The perceptions that stand behind our emotions have been twisted by sin. Our values are aimed at lesser things, and the members of our body habituate sinful patterns and tendencies that we struggle to even recognize. And yet, emotions are a pathway to what’s truly happening in us. The wise pastor will recognize this and seek to understand the emotions of those he shepherds.
I’ve lived and pastored near Detroit, Michigan for almost six years now. It’s a city that has rightly earned the moniker “The Motor City.” The automobile industry dominates our economy, and this goes well beyond the Big 3 automakers: Ford, GM, and Chrysler. Thousands of smaller companies supply the Big 3 with everything they need to build a new car or truck. From parts to marketing and everything in between, nearly everyone’s job is connected to the auto industry.
With this comes a genuine love for cars and a deep understanding of how they work. I’ve walked through the lobby of our church early on a Sunday morning and heard 3–4 guys engaged in a deeply passionate conversation about brake pads. We had friends from out of state come visit a few years ago, and their van started making some unusual sounds on the way to church. One of our guys went outside with them after the service, listened to the sound for a couple of seconds, and said, “You should be fine to drive home.” They were.
I envy this thorough knowledge of cars. I don’t have it and most likely never will. I can put air in my tires and, I think, if everything was on the line and I had no other option, I could probably change a flat tire. I couldn’t name all the parts that make up an engine and certainly couldn’t explain how they work together to move my car forward. Now, imagine for a moment if I applied to work for a local mechanic here in Detroit. I clearly wouldn’t be very effective, and if I imagined myself to be a competent mechanic, despite my lack of basic understanding of cars, I could cause significant problems for people.
Now, human beings are not automobiles. We aren’t mechanical creations; we are embodied souls. It’s also true that serving in pastoral ministry isn’t quite the same as working as an auto mechanic. We don’t simply assess a person’s problem and apply the right fix to make sure everything is running again. However, I believe that as pastors seeking to faithfully shepherd God’s flock, we need to have a thorough grasp of the human beings we shepherd. This means understanding one of the basic features of our humanity: emotions.
What are Emotions?
This is a question pastors need to ponder both as they shepherd others and as they keep watch over their own souls (1 Timothy 4:16). I would guess that, in recent years, most pastors have seen an increase in the number of people grappling with their emotions and how to handle them. We can’t counsel and shepherd those struggling if we don’t have a basic grasp of this important feature of our humanity.
The discussion over the nature of human emotions goes back to the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle and has typically swung between two poles. On the one side, emotions are defined as simple bodily impulses. We have little to no control over them and they are illogical. A modern example of this would be those who see emotions as nothing more than chemical reactions that produce physical results. On the other side, emotions are viewed as cognitive, coming from our perceptions and judgments concerning ourselves and the world around us.
Christians have generally understood the Bible to teach the cognitive view of emotions, and yet, Scripture presents human beings as complex creatures where mind, emotions, and body all work together to shape and influence one another.
Author Jeremy Pierre puts it like this, “No one should treat people as merely rational beings in need of instruction, nor as merely emotional beings in need of healing, nor as merely decision-makers who need the right motivation. The truth is broader than each of these.”1
The Bible describes humans as embodied souls (Gen. 2:7). We think, reason, feel, and act with our bodies and simply cannot do otherwise in this life. Matthew Lapine explains, “Because we are embodied beings, physicality always qualifies our agency. God formed us from the ground and enlivened us with his breath. We are not mere souls, but embodied beings. Our entire agency is qualified by physicality.”2