Brent is a twentysomething seminary student who comes for counseling because of a growing concern expressed by his wife, Monica. She thinks he comes across at times as cold or insensitive. Although that is a sufficient reason to seek counseling, she presses even further. Monica argues that since he wants to be a pastor, she is concerned that his emotional cluelessness would be a stumbling block for him in that role too.
Is Monica right to be concerned about Brent’s emotional cluelessness? Perhaps her concern about him as a husband makes sense, but what about her extended concern about him as a future pastor?
Monica has confronted Brent with an issue that has stirred controversy in the church for centuries. We might summarize the issue with two questions:
- What is the role of emotions in the Christian life?
- How should pastors and other ministry leaders address emotion-related questions in their efforts to foster spiritual growth in themselves and others?
This is the first of four articles in which I will address these questions from several different angles.
Some preliminary considerations
Answering our questions about the emotions and how they figure into spiritual growth is a complicated task, and it will help if we establish some foundational parameters for doing it.
- You might be surprised to learn that defining emotion has not been an easy task for those who have sought to understand emotions (including philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and theologians).1 Here is a basic definition that we will work with in these articles: Emotions are those relatively quick responses we have to real or imagined situations in which we feel something going on in our bodies that prepares or prompts us to act in certain ways in accordance with the values, commitments, and goals important to us. Sometimes it’s not clear why emotions occur. Our brains process some information from the environment without us being aware of it, and those processes can contribute to what we eventually feel.2 Notice, too, that “emotion” is a more narrow category than “feeling.” You can feel hungry, tired, thirsty, etc., but these feelings are not emotions (although you certainly could get emotional about them).
- The Bible does not address “the emotions” as a topic in a systematic way (the way an encyclopedia would), but in its narratives, proverbs, psalms, and letters, the full range of emotional experience is represented: fear, shame, anger, disgust, compassion, hatred, joy, anxiety, sadness, etc. As we survey how emotions are described, evaluated, and even commanded by the biblical writers, we can develop greater clarity about their functions in our lives from God’s point of view.
- In the popular press, dealing with one’s emotions productively has often come under the label “emotional intelligence.”3 In these four articles, I will use some of the claims about emotional intelligence as springboards to explore both the role of emotions in the Christian life and the way in which pastors and other ministry leaders might address emotional concerns in order to promote believers’ spiritual growth.
Although there have been competing definitions offered for emotional intelligence, for our purposes I will define emotional intelligence as that set of skills related to:
- Identifying and expressing emotions accurately and adequately
- Understanding how different emotions typically function in our lives
- Using information associated with emotions to assist in making good decisions
- Managing emotions in our lives and relationships to facilitate our growth and accomplish life goals4
Let’s begin with the foundational component of emotional intelligence, identifying and expressing emotions accurately and adequately. This is one area of Brent’s life that his wife challenged him to nurture. Should pastors be intentional about sharpening these skills? If so, why? How might these skills be developed?
Recognizing emotions: Some biblical data
To begin our exploration, consider the following passages. They are representative of many passages that reveal how emotions, especially as they are expressed on the face, are a crucial element in how we communicate about what is important to us.
Proverbs 15:13, 30
A happy heart makes the face cheerful,
but heartache crushes the spirit. (Prov. 15:13)
Light in a messenger’s eyes brings joy to the heart,
and good news gives health to the bones. (Prov. 15:30)
There are a couple of noteworthy observations from these verses:
- Emotions are associated with the “heart,” which is a key element of the biblical understanding of human nature. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Commenting on this verse, Bruce Waltke writes, “The heart … thinks, reflects, and ponders. … The heart is meant to discern and prompt action. … It is the inner forum where decisions are made. Since the heart is the center of all a person’s emotional, intellectual, religious, moral activity, it must be safeguarded above all things.”5 The “heart” is the moral and motivational control center of a person out of which come thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and speech. God’s evaluation of human beings is an assessment of the contents or condition of the heart.6 This automatically makes understanding our emotions important!
- These verses also highlight a relationship between emotions and the face. The way in which the face reflects emotional states suggests that emotions convey information about us—more specifically, they reveal what is important to us.
In this account of the rich man asking Jesus about inheriting eternal life, Jesus refers him to the Ten Commandments. The man claims that he has honored those commands from his youth, and Jesus responds in this way:
Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. (Mark 10:21–22)
Here again we see how the face becomes a canvas upon which an emotional experience is displayed. The prospect of losing his great wealth grieved this man, and that grief was communicated through his face.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
their faces are never covered with shame.
This passage reveals a common biblical portrayal of shame. Those who are ashamed avoid looking at others; their faces are said to be “covered” with shame, which in this passage is contrasted with looking at the Lord with “radiance.” Someone whose face is covered with shame looks away from the judging gaze of others (predominantly the Lord), but to have the shame removed reveals a radiance—the bright eyes and huge smile associated with joy and gratitude.
Recognizing facial expressions of emotion: Some research conclusions
Interestingly, some twentieth-century emotion research demonstrated that there are certain facial expressions of emotion that are recognizable across cultures. For example, in one research study, tribesmen in Papua New Guinea7 were told emotionally provocative stories and asked to identify from a set of pictures (of Americans) which facial expression matched what had happened to the protagonist in the story. There was clear evidence that the tribesmen could easily match the stories with appropriate pictures for stories with happiness, anger, disgust, and sadness.8 In another large-scale study using photographs of Americans, American and European participants were able to correctly identify 75–83 percent of the expressions, Japanese participants were able to identify 65 percent, and Africans were able to identify 50 percent of them. These levels of recognition are above “chance” levels, although this study reminds us that cultural familiarity is also a factor in correctly identifying facial expressions.9
Additionally, “infants also appear able to discriminate between facial expressions, to imitate them, and to comprehend their emotional tenor. It seems, then, that we are born with the tendency and capacity to focus on facial expressions.”10
Such findings support the notion that emotions convey information about what is significant to us and that such information can be communicated on our faces to observers around us. Furthermore, the recognition of certain facial expressions across cultures and the natural inclination of infants to attend to facial expressions seem to indicate that recognizing facial expressions of emotions is part of God’s design that enhances how we relate to one another. If so, then correctly identifying facial expressions of emotion in others—and becoming more conscious of our own facial expressions—should improve communication with and ministry to others.
Helping people like Brent develop these skills
Counseling Brent would involve two main goals. First, Brent has to understand that paying attention to emotions—his own, his wife’s, and others’—is biblically warranted. Passages such as those mentioned above demonstrate how we are designed to express emotions, especially on our faces. Given that emotions convey important information about what’s going on in our hearts, this is vital for understanding and caring effectively for others. Therefore, Brent needs to accept that Monica’s concern about his tendency to be “emotionally clueless” is not trivial.
Second, Brent has to practice this skill set, especially with his wife. Here are some suggestions about how this could be done:
- Together Brent and Monica could play previously unwatched DVD or Netflix scenes without sound and see how well they do in interpreting facial expressions. Then they can rerun the scenes with sound to check themselves. Because actors tend to exaggerate their expressions, this is a good exercise to begin with; however, it should be supplemented with real-life exercises such the next one.
- In conversations with his wife, Brent could make a point of mentioning what emotion she seems to be conveying (attending to her words and body language) and asking her whether or not he is on target. As Brent grows in this skill with his wife, he can expand this exercise by doing the same thing in conversations with others.
- Brent could ask Monica to give him feedback on her observations of how he is expressing himself with his face. (He might need to use a mirror to practice becoming more clear in his facial expressions if she has trouble interpreting his facial expressions.)11
As Brent develops his skills in identifying emotions in his wife (and others), he also needs to keep in mind that people can become very good at hiding emotions through facial expressions. Proverbs 14:13 notes, “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and rejoicing may end in grief.” This may be done for manipulative reasons or for self-protective reasons, but in either case, initial interpretations of others’ facial expressions must be held tentatively until there is verification of their accuracy.
As Brent hones these skills, his relationship with his wife should deepen and future ministry with people should be more fruitful.
Be sure to read the next article in Dr. Forrey’s series on how emotional intelligence makes you a better pastor, as he explores the role of emotions in the Christian life and how pastors and other ministry leaders can address emotion-related questions in their efforts to foster spiritual growth in themselves and others.
- Here are a few books that describe the debates about what emotions are: Elizabeth Johnston and Leah Olson, The Feeling Brain: The Biology and Psychology of Emotions (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2015); Matthew A. Elliott, Faithful Feelings (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006); Keith Oatley, Emotions: A Brief History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
- Joseph LeDoux, Anxious (New York: Penguin Books, 2015).
- For example: Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1995); Daniel Goleman, Working with Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam Books, 1998); Jeanne Segal, The Language of Emotional Intelligence (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008); Gerald Matthews, Moshe Zeidner, and Richard Roberts, Emotional Intelligence 101 (New York: Springer Publishing, 2012).
- This definition is based on the work of John Mayer, Peter Salovey, and their colleagues. See, e.g., John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, “What Is Emotional Intelligence?” in Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence, ed. Peter Salovey and David J. Sluyter (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 3–31.
- Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu, An Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007), 225–26.
- For example, see 1 Kings 8:39–40; Jer. 17:10; Mark 7:21–23; Heb. 4:12–13.
- This research began in the 1960s, and only a handful of the tribesmen had had any contact with Westerners (those with previous exposure had been educated by missionaries).
- Paul Ekman, Emotions Revealed (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003), chapter 1.
- Hillary Anger Elfenbein, Abigail A. Marsh, and Nalini Ambady, “Emotional Intelligence and the Recognition of Emotion from Facial Expressions,” in The Wisdom in Feeling, eds. Lisa Feldman Barrett and Peter Salovey (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002), 40.
- Elfenbein, Marsh, and Ambady, “Emotional Intelligence and the Recognition of Emotion,” 38–39.
- Paul Ekman actually coaches readers in how to convey unambiguous facial expressions in Emotions Revealed.