The need for emotional self-awareness when following Christ
Most of us believe we are first and foremost, rational human beings. Yet it is physically impossible to have any rational thought without first experiencing an emotion. Neurological research has shown that every sensory input goes through the emotional centre of our brain before reaching its frontal cortex, which controls our reasoning and response. Here is why believers need to look deeper, past our thought patterns, into our true emotions.
God’s Word encourages us to be highly self-aware about our ways, which in turn, are highly influenced by our emotions. Being self-aware and clear-headed about our emotional state is, therefore, a crucial step in following Jesus Christ.
Haggai 1:7 NIV This is what the LORD Almighty says: “Give careful thought to your ways.
Proverbs 4:23 ESV Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.
All our thoughts, memories, beliefs, and reactions come attached with at least one emotion. Our thoughts will be less optimistic when we feel drained and downcast, and more optimistic if we are in a positive mood. Some of our memories are filled with feelings of warmth, others with feelings of regret or shame. Other times, we may believe that someone cannot be trusted simply because we feel uneasy around them. Every conscious decision we make has first been through an emotion, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.
When we experience a flood of strong emotions such as love, guilt, fear, or anger, for example, it is almost impossible to think clearly and rationally. We know what we ought to do (to follow God) but our emotions steer us in another direction (to follow our flesh). The Bible describes this as the “passions at war within us”.
James 4:1 ESV What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?
The need for emotional self-awareness
The Bible calls us numerous times to be sober-minded (1 Peter 4:7, 1 Peter 5:8, 2 Timothy 4:5). This does not just refer to not being drunk. Being sober-minded includes keeping a sound conscious mind that does not “lose itself” under the influence of intoxicating emotions.
1 Peter 4:7 ESV The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.
When we do take a sober-minded look at our ways, we are called to do so wisely because our hearts can be very deceiving. This is because our brains process our subconscious emotions much faster than our conscious minds can discern and analyse them. (Some estimate that it can be as fast as 11 million pieces of information per second, compared to 40 pieces per second when it comes to our conscious processing.)
Ephesians 5:15-16 ESV Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.
Jeremiah 17:9 ESV The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
We react emotionally far more quickly than we can think rationally. Most times, we subconsciously make snap (emotion-led) judgments even before we have thought things through properly. When we are not fully in touch with our emotions, we may respond by rationalising our responses instead.
Here is one example. Imagine we had unpleasant experiences with a harsh school teacher with a high-pitched voice when we were growing up. As a result, we instinctively dislike other people with high-pitched voices. As adults, we may not be able to consciously link this pattern back to its beginnings during our school days. So instead, we find other reasons to justify why we don’t like people with high-pitched voices. Rather than ask God for the root of our ungodly patterns and confess the emotional hurt we felt in school, and the subsequent grudges we felt towards our teacher, we go on to sin further by scorning other people with shrill voices.
No one enjoys owning up to our personal faults and sinful intentions, but God’s Words tells us that this is absolutely necessary if we are to obtain His mercy and grace. Otherwise, we simply deceive ourselves and think that God is pleased with us – when He is not. It is to a believer’s great detriment that we don’t examine our underlying emotions habitually. A lack of emotional self-awareness is one reason why we fall back into repeated patterns of sin.
Romans 8:8 ESV Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
1 John 1:8 ESV If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
Proverbs 28:13 ESV Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
Evil spirits can manipulate us through unconfessed emotions
Some demons (also known as evil spirits) specialise in tempting us to sin against God by manipulating our emotions. The Bible lists demonic spirits that specialise in fear, jealousy, and despair, for example.
- Spirit of fear | 2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
- Spirit of jealousy | Numbers 5:14 ESV and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself,
- Spirit of despair | Isaiah 61:3 NIV … to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…
As believers, we need to obey God’s Law and His Spirit. Part of this involves exercising self-control and reigning in our emotions at all times and allowing God to show us how we ought to feel about certain situations. Our fleshly emotional responses will not please God. Our Holy Spirit-led responses will.
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of emotions such as love, joy, and peace. He is not the Spirit behind emotions such as fear, bitterness, anxiety, hatred, despair, hopelessness, depression, and so forth. When we give in to such emotions, we are in danger of being led by evil spirits that take advantage of us when our emotional guard is down.
Galatians 5:22 ESV But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…
Hebrews 12:15 ESV See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled;
Proverbs 26:24 ESV Whoever hates disguises himself with his lips and harbors deceit in his heart;
Evil spirits can only take over our hearts and minds when we fail to:
- Intentionally invite the Holy Spirit to test our hearts and show us any grievous ways in us
- Heed the Holy Spirit’s warnings about our ungodly emotions
- Filter out social influences that arouse ungodly emotions in us
Psalm 139:23-24 ESV Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Any one of us can be misled and deceived by demonic spirits in a moment of (emotional) weakness. All our enemy needs to do is to evoke our subconscious emotions – whether overtly or subtly. When we don’t capture our emotionally-charged thoughts to obey the Holy Spirit, the devil will quickly capture us to follow him instead.
2 Corinthians 10:5 ESV We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
Ephesians 2:2 NLT You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God.
1 Peter 5:8 ESV Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
Love is the primary emotion for all true believers
One simple way to test our emotions is to ask if our reactions are based on love, or not. After all, the two most important commandments in the Bible are based on this emotion.
Matthew 22:37-39 ESV And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
If we feel that we are unable to love as God loves, we may have to consider what memories and beliefs we need to confess to Jesus and crucify to His cross, so that our emotions and minds can be renewed in Christ. In this way, we will be able to discern God’s will rather than be distracted by subconscious emotions incited by evil spirits.
Galatians 5:24 NLT Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there.
Romans 12:1-2 ESV I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
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