Your Palette of Emotions

A young boy once wrote this note to a psychotherapist:

“Dear Dr. Gardener,

What is bothering me is that long ago some big person it is a boy about 13 years old. He called me turtle and I knew he said that because of my plastic surgery. And I think God hates me because of my lip. And when I die He’ll probably send me to hell.” [1]

This case shows how emotions can drastically affect a person’s faith.

Let’s consider the issue of emotions and their influence in our lives. How should we regard our feelings as we seek to appropriate abundant life in Christ?

1. Emotions are significant.

We should accept the validity of our emotions. One of the features of being made in God’s image is that we have unique personhood which includes emotions (Gen. 1:27). In His perfect humanity, the Lord Jesus experienced and displayed a wide spectrum of feelings. He rejoiced at the salvation of the lost; He wept at the graveside of Lazarus, and He was distraught with the pressures of Gethsemane. Jesus expressed indignation at the money changers, frustration with the doubters, compassion for the multitudes, and companionship for the apostles. Since Christ, “the Son of Man,” is sinless, we accept His emotions as an appropriate expression of human nature. So we should not consider emotions as necessarily insignificant or carnal.

2. Emotions are influential.

Our emotions can influence us positively or negatively. A example of healthy emotional expression is recorded in the book of Ezra. After returning from exile in Babylon, the Jewish remnant started to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. (The temple originally constructed by Solomon was destroyed when Jerusalem fell in 587 B.C.) When the people started to rebuild the temple of the LORD they displayed a wide spectrum of emotions:

“Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levities and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people…”(Ezra 3:11-13, 536 B.C.).

Their feelings were so varied and intense! Yet, they were expressed in the context of serving God.

The book of Numbers gives an example of the negative influence of emotions. The Israelites wailed in self-pity after hearing the spies’ negative report of Canaan’s defenses and giants:

“So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?'” (Num. 14:1-3, c. 1445 B.C.).

In spite of the good reports of Joshua and Caleb, the people’s emotional reaction led them to disbelieve and disobey God, refusing to take possession of the Promised Land.

Negative emotions can impact us in assorted ways. High stress situations can trigger irresponsible emotion-based reactions (as in Judges 11:1-40; 1 Sam. 14:24-46). Likewise, the strong feelings of romantic love can draw couples into an intimate relationship before they are prepared to commit to mature, unconditional, marital love.

So we acknowledge the real influence of our emotions—for better or for worse.

3. Emotions are signals.

Your emotions function somewhat like the nerves in your body. These impulse-carrying fibers carry messages to and from the brain through the spinal cord. Some nerve fibers carry impulses at the rate of 60 to 100 meters per second! Whether these signals are conscious or unconscious, painful or pleasurable, they carry out important functions of communication.[2]  Similarly, emotions signal various messages within your soul.

To use another metaphor, emotions are like the combinations of colors on a palette—whether red, blue, green, yellow or any combination thereof. Varying wave lengths of light produce the colors perceived in the eye’s retina. Similarly, our emotions express the interplay of our circumstances, our perspective, our values, our choices, our conscience, and our resources. They express “how we feel” about things. [3]

There are some “colors” we would prefer to avoid altogether. For instance, who likes sorrow? Similarly, we would probably choose to avoid all the nerve impulses of pain. Yet, Dr. Paul Brand’s research has demonstrated how important pain is. [4]

4. Emotions should take a subordinate role.

So what does all this have to do with abundant living? Frequently people seek out counseling because of emotional problems. Perhaps there are troublesome feelings of depression, guilt, fear, anger, or bitterness. To be accurate, we should not blame these problems on the emotions; ordinarily they’re just signaling our interpretation of our circumstances. Just as pain sensations tell us to move our hand off a hot stove, these painful emotions sound an internal alarm. The way to resolve these problems is to look to the Lord for His way of resolving these conflicts and frustrations (Matt. 11:28-30).

What role do our feelings have in a life of abiding in Christ? Our primary need is to keep emotions subordinate to our spirit, our mind, and our will.

The spiritual life is eminently a life of faith. This often goes contrary to our emotions which are reacting to a mortal body, a material world, and distorted values. Abraham did not feel like offering Isaac on Mt. Moriah, yet he believed that God would raise his son from the dead if Isaac would be sacrificed (Gen. 22:1-14; Heb. 11:17-19).  The Lord Jesus didn’t feel like going to the Cross, but He was obedient to crucifixion and bore all of our sins so we could be redeemed (Heb 5:7-9). Likewise, we are summoned to live by faith, not by sight or by feelings (2 Cor. 5:7).

David Tryon wrote of the necessity of living by faith instead of feelings:

“This life which you have entered is all the way along a life of faith. Feelings there will be at times, feelings of joy unutterable and full of glory—but not always. When the feelings come, they will be as the result of faith, but they are necessary part of faith and the lack of them is by no means a proof that faith is in vain. Faith rests, without emotion, on immovable facts, not on feelings which are ever changing. And so for the maintenance of this life, as for its start, for the continual ‘being filled’ with the Spirit as with the first ‘filling,’ everything depends on your faith … When circumstances seem impossible, when all signs of grace in you seem at their lowest ebb, when temptation is fiercest, when love and joy and hope seem nearly extinguished in your heart, then cling, without feeling and without emotion, to God’s faithfulness; hold on to the fact that He loves you infinitely, and even now is working in you mightily…” [5]

Your emotions must also be subordinate to a sound mind. Our western culture seems to think more through feelings than through logic. This twists one’s moral convictions as well. A popular song titled “You light up My Life” contains the lines, “It can’t be wrong, when it feels so right…” Instead, we are to cast down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5). Like a pilot experiencing vertigo, we need to fly by the dependable “instruments” of God’s Spirit and Word.

To maintain a Christ-centered focus, feelings must be subordinate to an obedient will. We are to choose God’s will which is “good, acceptable, and perfect,” however, our feelings often disagree. Hannah W. Smith underlined the importance of keeping our will surrendered to God:

“The common thought is, that this life hid with Christ in God is to be lived in the emotions, and consequently all the attention of the soul is directed towards them, and as they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled. Now the truth is that this life is not to be lived in the emotions at all, but in the will, and therefore the varying states of emotion do not in the least disturb or affect the reality of the life, if only the will is kept steadfastly abiding in its center, God’s will.” [6]

So, God made us with emotions. Feelings are influential but need to be subordinate to our renewed conscience, our surrendered will, and our believing mind.

Although you may not feel it sometimes, God really loves you (1 John 3:1-3). Fully accept His love and cooperate with His renewal in your heart. You’ll grow in emotional health as you walk by faith. The prophet declared,

“Who among you fears the LORD?
Who obeys the voice of His Servant?
Who walks in darkness And has no light?
Let him trust in the name of the LORD
And rely upon his God” (Isaiah 50:10).



[1] James Dobson, Emotions: Can You Trust Them? (Regal Books, 1980), p. 12 [I corrected the letter’s spelling, but not its grammar.]

[2] “Nerve Fiber” in Mosby’s Medical, Nursing, and Allied Health Dictionary

[3] This description is based on my own life and counseling observations.

[4] Philip Yancey, Where is God When it Hurts?  Dr. Brand noted that leprosy causes the deadening of the tissue’s nerves. This in turn removes a vital defense against injuring one’s limbs. Before long dreadful physical damage to the body increases—because of a lack of pain signals!

[5] David Tryon, But How? (Moody Press booklet) p. 27,29 Available online at http://www.GraceNotebook under “classics”

[6] Hannah Whitall Smith, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. Available online at

For further study on this topic, see our free course, How to Manage Your Emotions at

Copyright © 2000 by John Woodward. 2nd edition 2017. Permission is granted to reproduce this article for non-profit purposes if credit is given to the author and Grace Notebook. Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version (Copyright © by Thomas Nelson).


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