Friday, July 5, 2019

Book Review: Untangling Emotions

Untangling Emotions: God's Gift of Emotions. J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith. 2019. Crossway Books. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]

First sentence: Emotions are strange. They’re strange in that they can make us behave in ways we don’t want to. Strange in that they can flood through our bodies whether we like it or not. Strange in that they can help us see and do things we would never have done without them. Strange in that most of us don’t know (or even stop to ask) why we are feeling what we are feeling most of the time. We want to help you understand what your emotions are (and aren’t) and what you can do about it. The reality is that, while we might be slow to admit it, we’re all troubled by our emotions.

Groves and Smith approach emotions from a Christian perspective in their new book, Untangling Emotions. Can understanding and appreciating what the Bible has to say about emotions--the good, the bad, the ugly--help Christians live life better?! Perhaps. Why should it matter to Christians...why should Christians take the time to understand or unpack what the Bible has to say on emotions? There are many, many reasons why. One reason, for example, is that believers can fall into the bad habit of associating negative emotions with sin AND also associating positive emotions with sin. But ultimately, "The way you respond to your emotions, including how you feel about how you feel, is of vital importance to your relationship with God and others in your life....A careful study of the Bible can help us discard faulty assumptions so we can engage our emotions rather than be ruled by or flee from them."

This one has three parts: "Understanding Emotions," "Engaging Emotions," and "Engaging the Hardest Emotions." The first part serves as an introduction, a beginner's course in emotion. What are emotions? What is the connection between mind and body? Is there a connection between mind, body, and spirit? Why did God give us emotions? The second part continues examining emotions from a biblical standpoint. It is all about giving readers tools to engage, explore, dissect their emotions IN LIGHT OF THEIR RELATIONSHIPS. The third part addresses in greater detail the darker, more negative emotions: fear, anger, sorrow, guilt and shame. All three parts offer readers practical advice; the goal is always to put tools into the hands of readers.

I found this one to be well organized and super-practical. Most of the examples--especially in the second section--are focuses on marriage, a husband and wife and the ways they communicate or fail to communicate which lead to fights and arguments. This may be incredibly helpful for many readers; but it would have been helpful if a few of the examples used other scenarios since not every Christian is married.


  • God so loved the world that he made himself vulnerable to it, even to the point of losing his beloved Son, of sending him among us to take on our pains, weep our tears, and ultimately die the death we should have died. God loves, so God grieves. God cares for us, so he hates the sin that separates us from him. God is perfect, so he hurts when his beloved creation and precious people hurt each other and are hurt by the hurts of this hurtfully broken world.
  • The basic reason we need negative, unpleasant emotions is that we live in a fallen world. God made us to respond to things as they actually are. Human beings should be distressed by what is distressing, horrified by violence and abuse, deeply concerned (we’d call it “anxious”) about the possibility of injury to someone or something we love, angry at arrogant injustices. To not feel grief when someone we love dies, to not feel discouraged when we find ourselves falling into the same pattern of sin yet again, to not be upset when our children lie or hurt each other would be wrong.
  • You were made in the image of God himself, and that means you were made to see the world as he sees it, to respond as he responds, to hate what he hates, and to be bothered by what brings him displeasure.
  • Our emotions—all our emotions—give us the chance to share God’s heart, purpose, and perspective and so to truly be his “friends,” as Jesus calls the disciples at the Last Supper (John 15:15).
  • Only those who love the Lord enough to open their hearts to the pain in his world will be able to enter into his joy as well.
  • The Bible places the focus on how emotions facilitate (or impede) our role as God’s image bearers, helping us love him and one another (or hampering us from loving). Our emotions, in all their dimensions, body and mind, are meant to function together in a way that serves his purposes. And in that context, the Bible speaks to us as essentially unified persons, who were created with minds and bodies designed to work together seamlessly in our image-bearing tasks.
  • Perhaps one of the most important things the Bible tells us about our emotions is that they are an expression of what we value or love.
  • Your emotions are always expressing the things you love, value, and treasure, whether you understand them or not.
  • Every emotion you ever feel reflects your loves, or what you worship. This is easy to see in terms of joy, thanks, and awe. But it’s equally true of sorrow, guilt, and distress! Where godly joy, for example, flows from a heart that treasures what God treasures and sees God’s purposes advancing, godly distress come from a heart that treasures what God treasures and sees his will being violated. Godly distress is the cry of a heart that honors God’s desires as good ones, honors God’s will as right, and is so personally committed to seeing God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven that it causes anguish of spirit to see the opposite.
  • The counterintuitive reality is that joy and sorrow really can deeply mingle. You are allowed to feel deep grief and deep joy at the same time. Christians are called to grieve with hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Compassion and anger, joy and sorrow, various kinds of grief and a hundred more emotions need to be able to flow together, as they often did for Jesus.
  • First, we want to understand as much as we can about anything in our emotional buckets. The more we know about what’s going on in the swish and swirl of our feelings, the better we’ll be able to understand what is going on in our hearts and our loves. Every little bit helps. Second, however, we need to remember that we will never exhaustively understand all the streams from our hearts into our emotions, and we don’t need to! Instead, all we need to do is bring whatever we do manage to understand to God and entrust him with all the hidden corners of our hearts, loves, and feelings that we can’t see into but he knows perfectly. 
  • The problem is not that your body has emotions. The problem is that your body, like your mind, soul, and strength, has been affected by sin and has a skewing effect on your emotions. In short, while we are going to focus on the problems our bodies cause for our feelings, we want you to keep firmly in mind that our bodies are not an embarrassment, nor are they fundamentally a problem.
  • A shy, reserved introvert may be sharing more openly in three brief sentences acknowledging a personal struggle than a boisterous extravert who talks for an hour about the highlights and lowlights of the week.
  • God gave us emotions that are actually designed not to change unless what we love changes or what is happening to the thing we love changes.
  • Scripture is adamant on this point: our biggest need is for new hearts with new loves and reoriented worship, not for more comfortable feelings. Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all underscore our need for hearts that are softened from stone, made clean, brought to life. Since we have seen how our love and worship produce our emotions, it makes sense that when our hearts are reshaped, our emotions follow suit.
  • Are your emotions really the most important thing about you? We’re writing a whole book on emotions, so obviously we do think they are important! Further, we’re going to spend significant time arguing for the value of talking about your emotions with God and others. But to place your feelings ahead of the quality of your character, ahead of the faithfulness of your obedience to God, ahead of the depth of your relationships with God and others—even to place your feelings ahead of the feelings of others—is the opposite of what Scripture calls us to!
  • Our culture’s overemphasis on the role of emotions constantly trains us to be ruled by our emotions. This, in turn, inevitably slides toward an increasingly frantic pursuit of emotional highs and escaping from emotional lows. Such an approach leans away from the richer and ultimately more satisfying “long obedience in the same direction” as Eugene Peterson, a Christian author and thinker, once described the Christian life.
  • Just as cookies are a terrible nutritional center for your diet, so emotions make a terrible central priority for your life.
  • The Bible’s model of engaging emotions means something very simple: when an emotion comes on your radar, you look at it, see what you find, and then (not before!) decide how to respond.
  • When you know that you are feeling, have named what you are feeling as best you can, and have decided which aspects of the feeling are good and which are bad, you are finally ready to act. While options for action are endless, proper responses to emotions fall into two fundamental categories. On the one hand, we want to embrace and nurture the loves of our heart and the behaviors that are good. On the other hand, we want to resist and even starve loves and actions that are bad.
  • We left prayer out of the four steps of engaging emotions for a very good reason though: engaging God in your emotions and about your emotions is not a step in a process! Instead, every single nuance of every aspect of each step must involve engaging God as well. Engaging our emotions does indeed mean identifying, examining, evaluating, and acting, but engaging our emotions also means engaging the One who made them.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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