What Does Discipleship Have to Do with Emotional Health?

What Does Discipleship Have to Do with Emotional Health?

What does discipleship have to do with mental and emotional health? For some that might be a novel question. Emotions have everything to do with discipleship. The morally wrong things (sin) we do to ourselves and each other lead to the deep emotional wounds most of us carry. Discipleship is learning to tame the emotions through the truth of the Gospel.

There is growing clinical and professional literature today on what is called “emotional intelligence” or emotional functioning. As businesses realize the need to create winsome cultures to retain employees, many are turning to formal training in emotional intelligence.

In the first five centuries of the Church, discipleship was inseparable from understanding and taming the emotions (passions). The Church lead the way in emotional health and was possibly the only true public resource for this. 

Sadly, while formerly leading the way, the cutting edge thinking on emotional health is now being done in the counseling, therapy and even corporate fields. To a large degree, the Church in the west has traded the internal life of discipling the passions for a mere creedalism. 

Mastering the Emotions

Jesus and the Bible have much to say about the emotions, which the New Testament writers and Church Fathers called “the passions.” In Romans 1:26 the apostle says, “God gave them over to dishonorable passions/emotions.” The term pathos (Greek) implies the internal desires and emotions.

Jesus says in Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Think about that for a moment. When do we typically feel temptation toward hate or violence? When we are angry, bitter, or offended. Or how about theft and adultery? Is that not the result of allowing the heart to wildly set its affections on what it cannot have? 

The Scale of Differentiation—Emotional Functioning

The late pioneering psychiatrist in family systems theory, Murray Bowen, described the experience of those on the lower end of emotional functioning scale as living in a “feeling dominated world.” He continues:

Major life decisions are based on what feels right rather than on principle, much life energy goes into seeking love and approval, and there is little energy is left for goal-directed activity. (1) — Murray Bowen

Principled thinking and emotions do not mix well. The higher or more uncontrolled the emotions, the poorer the decision making will be. As a rule of thumb: When you begin making decisions by your emotions you will sin.

As we give in to anger, lust, infatuation, rage, guilt, greed, and so on, we will be enslaved by them. Sin and emotions seem to have a reciprocal relationship—bad actions (sin) lead to bad emotions, and bad emotions lead to bad actions. Thus the swirling vortex of human injustice!

In my pastoral work I have observed that as emotions rise, so does the ability to rationalize inexcusable behavior. This creates the process of finger pointing—the classic, “yeah but I wouldn’t have done X if you had not done Y first.” Most people (though unaware of it) usually have an invisible line at which they feel cruel behavior is justified.

Sickness of Heart

The internal part of man that the Bible calls the “heart” is a veritable soup of instinct and emotion. The prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). It is impossible for a person to fully comprehend his or her own feelings, desires, or motives, much less someone else’s.

Trying to sort out what we do and why we do it could take a lifetime and still not scratch the surface. This is why our salvation is not conditioned upon mastering our emotions, but on the grace of God. The Gospel saves sinners with sick hearts; to be a sinner is to have a sick heart.

God wants an emotionally growing lifestyle that progressively reflects his kingdom and character. This is the Church’s job. Whether you call it sanctification, deification, or theosis, God’s Gospel plan for his people is redeemed holy lives—beginning now and realized in the Kingdom.

God picked a simpler path to reflecting his character. He gave us his law—his commandments. This objectifies and simplifies the entire process. God’s word is an accommodation to the emotional morass that clouds our mind. When we are anxious and confused, the commandments quietly beckon to us with simple directives. It says, “regardless of how you feel, just do this.”

A Constant Tutor

Paul tells us, “I had not known sin but by the law” (Romans 7:7–13). In Galatians Paul calls the Law a “schoolmaster to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24). Sometime we incorrectly think that the law ceases all instructive role when we come to Christ. It does lose its role as a harsh schoolmaster (Gal. 3:25), but the law is not entirely jettisoned like the first stage of an orbital vehicle.

The law apart from the Spirit leaves a veil over the eyes (2 Corinthians 3:13–16). When the Spirit comes upon the Christian, it removes the law’s condemning power. The law then retakes its place as a sanctifying tool.  The Spirit with the commandments convicts us of “sin, and righteousness, and judgement.” By the Spirit, the law becomes a gentle but ever present teacher constantly spurring the soul toward Christ.

Confronting the Emotions

The Commandments simply confront our emotions creating a crisis point. We come across a command that says, “do not do ______________.” The Spirit then nudges us about a certain relationship where there is a problem. Then the conflict within us arises. The commandment tells us to do X but our emotions well up with resistance wishing to rather do Y. 

Someone has wronged you and you did evil in return. The commands say to repent of what you did, regardless of what they did. But you have an overpowering resistance to do so. Why? It is your passions. You do not want to let go of your anger, hurt, and pride.

This conflict between your emotions and God’s commands creates the natural sanctifying process. The clash of the Spirit on the one hand with our anger, pride, and sin nature on the other, creates a convergence point for repentance. 

Discerning Between Good and Evil

There is a name for rejecting the conviction of the Spirit: a hardening of heart. The writer of Hebrews spends a great deal of time on this (Hebrews 3:12–15).

The discipleship task is learning to quiet the emotional static by the Spirit in order to hear and obey its prompting. The writer of Hebrews describes this process of gaining Spirit discernment:

Hebrews 5:13–14 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.  But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.

This is not a general but internal discernment. It is not about merely knowing what is good and bad. The writer is referring to a mature disciple who has gained significant mastery of his or her own sinful heart.

Harding the Heart & Searing the Conscience

When Elijah fled to Sinai in unbelief, it was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the gentle whisper” that he heard the voice of God. We reject that whisper at our peril. The danger lies in brushing off these gentle whispers because of their subtleness.

The Spirit’s whispers are divine events. When we stuff them, it is the same as giving God “the Heisman” (stiff-arm). Resisting the conviction of the Spirit is an act of pride. God resists those who resist his gentle whispers of conviction. (James 4:6 & 1 Peter 5:5)

Many times when we hit these crises of obedience and the emotion is so sharp that we turn to coping mechanisms. Most popular is pushing the issue out of the mind and burying it.

Avoiding the decision, however, is in fact a decision, just as avoiding obedience is disobedience. James 4:17 says, “So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.” No wiggling out of that one. 

Sensitivity to the Spirit

We began this reflection with Romans 1:26: “God gave them over to dishonorable passions/emotions.” Without mastering the emotions we will be unable to walk in the Spirit. The Spirit is the only power to overcome them.

In 1Pet. 2:11 we are also warned, “Beloved, I urge you has sojourners and exiles ito abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” 

Discipleship is learning to quiet the inner man so we may sense the Spirit’s breezes moving through our heart. Spiritual discipline is quieting the raging boil of emotions that cloud our spiritual senses drowning out the small voice of God. As we learn to discipline our emotions, we move toward a quieted mind and calm presence offering ever-growing emotional health.

What are your thoughts? Please post a comment or share!

Here is a great follow up article by Justin Taylor that deals with our reactivity: A Free Bible Study on How to Change the Way You Think, Act, and Experience Life This is an adaptation of the CCEF Course Dynamics of Biblical Change by David Powlinson.

You may also like: What Is The Gospel? | 5 Hope-Giving Gospel Truths In The Story Of Jesus

(1) Murray Bowen, Family Theory in Clinical Practice, quoted in Roberta M. Gilbert, The Cornerstone Concept: In Leadership, In Life, (Falls Church, VA: Leading Systems Press, 2008), 15.

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