Trialogue
2/15/13 at 07:05 PM 0 Comments

When Good Feelings are Bad: The View from Creation and the Fall

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God created humans with a bivalent emotion-system, that is, their emotions are either positive and enjoyable to some extent or negative and unpleasant. The positive emotions—happiness, joy, surprise, and contentment, for example—are pleasant, and humans by nature—that is, according to creation—are generally predisposed to seek to experience and maintain them. Indeed, as I suggested a few months ago, there is something disordered in those who are more disposed to seek to experience negative emotions, like fear/anxiety, anger, or sadness, as well as emotional pain, than the positive emotions.

The fallen human emotion-system is even more complicated. This week I want to consider how its disorderedness is demonstrated in the tendency to experience positive emotions when they are inappropriate, and sometimes even sinful: when our otherwise good emotions are bad and unhealthy and in some way. The following are some examples of such emotions.

When one feels a kind of satisfaction or takes pleasure in the misery or misfortune of another. The Germans have coined a term for this emotion: “schadenfreude” (lit. joy in harm or damage). We are especially likely to experience this when we find out that something bad has happened to someone with whom we have had a serious disagreement and towards whom are harboring some bitterness.Another example would be inappropriate self-love, for example, an excessive happiness in one’s own performance or when one is praised, where one’s conscience bears witness that one is happier than one should be.Similarly, when one is excessively happy about doing better than someone else, with a sort of delight focused precisely on one’s dominance over that person.Also, when one feels good about oneself or one’s performance, apart from an awareness of God and gratitude to him for the grace that enabled us to be who we are or to do what we did. Such autonomous happiness is a direct result of the Fall.

Since negative emotions are by definition unpleasant, it is quite common for humans to avoid or repress negative emotions, usually unconsciously. So perhaps a closely-related category of emotional experience is when one does not feel a negative emotion in a specific situation where one should feel it, for example, when one is unaffected by the suffering of those in one’s presence, or if one is never moved emotionally at the plight of those who do not know Christ, particularly those one knows personally. This may be stretching the category too much, since we are not referring to an inappropriate discrete positive emotion, but the fact that we do not feel a negative emotion that we should feel in a particular situation suggests, at least, that we are feeling more positively than is fitting or optimal (even if all we’re feeling is the normal mildly positive feeling that is the most common emotion for most people most of the time, a feeling that is so mild, it is almost neutral). However, anytime we avoid or repress negative emotions that are fitting in the situation or given what we’re focusing our attention on, we might say our emotion-system is not working according to its divine design plan.

This entire category of emotions (perhaps we should consider them examples of “moral emotions”) demonstrates that an individualistic approach to emotions, as is common in modern psychology, is plainly impoverished. Humans live in contexts of face-to-face relationships, interwoven narratives, and social environments of different levels of complexity, including a culture, as well as a physical environment. Within such situatedness, one’s emotional experience provides an evaluative guide that has more or less validity, which itself can be evaluated by comparing it to what we can discern would be the absolutely fitting emotional response of an ideal observer (who Christians call God).

The discovery of such disordered emotional experience in our own hearts is itself unpleasant, but if we are shocked by them, it suggests we may lack self-awareness. We noted in November that emotions are signs, and these emotions (or kinds of emotional experience) are signs of our sinfulness and brokenness. However, because Christians are united to Christ, they have no need to avoid such awareness, because they can be cleansed of whatever shame and guilt they become aware of. As a matter of fact, becoming aware of these kinds of emotions (and emotional experience) is a great help in our journey towards increasing healing and wholeness in Christ. We can take these kinds of experiences to the cross of Christ and confess and/or surrender them to him, and seek to believingly replace them with an emotion that would be more fitting in light of our union with Christ, like peace. Here is another good reason for us not to be afraid of our emotions, even when our good emotions are bad, because we can find healing for them in Christ.

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