Book Review: Untangling Emotions, by J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith
J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith. Untangling Emotions. Crossway, 2019. 240 pages.
“You are what you feel.” This line from Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat encapsulates the current American sentiment toward emotions. Feelings are the untouchable definition of reality. If I feel something is true, then it is true—and no one can tell me otherwise. Thoughtful Christians recognize that this mindset is far from what Scripture teaches. But what do we do with the various feelings that mark every hour of life in this world? How do we respond to them in a way that glorifies God?
UNDERSTANDING AND ENGAGING EMOTIONS
Some, even within the Christian community, respond to life’s challenges with a stoic indifference. Others often find themselves overwhelmed by a host of strong emotions and aren’t sure how to navigate them. In this confusion, J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith offer a practical, Biblical guide for how Christians should think about and relate to our emotions. Their argument? Emotions are expressions of worship that should neither be suppressed or blindly followed, but rather engaged.
Untangling Emotions is divided into three main sections. The first examines the nature of emotions: what they are, how various emotions happen simultaneously, and why they can feel uncontrollable. The authors address the physical and spiritual component of emotions, explaining that our emotions reveal what we worship and love, whether good or bad.
In the second section the authors argue that a biblical response to emotions requires engagement. Engaging our emotions includes identifying what an emotion is, examining what it says about what you love, and evaluating which aspects of a given emotion are good and which are bad. It also includes establishing proactive patterns in our lives to nourish healthy emotions and starve unhealthy ones before they become overwhelming. The final section applies these principles to four particularly difficult, yet common, emotions (fear, grief, anger, and guilt/shame) and offers counsel on how these can be engaged in God-glorifying ways.
HOW SHOULD WE RESPOND TO EMOTIONS?
As someone who admits to a daily ‘variety basket’ of emotions, I found this book to be an immensely valuable guide. Three insights rise to the surface. First, the authors helpfully describe that at the root of our emotions lies something(s) that we worship and love. Our emotions are not intrinsically sinful—God created us with emotions because they are meant to be vehicles of worship. They have, however, been affected by the fall like everything else in this world. The reason we struggle with disordered emotions is because our worship and love has been disordered by sin. As we recognize the source of our emotions, we are called to the hard work of evaluating not just our circumstances, but what our response to those circumstances says about what we love. As we practice this discipline, we grow in our ability to address the deeper loves of our heart, and avoid a simplistic avoidance of negative emotions. As the authors say, “our biggest need is for new hearts with new loves and reoriented worship, not for more comfortable feelings” (80).
Second, one of the most vivid illustrations in the book is an analogy of human emotions as a paint bucket.
Your emotional state at any moment is like that paint bucket with streams pouring into it from your heart. Your heart is pouring out a stream of emotion (sometimes as just a trickle, sometimes a torrent) for every care you have. The machine at the paint store has only a few nozzles, of course, but your heart has thousands of different pipes carrying color into the mix of what you feel. (47)
The authors use this illustration to move us away from an over-simplified understanding of what we feel, and to recognize that we are constantly receiving and responding to various triggers and may, in fact, feel many things at the same time. Mixed emotions (some positive and some negative) can be the right response to a world that is full of both grace and depravity. Rather than being overwhelmed by that reality, we can take comfort that our High Priest also experienced mixed emotions, and yet did so without sin.
Finally, the authors discuss the necessity of engaging our emotions in the presence of God. The reason we have emotions is because we were made in the image of a God who feels (see appendix of the book for a short discussion of the doctrine of impassibility). Because of this reality, our emotions were never meant to be engaged outside of the presence of God. In fact, the authors note “our relationship with God should be the most emotional one we have” (103). Using the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane as our model, we see that God actually invites us to bring our disordered, complex, and overwhelming emotions to him and know that these emotions were designed as pathways towards deeper communion and fellowship with him.
“ALL JOYS NOW ARE A MERE FORETASTE”
Untangling Emotions is a valuable resource for any believer who desires to navigate their emotional life for God’s glory and compassionately guide others who are struggling to understand their deepest feelings. As we reorient our hearts to engage our emotions in the presence of God, we grow in confidence in his love towards us. As Groves and Smith remind us: “A God who has chosen to bear scars is a God we can trust with our wounds, knowing that all joys now are a mere foretaste, and all tears now are a precious prelude to complete comfort” (212).