The idolatry of emotionalism

The events of the past year—especially the fallout from COVID-19—have upended life as we know it. Without a doubt, the effects of the virus and government-mandated lockdowns have dealt us hefty blows.

For a variety of reasons, however, I fear that the past year has increased the prevalence of emotionalism—an idolatry that often manifests itself in my life, and likely in yours.

By emotionalism, I do not mean emotion. The Scriptures—and especially the psalms—are rich with the expression of human emotions as diverse as sorrow (Psalm 31:10), contrition (Psalm 51:17), shame (Psalm 44:15), delight (Psalm 1:2), peace (Psalm 4:8), and hope (Psalm 33:22). The Lord created us with the capacity to display a rich array of emotions, and as we will later examine, Jesus Himself exhibited these emotions in His humanity.

Rather, by emotionalism, I refer to a state of mind and being that may be broadly defined as “a tendency to regard things emotionally,” or an “undue indulgence in or display of emotion.”

For the Christian, emotionalism often has the effect of grinding love of God and others to a screeching halt. Emotionalism prevents you from attending a Bible study or doing a devotional because you “just don’t feel like it” given the emotional burdens of your day. Emotionalism stops you from calling out your brother or sister’s sin primarily because of the discomfort that may follow. Emotionalism has the effect of fostering selfishness rather than selflessness—withholding yourself from your God and your neighbor. Allowing sheer emotion to dominate your thoughts, words, and actions will inevitably lead you to think of yourself before others.

There is a complex history of the emergence of emotionalism in the Western world. Carl Trueman, a professor of biblical theology at Grove City College, notes in his recent book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self that “psychological categories and an inward focus are the hallmarks of being a modern person”—a phenomenon that philosopher Charles Taylor dubbed expressive individualism. The key danger here is the “inward focus,” which is the exact opposite of the direction in which Christ calls us to grow. Nevertheless, I fear that young American Christians have been, to one degree or another, influenced by these cultural forces.

When many of our most meaningful interactions occur artificially via Zoom, the temptation to give into emotionalism is far more pressing. In a virtualized society, it is more difficult for others to notice our absence or hold us accountable; therefore, the social costs of withdrawing from community are lowered. When we allow our emotional state to take precedence over our duties to God, others, and even ourselves, it is easy to “check out,” so to speak, and to live our entire lives in the solitude of our dormitories. 

It is impossible to faithfully and consistently walk with Christ when a mild emotional bout can upend all of one’s devotional commitments. The central call of the Christian life—and one of the few teachings of Jesus repeated in all four Gospels—is the call to deny oneself: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Those who belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). We are “fervent in spirit” as we “serve the Lord” (Romans 12:11). Therefore, emotionalism and sanctification are mutually exclusive.

Emotionalism is especially foul when exhibited by young men. As Paul writes to Titus, men in particular ought to progressively cultivate virtues such as self-control, uprightness, and discipline (Titus 1:8), as well as sober-mindedness (Titus 2:2), in the power of the Holy Spirit. When emotionalism becomes one’s modus operandi, it is impossible to grow into and exercise such qualities, which God delights to see in men.

Like all other facets of the Christian life, we ought to look to Christ in the area of emotion.

Rather than suppressing His emotions, we see that Jesus—in His humanity—openly displayed emotion at certain times in His ministry. “Jesus wept” when Lazarus passed away (John 11:35), and He was “deeply moved” in anger and sadness at the reality of death (John 11:38). He lamented over the rebellion of Jerusalem, the city that He loved (Matthew 23:37). He was “sorrowful and troubled” in the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:37).

However, these emotions never stopped Jesus from serving God and laying down His life for others. Though Jesus was troubled even unto death in Gethsemane, He nevertheless went to the cross, submitting Himself perfectly to the will of the Father (Matthew 26:39). When Jesus heard that John the Baptist was beheaded, He retreated “to a desolate place by Himself” (Matthew 14:13); yet, after mourning in the presence of His Father, Jesus promptly and properly resumed his ministry of compassion on the crowds by healing their sick (Matthew 14:14). 

We likewise see in Jesus an utter trust in God’s sovereignty that allowed Him to rise above the circumstances of life. While the disciples were terrified by the storm, Christ was “asleep on the cushion” (Mark 4:38). Indeed, Jesus tells His disciples that they ought not to be anxious by pointing them toward God’s unfailing, all-powerful, sovereign love and care for them—“Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).

Christ displayed emotions, but He was never dominated by them to the extent that His ministry stopped in its tracks. He never became a slave to emotionalism.

I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet (Amos 7:14). I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. Forgive me if I have been imprecise in my language while describing this phenomenon. But over the past year, I have noticed the rise of emotionalism in my life and others’ lives—a temptation that stops me from denying myself, following Jesus, and laying my life down for others. 

I do not want my emotions to stop me from growing in grace and serving others. Instead, I desire to grow in my imitation of Christ—including in the realm of emotion—so that I may be a more effective instrument of righteousness in the hands of the Lord (Romans 6:13).

Brothers and sisters, join me as I pray that God would make us into men and women enslaved to none but the Lord Jesus Christ.

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