The emotions are an oddity of our human makeup. They play so much a part of our daily lives, often without us knowing it. The are constantly changing, swinging our mood with the moment, and more often than not, we are quite unaware of it. We know things are changing but not with the sense of “wow” my emotions just did XYZ.
How Emotions Hijack Our Best Thinking
The reason this is important is because of the role emotions make in decision-making. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively on the feelings and emotions, what he and classical Christian writers have historically called the passions. In fact the passions or emotions have occupied a great deal of attention from ancient to modern, from Augustine to Edwards.
For Aquinas, man’s thinking and decision-making faculties are made up of the “reason” or “intellect” on the one hand, and the “will” on the other. The will then is subdivided into both the irascible will and the concupisible will. The irascible will is our ability to make decisions based upon long term plans. So it is the part that allows us to endure the difficulty of lets say training or working out in order to get the fitness you want or win the big game. The irascible will allows us to endure pain or inconvenience for a better end.
The concupisciple will is that part of the mind where the desires, passion, feelings and affections reside. This is the more reactive side of man. it is the side that makes us pull our hand away from fire and so on. It also, quite unfortunately is that part that makes us flee from a difficult relationship rather than think, remain, and resolve.
When the mind gets overwhelmed by the emotions, it decreases thinking and therefore decreases the chances of reconciliation.
The Trash Compactor of Decision Making
High emotionality is like the trash compactor for good decision making. As that fateful scene in the original Star Wars movie where we find Luke, Leia, Han and Chewy in a tight spot, high emotionality in a sense closes the walls in on our thinking. What this means is that high emotionality limits thinking options. This is unavoidable to some degree.
Sin is Crouching at the Door
One of the first great stories in the Bible is that of Cain and Abel. Like the story of the fall just before it, it is a tragedy that results in broken relationships, pain, and alienation. In all our relationships we need to consider these consequences. What we often fail to consider however is the role emotions play in this story. When we look closely, we might be surprised to find they stand front and center.
Look at the story. In the course of time, Abel brings an acceptable sacrifice, namely what God had asked for. Cain on the other hand was not in the Lamb-chops business. He was in the fruit business. The initial problem was that since Cain was not in the Lamb chop business, he just presumed that God should be happy with what he brought, perhaps a precursor to the “spiritual not religious” mindset so prevalent today.
When emotion is boiling over, sin is like a cat on the hunt, crouching in the bushes waiting to pounce.
When God did not just accept his illicit offering the way he thought God should, it says that his countenance fell and he was filled with anger. See! There it is. That is emotion—extreme emotion. There it is right at the center of this ancient story of the first murder.
The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? and if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:6)
What is happening here is this. Cain is becoming filled with uncontrolled emotion and rage. As this is happening, God sees the predicable outcome, so he warns him. When emotion is boiling over, sin is like a cat on the hunt, crouching in the bushes waiting to pounce. When you least expect it, it will grab you, clutch you, slay you, and consume you.
But You shall rule over It
What is God’s warning and advice? it is quite simple. God simply points out two things. (1) God points out Cain’s rage. Cain feels what he is feeling without full awareness of its consequences. We are all this way. (2) God instructs him to rule over it. Essentially God gives a very simple Torah instruction. That is what the Old Testament Law or Torah is. It paints for man the will of God and what the Spirit of God wants to do. So God tells him “you must rule over it.”
But what does God mean by this? Well this brings us back to Thomas Aquinas and the distinction between the Intellect and the passions—between the reason and the emotions residing within the concupiscible will. This gives us several principles to consider. First the passions (emotions) are part of man’s regular decision-making faculties. We cannot make decisions without the emotions. Nor does God want us to. God wants us to feel love and desire when we kiss our spouse, hold our child, or encourage a suffering person.
However, secondly our reasoning and emotional faculties are fallen. They are not so broken that they do not work, but the powers of discernment between them are very blurry. What seems morally justified may be entirely perverse. Cain slew Abel because he felt quite justified in it.
Thirdly, since our emotions cannot be entirely trusted, it is the duty of our reason, as God says directly to Cain, to rule over them. Yes God actually says to rule over sin in this place. But it is his anger that is the problem making him at risk for sin. This does not mean we squash our emotions in stoic fashion. What we must do is develop awareness of them and how they hijack our thinking.
Ruling Over the Emotions
You may be saying to me though, “Todd that is an extreme case and I have never wanted to murder anyone.” Well not so fast. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to the judgment.” (Matt. 5:22) Jesus is in fact referencing the Cain and Abel story. His implication is that to have anger in your heart toward your brother, even if the anger is justified, you are guilty. Moreover it can lead to egregious sin, suffering, and alienation.
In fact we do this all the time in our relationships. We commit sins through jealousy, lust, anger, and so on that hurt the people around us, as well as ourselves. We commit little crimes of passion all the time, like the cold-shoulder, silent treatment, and so on to alienate and hurt others who have somehow offended us.
Due to the fog of emotions, what is good, right, beautiful, and true is not always absolutely clear to us.
As with Cain, God has called us to become more persistently aware of our emotions and apply thinking to them.
But what kind of thinking? GOSPEL THINKING!
We might call this Gospel framed decision-making. It is the kind of thinking that is found in the Sermon on the Mount. It can also be called virtuous thinking. The Sermon on the Mount lays at the heart of virtue ethics in Thomas Aquinas’ thought. The point in his distinction (and I believe a very biblical distinction that we do not have time to outline in detail here though) is that as God said to Cain, it is the role of the reason to rule over and govern the passions, not like a despot, but more like a parent. (Note: It is a helpful exercise to read through the Sermon on the Mount paying particular attention to the role our desires and emotions play there. This is quite enlightening.)
Through the Gospel, God is redeeming our emotions. What is broken, the Gospel fixes, but with time. That is the sanctification process. The story of Cain and Abel is paradigmatic. It shows how emotions, when unchecked by our higher faculties, can get us in trouble.
Due to the fog of emotions what is good, right, beautiful, and true is not always absolutely clear to us. It becomes obscured in the fog of desire, rage, jealousy, lust, insecurity, and so on. This blinds us. But the Gospel, with the aid of the Spirit, begins to reassemble what was lost. God invites us, as he did with Cain, into deeper relationship. This is the part Cain took for granted and missed. God met him personally and intimately as a person. Interestingly he also set an example of how to help one another. He essentially “coached” Cain toward a life without the suffering of alienation. But Cain chose a mark of shame instead. As we enter this new year, let us consider how we can apply Gospel thinking to our emotions, how the peace of Christ can truly rule our hearts and minds by Christ Jesus.