Is emotion important to discipleship? I’ve increasingly come across great authors who argue that yes, emotion is vital–to both a proper human life and to discipleship. To begin with, Alan Jacobs (discussing the thought of John Stuart Mill) says this about the role emotions play in our lives:
When your feelings are properly cultivated, when that part of your life is strong and healthy, then your responses to the world will be adequate to what the world is really like. To have your feelings moved by the beauty of a landscape is to respond to that landscape in the way that it deserves; to have your feelings moved in a very different direction by the sight of people living in abject poverty is to respond to that situation in the way that it deserves. The latter example is especially relevant to someone like Mill who wishes to be a social reformer: if your analysis leads you to the conclusion that is it unjust that people suffer in poverty in a wealthy country, but your feelings do not match your analysis, then something has gone awry with you. And it may very well happen that if the proper feelings are not present and imaginatively active, then you will not even bother to do the analysis that would reveal unmistakable injustice. If the feelings are not cultivated the analytical faculties might not function at all…Alan Jacobs, How to Think, p. 44
To put it concisely, I should respond to situations in proportion to what they deserve. If there is injustice, I need to be moved to sadness, grief, or anger. If there is beauty, I should be moved to awe, wonder, and praise. If there is love, I should be moved to gratitude and love in return. If there is loss and pain, I should be moved to mourn and weep.
So far as discipleship goes: I have never done a study of scripture looking for emotions in particular. But a few things come to mind: The sheer anger of Psalm 137, the despair of Psalm 88, the grateful majesty of Psalm 104. Paul, master of tone, angry in Galatians, sad in 2 Corinthians, joyful in Philippians. Alma’s joy. Jesus weeping for his friend and Jesus angry in the temple. The remarkable vision of Enoch, where the earth mourns and God weeps and Enoch, in turn, feels “his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook” (Moses 7:41).
What is most remarkable to me is the idea that God is so capable of this kind of emotion that we ourselves need: an emotion proportionate in response to human suffering or willful rebellion. The Jewish author Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that:
In the prophets, God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world… He is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging the world in detachment. He reacts in an intimate manner, being moved, affected, grieved or gladdened by what people do. This notion, basically defines the [biblical] consciousness of God.. This is because the prophets had no theory or ‘idea’ of God. What they had was an understanding, not the result of theoretical inquiry about God. Rather, to them God was overwhelmingly real and shatteringly present…..Heschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, “The Theology of Pathos,” pp. 285-86.
Regarding anger specifically, Heschel writes that God is capable of anger, though never a capricious anger. No—going back to the point Alan Jacobs made at the beginning, God’s anger is always a proportionate anger.
Few [divine] passions have been denounced so vehemently by teachers of morality as the passion of anger. It is pictured as sinister, malignant passion, an evil force, which must under all circumstances be suppressed. The truth, however, is that these features…are not the essence of anger… Like fire, it may be a blessing as well as fatal—reprehensible when associated with malice, but morally necessary as resistance to malice…
The prophets never [portray] God’s anger as something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of humans… and motivated by concern for right and wrongHeschel, The Prophets, vol. 2, “The Meaning and Mystery of Wrath,” pp. 360, 365
I came across these quotes by Heschel listening to the Bible Project podcast’s episode on “God’s Hot Nose” (in Hebrew, the word for anger is tied to “heat” and “nose”). One of the hosts in that episode walks through a thought experiment: would we prefer a God who never got angry? They linked this to another question: would we prefer a spouse who never, under any circumstances, got angry? And the answer became apparent very quickly: no. If a child hits their mother, or runs into the street; if a spouse cheats and is found out; if someone threatens a family: all of these moments call for a natural response, an emotional response. And to be quite honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Going back to the initial quote, Alan Jacobs links this idea of emotion-as-proportional-response back to John Stuart Mill and what it means to have character:
It is, then, for John Stuart Mill, looking back from the end of his life on his youthful sufferings, impossible to draw a line that separates analysis on the one side from feeling on the other and to conclude that only the first side is relevant to thinking. The whole person must be engaged, all the faculties present and accounted for, in order for real thinking to take place. Indeed, this for Mill is what it means to have character: to be fully alive in all your parts and therefore ready to perceive the world as it is—and to act responsibly toward it.Alan Jacobs, how to think, p. 44
When I think of examples of this, I think of several people. I think of Emmanuel Katongole, a Catholic priest who said that “to the extent that we are not drawn into lament, we cannot be drawn into the future.” I think of Michael Austin, an LDS scholar whose Advent reflection on peace continues to come to mind when I face injustice in the world.
I think of my friend, Risa. She has a wonderful blog titled Again, But With Feeling with a subtitle “A Personal Theology.” Her blog is an attempt to form a personal theology, grounded both in careful thought (hence “theology”) but also in cultivated feeling (hence the title). And she does a marvelous job. She is a personal example to me of someone trying to engage the “whole person.”
I think of my wife, Ashley. She’s great at noticing things that I do not, whether it be a flower in bloom or a person in need. And she feels deeply. When we moved to the city, away from where most of our loves ones were, she wept at the loss. When she’s been hurt by coworkers, she’s felt anger. When she’s seen her sisters or family members need love, she’s wept with them and comforted them.
I take from all this—the principles and examples, of both God and people in my life—something imperative: I need to feel. Emotion is not just, as Adam Miller once wrote, “existential window dressing.” And so we need to avoid what Terryl Givens has called a “hypertrophy of the intellect,” wherein my “apprehension and engagement of the gospel is more a kind of intellectual apprehension and commitment of certain ideas and doctrines, rather than a feeling experience of the divine fire.” We need to be “fully alive in all [our] parts.”
Feeling is vital to discipleship. How to cultivate feeling, and ensure that what makes me most angry or sad is also what makes God most angry or sad: that’s another post.