Joy, contentment, hilarity, peace… We don’t need help managing those. We should just enjoy them as God’s gifts.
The only time we should be careful about expressing positive feelings is if doing so might cause someone else pain. For example, a young couple has just learned they are pregnant and ecstatically share their news with everyone—except another couple they know who has been trying to have a baby for years. With that couple they share their news—they’ll have to eventually—but they do so more quietly, sensitive to the fact that their joy might cause pain for the other couple. But except for situations like that one, positive feelings don’t require “managing.”
It’s the negative feelings that can be a problem. They can “cause” us to act in ways we shouldn’t—and later regret. They can result in damaged relationships. If not dealt with correctly, negative feelings can result in irritability, depression, bitterness, cynicism… I.e., if we aren’t careful, negative feelings can affect our character.
So we must learn how to manage negative feelings—and not be controlled by them. It is possible to do. In fact, we are supposed to do so: God’s Word tells us how.
In this article, I explain how God’s Word instructs us to manage emotions, and then outline a 4 Step model for dealing effectively with negative feelings that is both biblically and psychologically sound.
The first important thing to learn from God’s Word is that negative feelings, in themselves, are not bad. Feelings are not the problem, because God Himself is portrayed as having negative feelings.
After Adam and Eve sinned and God sent them away from the Garden of Eden and their grandchildren populated the earth, the Bible says: “God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that He had made the human race in the first place; it broke His heart.” (Genesis 6:6 Message version). In a number of the Old Testament books (e.g. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and others) God expresses his anger against wicked people—even against His own chosen people, and members of the priesthood.
Jesus also is portrayed as expressing anger in a number of New Testament passages: Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 3:5, John 2:13-22, and deep sorrow as well (e. g. John 11). So feelings in themselves cannot be wrong, since our Creator and our Savior experienced feelings—even strong anger.
In fact, the New Testament gives us a model for handling anger in a godly way. Here’s what the Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Ephesus , as he gave them instructions for living the Christian life:
“ ‘In your anger do not sin’: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26)
Those first six words, “in your anger do not sin,” need careful translation and interpretation. The first thing to understand is that in Greek (the language this letter was originally written in) that phrase is in the “imperative” form: i.e., it’s a command that means: “be angry, but don’t sin.”
That helps, doesn’t it? Because anger often seems to appear instantly: all of a sudden we are furious, outraged—and we don’t remember inviting the anger; it is just there. So it helps to hear from God’s Word that the anger—in itself—isn’t wrong, and we should go ahead and feel angry—but not sin. When we are angry, then, we need to be extra careful not to do anything rash or hurtful: we shouldn’t let strong feelings dictate what we do.
Anger, in fact, can be valuable because it is often an important clue: it is like a warning bell, letting us know that something significant is happening inside us and we need to figure out what it means. A warning bell in a school might mean: “hurry, evacuate the building,” or it might mean, “shelter in place.” The meaning of the warning bell needs to be deciphered.
Anger, or outrage, is a common reaction to injustice. If we see a person mistreated or discriminated against, we should be angry. We should not act on that anger without thinking through the consequences, but the emotion is a clue, a warning bell, that injustice is happening, we should care, and something should be done. What should be done is a matter for reflection and prayer.
“Be angry, but don’t sin.” The second thing to realize about that statement is that the Apostle Paul, like the good Jewish Old Testament scholar he was, is quoting from Psalm 4:4:
“In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds, search your hearts and be silent. Offer right sacrifices and trust in the Lord.”
What the psalmist meant, I think, was: go ahead and feel angry—but don’t act precipitately. Wait until you can find time and solitude for reflection, then act.
For the ancient Israelite, who lived surrounded by people all day long, night time, on his or her bed, might have been the only time available for quietly pondering and praying about the anger that occurred earlier in the day.
The psalmist’s advice fits with what the Apostle Paul wrote: “don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.” In other words: we shouldn’t go to sleep full of volatile emotions. We should take time before we go to sleep to reflect on what caused our anger: righteous indignation—or selfishness?
“Offer right sacrifices,” continues the Psalmist, “and trust in the Lord.” If we need to ask forgiveness from the Lord for our selfish anger, then that is the next task. If our anger wasn’t selfish, we can trust God to help us know what, if anything, we should do about what caused our anger.
“Be angry, but don’t sin,” say the Psalmist and the Apostle, both recognizing that it is very easy to sin. On the one hand, if we don’t put our angry feelings on “pause” when they occur; if we allow harsh, ugly words to pour out of our mouths—those words can do damage. Even if we don’t say much, we can allow an ugly expression, an icy tone of voice, or a hostile posture. These behaviors, if not under the control of God’s Spirit in us, are sin and give the devil a foothold.
On the other hand, we can sin by repressing our anger and refusing to deal with it—which, actually, doesn’t work. When we refuse to recognize our anger, it doesn’t “just go away,” it goes underground, creating bitterness and other ugly attitudes that affect our behavior and character. Such denial then, can also give the devil a foothold in our souls.
So both the Psalmist and the Apostle have given us clues regarding how to manage our negative feelings so that we don’t sin, and instead, honor our Creator and Savior.
One important clarification before we move on to provide an outline for handling negative feelings: although the Apostle Paul said not to “let the sun go down on our anger,” I’d like to provide sensible cautions about what I think that means:
“Not letting the sun go down on our anger” does NOT mean, as some counselors and pastors have told married couples, that they must completely resolve any issue that made them angry before they can go to sleep. Trying to resolve an issue before going to sleep is sometimes neither possible nor wise. If a couple does not have privacy for a good talk; if either member of the couple is tired or stressed; if either of them is still “hot,” discussing the issues involved should wait until they are calm and rested. What the couple DOES need to do before sleep is to communicate to each other, “Yes, I’ve been angry, but I still love you. I’m too tired to think clearly right now, but I promise that I will take time to think and pray about my feelings, and I promise that we will come back together and work this out.” That’s good enough to go to sleep on.
However, the commitment to process the issue in solitude and come back together to work it out is crucial. That commitment must be kept—not forgotten, not swept under the rug. Sometimes, it is true, the bright light of morning reveals that the feelings were an over-reaction and the issue is not worth discussing. God’s gift of sleep (and the brain’s amazing ability to process emotions while we sleep) has clarified things. At other times we realize, in the fresh light of day, that the feelings were a wake-up call and we need calm and serious dialogue with our spouse.
What has been described, above, is the Biblical model for dealing with anger, according to the Apostle Paul, and David, the psalmist. From that instruction we can now extrapolate a workable model for dealing with negative emotions. It is a model that is both theologically and psychologically sound.
When we feel a negative feeling we should pause, right in that moment, and try not to act on it until we have time to think and pray about what is best to do. If we must take immediate action, we should do so quietly, calmly and carefully.
When my children were little and I became angry at them, I learned to “put myself on time out” by simply turning my back on them and saying quietly, “I’m angry right now, but I’m facing away from you until I calm down and decide what to do.” (No harm in role-modeling self-control!)
There are very few situations in which negative emotions need to be expressed right in that moment. Action may be needed, but not the expression of strong emotion. Most of the time, the best course of action is to put the negative emotion “on pause.” The Apostle James wrote: “Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.” (James 1:19-20 NLT) Human action can produce the righteousness God desires, but not necessarily when powered by human anger: human anger needs to be tempered by reflection and prayer.
The sudden rush of adrenaline that usually accompanies anger is what causes us to rush into verbal expression or precipitate action. Adrenaline gives us energy—to fight, to flee. That’s why, when we’re angry, it can feel so satisfying to slam the door, throw something or yell. But usually we shouldn’t fight—or flee. Instead we need to remain calm and in control, right where we are. Or leave quietly.
Remaining calm in the moment, however, can leave us, a few minutes later, with a great deal of excess energy “floating around” with nowhere to go. If a strong feeling generates “extra” energy, then we should find a harmless and appropriate way to dissipate that energy.
My mother told me once that she scrubbed the kitchen floor when she needed to vent anger. Another person I know took a sack of empty aluminum cans outside on the driveway and smashed them flat to dissipate anger. We can punch a pillow, go for a run, or shoot some hoops—anything that gets rid of that adrenaline-fed energy without hurting someone is fine.
Make time to recognize and accept the feelings. It is important to decide how—or if—we are going to act on our feelings, but before we can make good decisions, we need to accept our emotions—whatever they are. We need to name the feelings and own them. Sometimes an emotion is so overwhelming we can’t deny it. At other times we want to deny the emotion because it is inconvenient: we don’t want to deal with it; or we don’t want to admit we are the kind of person that has that emotion.
However, not acknowledging an emotion simply does not work. It is much healthier for us to acknowledge the feeling, name it, and try to understand why it is there. Certainly, we don’t need to do this on our own. God’s Spirit is always ready to help us when we seek His guidance.
After we have recognized and named our feelings, we need to decide how we will behave. This is a choice of the WILL. It is a decision based on rational thinking about the kind of person we want to be—NOT a choice based on emotions. That’s why we needed to acknowledge the emotions and get some distance from them: this part of the process needs to be objective and reasonable. I.e., we may well decide NOT to act on the basis of the emotion we felt. Or if we decide to act on what we felt, we can do so calmly and rationally.
This third step means we give ourselves time to choose to act in the way God has instructed in His Word. That means we will choose not to seek revenge, we will choose not to be unkind, we will choose not to behave in an immature, undignified way. We can also choose not to act like a helpless, passive doormat that is walked all over, but be dignified, calm and courteous. We can choose to treat the other person as we would wish to be treated whether they deserve it or not. These decisions are choices. As God’s children we have the glorious freedom of choosing how to behave; we are not slaves of our emotions.
It helps to think about how we are going to choose to behave tomorrow—or the next time we encounter the person, or situation, that caused our emotional reaction. It can be enormously helpful to role-play, in our mind, or with a trusted friend, how we are going to behave in various scenarios that might realistically occur.
If steps 1, 2 and 3 help us to manage our emotions and behave in a way that fits our values and honors God then we are good to go.
However, if negative emotions related to a person or situation keep “re-surfacing,” if we continue to struggle with or be affected by the situation—then we need step 4.
When emotions keep churning over the same event, it helps to write down a succinct rationale for the choices we have made and will have to go on making. It helps to have a brief summary of how we are going to answer our own ongoing feelings and questions—and perhaps the questions of others.
It is natural, when we’ve had an extremely difficult interpersonal encounter and have felt criticized or betrayed, to think things like: “I want REVENGE.” “I want to explode and yell…call names…swear.” “I want to see that person hurt.” “I want vindication.” “I don’t want to forgive… do I have to?” “What does it mean to forgive?” “I want to complain to…everyone.” “I want to make that person look bad.” “This is so unfair!” “I want to know WHY…why he did it…why she did it… why did this happen?”
Because such thoughts and emotions can recur daily or hourly, it can be exhausting to make time, name our emotions and decide how to act…over and over again. That IS what we need to do. But it can help, and abbreviates the process, if we write ourselves a list, such as:
Step 2: “These are my emotions. They are understandable, but I’m not going to act on them.”
Step 3: “This is how I’ve decided to act.”
Step 4: “These are the reasons why I won’t do as my emotions dictate, my rationale for how
I’m going think and live, for the kind of person I want to be.”
An important part of Step 4 is to take into account the feelings and thoughts we have about God in relation to the situation. In a difficult interpersonal situation that is not instantly resolved, it is natural for us to have questions for God: questions and—often—feelings against God. We need to tell God these feelings and think through the answers to our questions so that when the emotions and questions re-surface we have our answers ready.
There is nothing safer to do with our emotions and questions than take them directly to God. He knows anyway, so we might as well vent to Him. He is very good about listening.
Many of the Psalms (70 percent!) are laments—in which the psalmists sound off to God about how they have been mistreated, how they want vengeance and vindication, how angry and tired they are, and how upset they are that God isn’t doing what they want. “How long, O Lord?” is a frequent cry. (See Psalms 13, 22, 37, 38, 42, 43, 44, 50, 55, 57, 59, 61, 69, 74, 77, 79, 82, 83, 86, 88, 102 for a sample.)
Sometimes, in the psalms of lament, the psalmist prays himself back to remembering God’s faithfulness and choosing to trust Him; sometimes he doesn’t get that far. But the amazing thing is that these psalms are part of Scripture, part of the cannon. As such, they teach us that it is fine for us to vent to God. He listens. He cares. Complaining to God—even about how we are upset at Him—is the best thing we can do. Telling God our feelings does not mean we have to act on them. Asking God to bring judgment on someone doesn’t mean He will do it as we wish. In fact, telling Him our feelings means we are less likely to act on them—and more likely to trust Him to take care of revenge and help us behave as we should.
HOW we think determines our attitudes, our emotional tone, and our character. Therefore, it is crucial to think about “why” we are choosing to act and think in a particular way. We need to be able to spell out—for ourselves—our rationale for choosing to behave in accordance with God’s values. And if we are going to act in accordance with God’s Word, we need to know what His word says about how to respond to difficult situations that cause strong emotions.
Here are some Biblical passages give instruction regarding seeking revenge, wanting vindication and forgiving. These are the principles Christians should live by, but you will have to decide, in each situation, how to apply them.
When we are mistreated: 1 Peter 2: 13-23
Vengeance: Romans 12: 14, 17-21
Trusting God for vengeance: 2 Timothy 4: 14, 15
Forgiving: Matthew 6: 14-15
Why is God allowing this hardship? Romans 5:1-5, 8:26-30
How to have the strength to do right: Philippians 4: 11-13; Isaiah 30:15
We should include the above passages of Scripture, and others like them, in our rationale for how we are going to behave, how we are going to think about the situation that causes us emotional disquiet, and how we are going to trust God for His help, and His judgment.
Let’s use an example to show how this model can be applied:
Larry is a Christian man who works as a division manager in a large IT company. One day a colleague takes Larry aside and tells him that another colleague, named Andy, is saying that Larry has stolen some of Andy’s ideas and is passing them off as his own. Andy has not spoken directly to Larry about this, but if the accusation could be proven it would warrant discipline or dismissal. Unfortunately, Larry does not know how he can prove the accusation is false. So far, Larry’s boss has not gotten involved, but Larry guesses that may be only a matter of time.
Larry reacts, of course, with horror, fury, anguish and shame. He feels betrayed, as he had thought of Andy as friendly, if not a close friend. He feels shame because his colleagues are gossiping about the issue and he is not sure of their attitude: do they believe him guilty or not?
That evening, Larry explains to his family that he needs some time alone. He takes a long walk, then finds a quiet place to think and jot down notes. He prays, asking for God’s help as he acknowledges his feelings, and decides how to behave and how to think.
Larry names his different feelings: anger, rage, helplessness, disappointment, fear, rejection, hurt. He can explain to himself and God why he feels each emotion. The emotions don’t completely go away, but acknowledging and naming them seems to take their edge off.
Next Larry decides how he will behave. Based on what he has learned from God’s Word, Larry decides to treat his accuser as he usually does: not overly friendly, not with anger or coldness, but with the courtesy and respect Larry gives all his colleagues. He decides not to tackle Andy and try to talk about the issue, since Andy hasn’t approached him. Also, Larry doesn’t think tackling Andy will help, and could degenerate into an ugly scene. Larry has already told the colleague who told him about the rumor that he has done no such thing, and he decides he won’t seek to talk to anyone else about it unless they bring it up, in which case he will calmly and quietly deny the accusation.
Larry decides to make an appointment with his boss and address the issue head on, calmly and quietly saying he has heard of the accusation and that while he can offer no proof of innocence, he denies the accusation. Larry plans not to mention Andy’s name, nor speculate Andy’s motivation. Larry knows that denying the accusation to his boss may not help, but he prefers to take the offensive, rather than waiting to see what will happen.
Larry also decides to tell his wife, his best friend and his pastor what is going on, and ask them to pray for him.
The situation drags on for more than a week, with people continuing to gossip, but with no action from either Andy nor Larry’s boss. It is an agonizing and uncomfortable time for Larry. His feelings often churn inside him, and he wonders if he is doing the right thing. So Larry carves out a significant chunk of solitude and again recognizes and names his emotions. He thinks about and writes down WHY he is choosing to behave as he is, and how he wants his daily attitude, thought life and character to be colored by how he thinks. He is comforted by the statement in 1 Peter 2: 19 that “God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment.” He is struck by a translation of verse 21 that says such suffering is part of our “vocation” and calling as followers of Christ. He realizes he shouldn’t be shocked that he might suffer from unjust treatment.
Larry would love to be vindicated in front of his boss and colleagues, and if he knew how to defend himself, he would, but he doesn’t. So, he knows he needs to trust God for vindication—or to take care of him, and help him behave honorably, even if vindication never happens. And of course, Larry would love to see Andy “taken down,” but he knows that Scripture says to leave vengeance in God’s hands.
Larry puzzles for a while over what forgiving means in this situation. He knows we are commanded to forgive, so he has no option but to forgive Andy. But Andy certainly isn’t asking for forgiveness, so it isn’t reasonable to forgive Andy to his face. Gradually, Larry realizes he has to forgive Andy whether Andy knows it or not. He also realizes, poignantly, that forgiving does NOT mean excusing or minimizing wrong behavior. It means letting go of bitterness and a need for revenge.
Another thing that Larry ponders often is WHY Andy made his accusation. Larry can come up with many theories, some ugly and others far-fetched, but he finally realizes that he cannot, actually, know why Andy did what he did. This is hard, because Larry likes to understand WHY things happen. But even if, someday, Larry could get answers from Andy—even then, Larry realizes, he might get an incomplete answer. As Larry ponders the situation he eventually realizes that he needs to leave the WHY, and the eventual judgement of Andy, in God’s hands.
After living with the situation for a while, and going through steps 1, 2, 3 and 4 a number of times, Larry develops a tactic that helps him: when the feelings of anger, resentment and “wondering why” surface in his mind, he imagines himself putting the feelings, the decisions about how to behave, and all the reasons WHY into a manila file folder and handing it to God. Larry remembers that 1 Peter 2:23 had said that Jesus “left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly.” So Larry imagines leaving his case file in God’s hands. This imagery helps condense and shorten Larry’s times of wrestling with emotions and thoughts about the “Andy situation.”
You probably would love to know what happens with Larry—and Andy. But what happens to Larry—or Andy—is not the point. The point is that when Larry heard about Andy’s false accusation, he was able to put his natural emotional reaction “on pause,” go home and process his feelings, and choose how to behave in a God-honoring way. He was also able, in this challenging situation, to think through, on the basis of God’s Word, how he was going to continue to have his thoughts, actions and character colored by careful and conscious choices—not knee-jerk reactions.
This is how we can manage our feelings and behave the way God wants us to—which is healthy for us.
He is ready and waiting to help us.