emotion or feeling that is bad, but what a person does with it that matters. While there may be an element of truth to this, it falls far short of a complete answer. Is our response to a given emotion (or “what we do with it”) the sole determiner of whether it is sinful or not?
As with any discussion, it is wise to define our terms before we begin. For this article, we will follow Merriam-webster.com which defines “emotion” as “a conscious mental reaction…subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body,” or more compactly, “the affective aspect of consciousness.”
As used in this article, “morally neutral” means that a thing cannot be defined as either bad or good, sinful or righteous. For a thing to be morally neutral in this sense, there must be no circumstances in which it is sinful.
In determining whether emotions are morally neutral, we will turn to the teachings of the only infallible and error-free source of truth, namely, the Bible.
All emotions are stained by sin.
From the outset, it must be acknowledged that God created human beings with emotions. We were made with the capacity to experience love, happiness, respect, etc. In the beginning, Adam and Eve were created without sin. Their every thought, feeling, word, and action was in line with God’s command and intention for their lives.
However, Satan, intent on defiling God’s temple-garden, tempted them to eat from the tree in the middle of the garden from which God had forbidden them to eat. Rather than resisting Satan and casting him out of Eden, they disobeyed God’s direct command and ate from the tree.
In so doing, Adam and Eve doomed the entire human race to enslavement to sin. On this side of the garden, not only is every man, woman, and child charged with the guilt of Adam’s disobedience, but each person has also inherited a propensity to sin that corrupts every part of their being. This does not mean that every human being is as sinful as they could be (or even might want to be), but it does mean that no aspect of a person’s being remains untouched.
The sinful nature we inherit from our parents not only causes us to commit great personal sin but stains even our best deeds. The effects of sin on a person are so extensive that no thought, word, action, or feeling is immune. This means that how we “apply” an emotion or “what we do with it,” is only of secondary importance. Out of the gate our emotion is already tainted by sin. If for no other reason than this, human emotion could never properly be described as neutral.
Consider some ways in which this plays out.
Some emotions are always sinful.
As we read the Scriptures, especially the New Testament, we run across various lists of sins (Mark 7:21-22, Gal 5:19-21, Rom. 1:26-32, and 2 Cor. 12:20, to name a few). A casual survey of these lists turns up many outward sins such as idolatry, murder, drunkenness, or adultery.
However, we also encounter other, less tangible sins such as hatred, envy, malice, pride, anger, and lust. By including these things in the various lists of sins, God makes it clear that He considers these emotions to be unacceptable, at least under some circumstances.
While no emotion is unaffected by sin, this does not mean that all of them are always sinful. Some emotions – anger, for example – may be sinful under some circumstances (“Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” – Eph. 4:31), and righteous in others (“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” – Eph. 4:26). In fact, the very term “righteous anger” presupposes the possibility of “unrighteous anger.”
For certain emotions, however, it’s difficult to see how they could ever be anything but sinful. Conceit and pride, for example, are routinely condemned in the Bible, and it’s frankly impossible to imagine a situation in which malice could ever be considered righteous.
Emotions are sinful when experienced for the wrong reasons.
Emotions can also be sinful when they are experienced for the wrong reasons. Any time an emotion is not appropriate to a situation – regardless of whether it might be proper in others – it is sinful. Consider the following examples.
Imagine that you witness a person whom you strongly dislike get into a car accident, and you experience a sense of vindictive happiness. In this case, the emotion of happiness that you experience would be a sin because it is being triggered both by someone else’s misfortune and your hatred for them.
Likewise, imagine that you desperately wanted to win a drawing at work for an extra day of vacation, but you lose to someone else, and you experience anger and resentment toward the lucky winner. It should be obvious, that far from being “neutral” the anger and resentment you feel at that moment are, in fact, sinful.
So, we see that those emotions driven by sinful attitudes or behaviors are themselves sinful. Anger is particularly susceptible to this because it is so frequently driven by pride. If we are honest, our anger at others often stems from the attitude “how dare he/she do that to me?” We think far too highly of ourselves and focus so much on our perceived “rights” that we don’t notice that pride has taken a comfortable seat in the driver’s seat of our mind.
Emotions may be sinful when directed at the wrong object.
Once again, anger is the easiest example of this. Imagine that you believe someone has wronged you and you become angry at them. Later, you discover that the wrong was committed by someone else or even that there wasn’t a wrong done after all. Your anger against the first person was sinful because it was directed at an innocent party.
Emotions may be sinful if they are inordinate or out of control.
In Galatians 5:18-21, the Apostle Paul delivers a lengthy list of sins, including such emotions as jealousy, anger, and envy, which he refers to as “works of the flesh.” By this, he means that they are characteristic of the unsaved person. In verses 22-24, however, Paul lists what he calls “the fruit of the Spirit,” meaning those qualities that characterize the Christian, because they have the Holy Spirit.
Along with several positive emotions, one of the “fruits of the Spirit” is self-control. Though the Bible recognizes that emotions are not always perfectly within our control (even for the Christian), Paul includes “self-control” as one of the qualities produced by the Holy Spirit living in the hearts of believers.
According to Thayer’s Lexicon, the word translated as “self-control” means “the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites.” In other words, our emotions are to be governed by our Spirit-empowered self-control. This means that emotions that are too extreme for the circumstances or are completely out of control may be sinful.
A word of caution should be issued here. This does not mean that any extreme emotion is sinful, nor does self-control imply that we do not experience emotions. Someone who is struggling to move through the grief of losing a spouse is not in sin merely because they are in the grip of powerful emotions.
Inordinate or out-of-control emotions become sinful precisely at the point that they cease to glorify God, such as when they cause a person to lose faith in or reject God. However, each person must be left to the custody of their conscience on this point.
Emotions are good when they bring glory to God.
We have conclusively demonstrated that emotions are not morally neutral by examining at length how they can be sinful. However, it would be remiss to neglect the question of how emotions can also be good.
God created us with the capacity to emote, and while the mere act of experiencing an emotion is not necessarily good (nor necessarily bad), it can be good when it actively brings glory to God. For example, the fruits of the Spirit include love, joy, and peace (Gal.5:22), and Eph. 4:26 tells us to “Be angry and do not sin…” [emphasis added].
However, considering what has been said about the corrupting effects of sin, it is natural to ask how any emotion can ever be good under those circumstances. On the one hand, the Bible says that “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64:6), it also says of “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” that “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” (Rom. 14:17-18).
So, which is it? Assuming that an emotion is not inherently sinful, are our emotions “polluted garments,” or are they “acceptable to God?” The answer is that they are both.
Though they may be the proper responses in the moment, the most righteous anger at injustice, the most elevated happiness in God, or even the deepest grief over our moral and spiritual failings are still stained by our sinful nature. It could not be otherwise, for although the Christian experiences some measure of victory over sin in this life, they will never be completely free of it until they reach Heaven.
However, while no human being has the power to make anything they do pleasing to God, God, Himself, has provided a way for His children to be made acceptable to Him through the sinless life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we are in Christ, our obedience (including our emotions), while never perfect, is made acceptable to God because of the righteousness of Christ.
This does not mean that inherently sinful emotions such as greed or envy are made acceptable to God, but it does mean that other kinds of emotions (indeed, any of our virtuous deeds) when covered by the righteousness of Christ, can be said to be good so long as they are:
- Not an inherently sinful emotion (greed, malice, conceit, etc.)
- Appropriate to the circumstances.
- Directed at the proper object.
- Proportionate to the cause.
In conclusion, though some emotions are always sinful regardless of the context (malice, pride, etc.), the rest may be good or bad depending on the criteria listed above. This means that emotions may only be thought of as neutral when they are completely divorced from any context, that is, when they are discussed in the abstract. However, this is at best a false neutrality.
Recognizing that an emotion can be either good or bad is not the same as considering it to be neutral, because once a particular emotion is placed into a concrete situation – as all emotions must eventually be – moral neutrality completely disappears.
For example, grief may appear neutral when it is divorced from a specific context, but as soon as we explain that this grief is being experienced by a man whose son just died in a car accident, it loses any supposed moral neutrality, and we say that in general, his grief is a good and appropriate emotion.
We can discuss anger in the abstract, but once we place it into a concrete situation such as a toddler raging at a parent for not buying them a toy at the store, it becomes clear that the toddler’s anger is a sin.
None of this should come as any surprise. As previously mentioned, the corruption of sin is so pervasive that it extends to every aspect of a person’s being. What should surprise us is that emotions can ever be good. But how can we know the difference? How can we order our emotional life so that it glorifies God?
As always, we should turn to Biblical teaching for help. The Bible uses emotional language to describe God’s actions, and this can (within certain limitations) be a paradigm for our own emotions. Does God become angry? Certainly, though never without self-control. Does God grieve? Absolutely, although never more than the situation warrants, and He never succumbs to despair.
Of course, in discussing God’s “emotions,” we must never be tempted to think that the emotional language used about God is describing exactly the same thing that human beings experience. For one thing, God’s “emotions” don’t “happen” to Him (like they do to human beings), as if they were something that was outside of His control. Similarly, they never come on Him unexpectedly.
All this is to say that while what we experience as emotions may be reflections of something true about God, they are only reflections, not the very thing itself. The distinction between God and His creation is absolute.
This should serve to produce humility (a good emotion) in the heart of the Christian. We must acknowledge that even our best emotions fall far short of the perfection that God demands, leaving us nothing of which to boast. If we wish to see positive change in our emotional life, then we must throw ourselves unreservedly on His mercy and grace, trusting in the finished work of His Son, Jesus Christ.
“Sitting on the Floor”, Courtesy of Sofia Alejandra, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Moods”, Courtesy of Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Concert”, Courtesy of Shelagh Murphy, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Devotions”, Courtesy of Samantha Sophia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License