Everyone has emotions. The question is: Do they have you? Are you the head, or have you mostly been the tail? Do your emotions feel like a pack of wild dogs that require a lot of effort just keeping them under control, or are they like a herd of reindeer moving as one? If they’re like wild dogs, your first need is for recovery. If they’re like the reindeer, you have already passed into mastery. Learning how to get free of negative emotions (past or present) will get anyone there. That’s the beginning stage—the ABCs—of emotional intelligence.
It astonishes me that emotions have the power to overrule our better judgment and drive our lives entirely off the track, yet few of us were ever instructed in the ways of the heart when we were growing up. Perhaps the older folks didn’t know what to say; perhaps they thought we would figure things out on our own. Wrong! I have worked for years with people who don’t have a clue why they have the emotions that besiege them, or what to do with them to get free. I was in that camp myself, so this is far more than an academic interest: I had a lot to learn, if I was ever going to come out from under mountains of emotional chaos and confusion.
The great thing is that emotional intelligence can be learned. We can actually recover from past emotional damage and learn how to successfully manage our emotions in the present. This is of paramount importance to anyone who is living jammed up with negative emotions, rather than the peace and freedom that are available. Interestingly, it is also of crucial importance for those of us who have responsibilities in the workaday world for emotional intelligence (EQ) rivals IQ as a predictor of success in business.
Four Sections of the Basics
In this article we’re going to look at the chaos agents of the emotional life—negative emotions—and seek to understand them from a thoroughly Christian point of view. Then I’ll lay down seven principles of emotional intelligence. We’ll close by looking at the difference between recovery and mastery. These basics will help you make real progress in “taming” your emotional life!
1) What Is Emotional Intelligence?
2) What Are the Negative Emotions?
3) Seven ABCs of Emotional Intelligence
4) From Recovery to Mastery
What Is Emotional Intelligence?
Psychologist Daniel Goleman’s 1995 international bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, drew tremendous attention to this field, especially from the world of business. Andrew Coleman gives the following definition.
Emotional intelligence (EI) or emotional quotient (EQ) is the capacity of individuals to recognize their own, and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different feelings and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior. A Dictionary of Psychology, Oxford University Press
A person with emotional intelligence, therefore, has the ability to understand their own emotions as well as those of others and can act appropriately using those emotions. Understanding one’s own emotions (and what to do with them) is a necessary first step forward towards understanding the emotions of others. For now it is enough to know that once you begin to gain mastery in your own emotional life, a lot of the mystery about other people’s emotions will evaporate. We are not nearly as different as it seems.
Emotions can be conveniently separated into “positive” and “negative” emotions. This is something that we all instinctively do, though we don’t necessarily get the dividing line set in the right places. Psychology tends to take the approach that all emotions have a positive value and that we need to learn how to manage them. I’m going to make the Christian case that certain emotions were never meant to be in us in the first place and that what we need to do is not manage them, but eliminate them when they show up. Furthermore, we have the best Counselor in the world—Jesus—to help us do just that!
In Christian terms, therefore, emotional intelligence includes the ability to exercise sovereignty over one’s own emotional state, carrying every negative emotion (that seeks dominance) captive to Christ and being restored to confidence, trust and peace—His emotional life. Carrying negative emotions captive, exercising sovereignty over them and gaining your release back into the marvelous peace of Christ may be hard work, but it is certainly a sign of intelligence to do it. Like anything worthwhile it requires effort and perseverance to gain the ability. This is why the Lord tells us to keep our hearts with “all diligence.”
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. Proverbs 4:23 NKJV
What Are the Negative Emotions?
The negative emotions are those that are unhealthy for both our inner life and our physical bodies. (See Spiritual Roots of Disease.) Generally speaking we don’t like them because they don’t feel right, but this gets murky around the edges. To see the negative emotions in the clearest light we need to look at the positive ones first, for there is a set of emotions that we were created to live by and a whole other set that we fell into.
The truly good emotions are listed for us in Galatians 5:22: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (self-restraint).” Other emotions such as gratitude, adoration and right desires could be added to this list. The Bible calls these the fruit of the Spirit. I call them the emotional life of Jesus. Now that He lives inside us, His emotional life (supporting our own) is an ever-present possibility for us to experience. But that means that there are other emotions—ones that He would never have—which we are not meant to dwell with either.
Many of the negative emotions that distress us are fallen, distorted versions of the positive ones that God created us with when He first made us in His image. There is, therefore, a higher purer form of jealousy, hatred, and vengeance than we will ever know. But there is no higher form of lust, gluttony, bitterness, despair, conceit, etc. Some of the negative emotion may even feel good to us at times (like lust), but there is nothing good about them—they have no “higher” side. Try imagining Jesus in any particular emotion and you will immediately see either its rightness or its wrongness. This is our unfailing test of what is right for us now that He lives in us.
There are, however, a few healthy emotions that we may think are negative ones because we don’t like the way they feel. One is godly fear. It is an awe of God’s majesty and a reverence for His person which can become dread in His presence. However, being afraid of God—of what He may do, or require—is a craven, unhealthy fear which needs to go. There is also immediate danger fear which alerts us for instant response to situations of perceived peril. This fear is only “good” while the threat is present—at other times fear is a sign of distrust in God and unbelief.
Righteous anger would quality as a good emotion, if we were ever actually experiencing it. Such anger is never directed at a person (as our ungodly anger almost always is), but at sin itself or the enemy. Guilt, too, is good, but only so long as it is accurate and we are unrepentant. Once we have repented, guilt feelings are always scoundrels we should eject! Finally, pure grief should be mentioned, because our Lord sorrows too, but never as one without hope. Once grief becomes detached from hope, it easily becomes contaminated with negative emotions, such as anger, despair, and guilt. In their pure form and in the right context these five emotions are all good to have whenever they show up and serve a wholesome purpose.
From a medical point of view all the truly negative emotions are stressors to the body. As such they can be extremely damaging to our physical health. From a Christian point of view they also represent something that is injurious to our spiritual health. They are sins. Now this may seem like adding to the bad news: The negative emotions which we don’t like feeling in the first place are also sins, separating us from God! Isn’t this very bad news indeed?
No, it is good news, because it shows us there is a way out, both from disease and from the entrapment of negative emotions. If the negative emotions, causing us so much loss of peace and joy as well as health, are actually things in our personality that God has given us and wants us to have, then we are stuck with them—and the diseases they induce. But if they are sins then He has provided a way of freedom. That way of freedom will become clear once we look at the ABCs of emotional intelligence.
Seven ABCs of Emotional Intelligence
Negative emotions are definitely a commonplace source of dis-ease (as well as disease), but we can learn how to overcome them. Remember, EQ, unlike IQ, can be learned. You don’t have to be dominated by your emotions. You can learn to exercise true sovereignty over them and live in the Spirit. Study these seven building blocks of emotional intelligence, then put them to work!
1) We are sovereigns over our own hearts. Not even God is in charge of your heart. You are! Everyone has been given a realm of authority where they can exercise “kingly” power. It’s right there on the inside of us. Our hearts hold tremendous power for good or ill. Out of them flow the issues of life. Our minds may know right from wrong, but unless we learn the secret of ruling our hearts, we will fall prey to wrong choices empowered by emotions ruling over us instead. The first step to emotional freedom is realizing the power you have been given by God to “guard” your heart (Proverbs 4:23).
2) We can rule over our emotions. Emotions are so powerful as motivators and guides that they need a lot of looking after. Left to itself your emotional state will tend to overrule your reason, will and right desires. That doesn’t have to happen! We have been given the power of choice and the name of Jesus to call upon for help. For the most part no one can help the emotions that go off inside of them—that’s just a reflection of things going on deeper inside. Don’t waste time blaming others or yourself for what you are feeling. Take charge over your feelings and “banish” the ones you don’t want by carrying them as captives to Christ. You have that power.
3) No one else has power over your emotions. Nobody can put an emotion into you and keep it there. What they do may cause emotions to come up inside of us, but it always our choice if we are going to let them stay and pester us or drag them to the door. You can even reach the point where things that people say or do no longer have power to trigger any unwanted feelings in you. That’s real growth, but it won’t take place unless you grasp this principle that no one (and no circumstance) has power over your emotions, but you. God has made it that way so that nothing on earth can come between you and the peace, joy and freedom He desires you to enjoy with Him.
4) Don’t force your feelings or ignore them. As rulers of our hearts we are meant to be servant shepherds, not tyrants. We cannot “force” the ones we want to come or the ones we don’t want to go. That is the wrong way to try to exercise your sovereignty. Ruling over our heart is not a will-power contest. Nor is the victory gained by ignoring the emotions our hearts are generating. Don’t push down your feelings, pretending they aren’t there—that only makes them more powerful and harder to deal with. Instead, honestly listen to and recognize what you are feeling no matter how unsavory it is; then do the right thing with it. Our loving God is never ashamed or scandalized by the feelings we might be having, but it will grieve Him if fail to deal with them responsibly.
5) Listen to but don’t believe your feelings. It is important to be aware of what our feelings are reporting to us, but it is even more important never to believe them without an inquest! Feelings are flagrant liars. Without exception all negative emotions are lying to you whenever they appear. Fear wants you to be afraid, or at least worried, but God says, “Fear not.” Who is lying? Hurt feeling want you to stay angry with someone, but God says, “Forgive.” Who is lying? Shame says you’re worthless, but God says “I love you.” Who is lying? And many positive emotions are no better! Desire wants to eat the whole bag of chips, but God says “Moderation is best.” Who’s lying? There is a message worth listening to contained in the emotions we have, but it is rarely the one on the surface seeking our immediate attention (see point 6).
6) Your deepest beliefs control your feelings. Feelings don’t drop in on us out of the blue. They spring up from things that we deeply believe. Many of the beliefs which generate our feelings—especially the negative ones—got planted in us in our earliest years, or during times of trauma. Without realizing what we were doing, we entered into deep agreements with the fallen nature about how to respond to people and situations. These core beliefs are now hidden from sight. Our present emotional reactions reveal what this fallen side of our heart still believes. That past programming will hold our emotional life captive unless we learn to fight back. These beliefs can be changed by prayer and by carrying our negative emotions as captives to Christ.
7) Freedom comes through believing truth. The trouble is that it is never good enough to recognize a truth with our minds. Our hearts have to be persuaded as well! How is that accomplished? First, recognize the emotion you are feeling. If it is a negative one that needs to go, grab it and carry it to Christ. This is not a will power contest between you and your feelings. It is a truth encounter in which you choose by an act of your will to agree with God. In the light of Christ we see the inner lie exposed (as in “You’re right, I don’t need to be afraid, I need to settle down and trust You.”). Then we renounce our agreement with that negative emotion and ask the Lord to break its power over us. In this way we choose to believe what He tells us to believe and do what He shows us to do. Eventually, the thoughts of our heart give way to the new believing and our emotions shift.
What you really believe and therefore what you feel is between you and God. No one, not even God, can change your emotions or your beliefs without your permission. Your will is free. You are free. So, when you notice that your emotional state is being robbed of peace, don’t be passive like a department store “dummy.” Exercise your emotional intelligence by carrying every negative emotion (that seeks to dominate you) captive to Christ and be restored to confidence, peace and freedom—His emotional life.
For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but mighty before God to the throwing down of strongholds, throwing down imaginations and every high thing that is exalted against the knowledge of God, and bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:4-5 WEB
In carrying our emotions to Christ, how quickly can an emotional state be shifted? In a nanosecond! How can we speed up the shift of our emotional state? By getting our eyes back on something about the Lord that releases us from the grip of the negative emotion and re-empowers us to keep our focus on Him. Just imagine Jesus showing up right now. Would seeing His love for you shift your emotional state? Of course it would. Well, our eyes of faith enable us to see Jesus—and get the shift—whenever we exercise them. We call this “Getting the Look that Gives the Shift.”
LIFE SUPPORT: I’ve prepared A Check List for Building Emotional Intelligence (One page PDF) to help you walk your heart through these lessons the next time you get tangled up in those pesky negative emotions. It’s free—download here.]
From Recovery to Mastery
When the peace of Christ enters our hearts it feels so good and liberating that we merrily float above all our old feelings. Eventually, however, we discover that our former host of negative emotions keeps showing up and dragging us down! To stay in Christ’s peace we have to first learn how to get recovery over past issues that wounded us; then, we can use these same “tools” to gain mastery over our emotions in the present. Where our inner state is concerned, there are two great assignments which are actually gracious invitations to experience the surpassing vitality of new life in Christ:
1) Restoration: Preparing our inward state to hold up under the pressures of daily life requires recovery of the natural grace that got lost along the way. For countless reasons—not least of which is getting free of the pain—we need to recover from any emotional brokenness emanating from our past. But there is another level…
2) Mastery: As we learn to manage our emotional life, we not only receive freedom from the past, but we gain the graced ability to reign with wisdom over our own emotions, making it possible to live even the most active or embattled days with deep peace and Spirit-led resourcefulness!
By a process of recovery leading to mastery we can experience our own life, no matter how damaged initially, becoming just what Jesus described to Nicodemus so long ago: weightless and free. Being “born again” is only the entry point. Those who learn this new way of yielding to His Spirit will become like leaves floating on the wind:
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
We truly can learn how to be lifted and carried by the river of peace that God is sending our way each day. Being born again ushers us into the new life; the Holy Spirit within us provides the power to live the new life. He is the River of Peace. Are you only experiencing trickles and puddles of that peace?
Our free online eCourse for Healing will show you how to bring your heart to God and how to receive His Heart for you. That is the essence of the Great Exchange—our dis-grace for His grace—and it is always available for us to access through the faith He has given us. Take these lessons to heart, learn the way of the heart, and the peace will soon become a slender, steady stream. Persevere and it will grow into a mighty river leading you into great adventures in company with your Lord.
One Day it will carry you all the way to God’s throne in heaven!
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