Can we control emotions?

“Human life is fundamentally a life of the mind. The posture of the mind determines so much about the character of an individual’s life.” (Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion, p. 26).

We tend to posture our minds or construe things based on the concerns that are important to us. These concerns then stand behind our emotions– exercising significant control over them.

Concerns—Construals—Emotions

Construals are interpretations of meaning or ways of seeing things; perspectives about circumstances, experiences, or persons. Feelings can be traced back to how one construes a situation or relationship based on the concerns one has invested in it. Understanding how these relate is essential to building healthy God-centered emotions.

Make ConnectionConcerns— Construals— Emotions

  • To feel indignant is to choose to see myself or someone close to me as intentionally injured in a matter of concern to myself.
  • Becoming angry with someone necessarily involves construing him as obnoxious, offensive, or some such thing.
  • To feel despair is to see my life, which I desire to be meaningful, as holding nothing of importance.
  • To feel envious is to see myself as losing against some competitor in a competition on which I am basing my self-esteem.
  • To feel guilty is to see myself as having offended against a moral or quasi-moral standard to which I subscribe.
  • Paranoid people tend to construe things in ways that feed their fears and they end up being fearful even if their fears are irrational and unwarranted.
  • Resentful individuals tend to construe things or people in ways that feed their sense of injury—which makes them feel injured and resentful even when no one planned to injure them.
  • Suspicious and cynical people tend to construe hidden motives and agendas in ways that feed the suspicion and cynicism—even when such feelings are unwarranted.

To dispel an emotion

“Because emotions are construals, and construals always require some ‘terms,’ — to succeed in dispelling an emotion, I must somehow get myself to cease to see the situation in one set of terms, and probably must get myself to see it in different terms.” (Roberts).

We must change the way we think if we hope to change the way we feel. Our thinking often locks us into our emotions. The path of transformation is renewal of the mind (Romans 12:2). This happens when we allow Scripture to shape our concerns toward an eternal, God centered perspective. When we ask why we feel the way we do, we should explore the way we think because our thoughts either fortify our feelings or counter-veil against them. 

Control of emotions

“It is important to Christians that emotions are partially within people’s control, that they can be commanded.” Scripture commands us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. When Scripture reminds us that love is not jealous, or irritable, or resentful, it assumes that these feelings are broadly within the control of the reader. “Being resentful is not like being five foot six or having congenitally bad teeth.” (Roberts,  p. 21).

Emotions and the Gospel

“The ‘terms’ of the Christian emotions are provided by the Christian story. There is a necessary connection between the Christian emotions and the Christian story” (Ibid. p. 21)

“The gospel message provides people with a distinctive way of construing the world: the maker of the universe is your personal loving Father and has redeemed you from sin and death in the life and death and resurrection of His son Jesus. You are a child of God, destined along with many brothers and sisters to remain under his protection forever and to be transformed into something unspeakably lovely” (Ibid., p. 16).

Emotions, Kingdom construals and concerns

When Jesus taught people to overcome anxiety, he invited them to commit to higher concerns. He said, “But seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

When Jesus spoke of misplaced fear, he introduced a superior concern for keeping fear in perspective. He said, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

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How should we construe this life?

“A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; and surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; But the word of our God will stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:6-9)

“Isaiah distils in a simple image a truth which can never be far from the mind of a thinking adult. You are grass: your life is a blooming and a fading, a flourishing and a withering, a birthing and a dying. This thought frequents the human mind—though mostly in its recesses. Walking to work, peeling potatoes, chatting at a cozy party over a glass of wine, holding hands with your spouse, playing silly games with your children. And there’s the lurking thought: flesh fading and disappearing, withering grass.”

Anxiety and despair (based on concerns and construals)

“But the anxiety we feel in the face of death is the consequence of our investing this life (from which we must die) with ultimate significance. The despair we feel when forced to reckon with the vanity of all our activities and pleasures is the result of our according ultimate significance to those activities and pleasures—to their being for us the whole story, or the center of the story.

A new perspective (way of construing this life)

“If we could manage to see this life as a stage in an eternal life, then it could be accepted honestly and gladly for what it is. If we could see the significance of our present activities and pleasures as deriving from a context beyond this present one of flowering and fading, they could be honestly enjoyed for what they are, no less and no more.”

“If on the other hand we have no larger expectation in terms of which to interpret this life, then since we are creatures who cannot escape our surveying imagination and our deeper longings, embitterment dwells on our doorstep.  And we live in constant fear of stepping out into the open.”

Not our whole story

“Christianity is, among other things, the wonderfully good news that this life is not our whole story… The few years that we live in this body… are a kind of pilgrimage, a sojourn, a preparatory trip on the way to something much greater. For the Christian, this present existence is provisional. He is aware that every activity he undertakes is schooling for something else—that it is all directed toward a higher end.”

Dancing lightlyA path to perfect health

“For a person whose roots have been thoroughly transplanted from the present soil into that of eternity, who dances lightly on the surface of the earth and so is ready to leave at a moment’s notice, there would be little point in dwelling on the thought of death. Sad to say, however, this mind-set is rarely to be found among those who profess Christianity.”

“Most churchgoers are as deeply rooted in this world, and thus as deeply in despair, as those who profess no such hope. Far from being an exercise in morbidity, a deepening acquaintance with our death and with the vanity of human wishes is for our worldly hearts a needed path to perfect health.” (quotes from: Spirituality and Human Emotion by Robert C. Roberts).

Steve Cornell


2 thoughts on “Can we control emotions?

  1. ANGEL says:

    one thing i like is that YES we can control our thoughts & emotions by changing the way we think & by making it towards GOD……we should also not forget that his life is all about learning from the past n become better n better….we have to go through many bodies to achieve that higher end,
    Then why should we do in this life n BE HAPPY……the way our soul wants :D

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