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Advent, Incarnation and Emotion

Edvard Munch Melancholy
Edvard Munch, Melancholy, 1894-96 | image via Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Part 5 of an Advent series on incarnation; read part 1, part 2, part 3, or part 4.

How do you feel about God today?

That’s an awkward question for me to write. Aren’t we supposed to know about God, not feel about him? Doesn’t Jeremiah tell us that the heart is deceitful above all things?

But living in a body means having emotions. Even if we try to deny, suppress or muscle through those emotions, they still exist, often manifesting in physical ways: hunched shoulders, clenched fists, butterflies, tears, laughter, relaxation. If we elevate mind over body, we also elevate mind over emotions — an elevation further exacerbated by the association of emotions with femininity and weakness.

But once again, the Incarnation forces us to think about the whole experience of having bodies: experience which includes emotions. The body incorporates both mind and emotion, and attempts to deny or diminish this ignore the created reality of our physical existence and experience.

Every person, of course, experiences emotions differently (and different cultures understand emotions in different ways). But emotions are a sign of being human, of having the capacity to respond to our world with more than just logic; emotions are a part of the divine image within humanity. Additionally, emotions are not somehow feminine; despite the way modern American culture suppresses men’s emotions, men are not less emotional beings that women (and emotion is not feminine weakness).

We see Jesus experience and express emotions during his time on earth: his grief over the death of Lazarus, his weary need to withdraw from the crowds, his anger at the merchants and money-changers in the temple, his gentle exasperation with his disciples for misunderstanding his teachings. And more, we see Jesus experience and address his emotions. He weeps when he grieves and he goes to pray alone when he needs to rest from the demands of the crowd, rather than ignore or suppress his feelings.

I confess that emotions can be difficult for me. I tend to be controlled and reserved; I don’t like feeling out of control emotionally, and it often seems safer to tuck emotions away rather than actually acknowledge and deal with them. And more, emotions aren’t always a suitable guide for our actions or even a proportionate response to whatever evoked them. In short, emotions are messy, unpredictable, and often illogical.

But emotions can be good, as well. The joy of a child watching the first snow of winter. The upwelling of gratitude for the kindness of a friend. The flutters of love for a significant other. The peace of an ocean sunrise. Even our anger and grief can connect us to others and spur us to action.

The heart may be deceitful; we’ve all experienced misleading emotional reactions. But we shouldn’t pretend that the heart is somehow more deceitful than the mind. Paul reminds us that the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world; human reason alone cannot get us all the way to God any more than human emotion can.

God gives us both reason and emotion, and both have their place. In fallen, sinful human bodies, neither can be wholly trusted — but neither can be wholly dismissed. Emotion can temper our reason, reminding us that real people are affected by the rational arguments that we make on any number of topics. And reason can temper emotion, helping to move us beyond our initial reactions.

When we insist on logic and dismiss emotions as deceptive, we buy into a valuation of body and emotion rooted in Greek philosophy, not God’s created reality. This denigration of our emotional selves emerges especially from strains of theology that emphasize orthodoxy (that right mental furniture) over orthopraxy, and from theologies that prize authority over experience. Both tell us to suppress emotions in favor of reason, whether our own or that of an authority figure (or a combination of both). I should note that this is my own tradition; the holiness tradition often goes in the opposite direction, valuing emotion above reason, and both imbalances can be dangerous.

You may also notice, reading this post, that I’m trying to use rational argument to show that we should value emotion. Most people, it seems, gravitate to one over the other; I gravitate towards reason (as I’m sure you’re shocked to learn). But despite our own tendencies, we shouldn’t dismiss our emotional selves.

To do so denies our created reality and thus denies the reality of the Incarnation, which placed immeasurable value on our created bodies.

Tagged: advent | theology | emotion