The Appropriate Expression of Emotions

(Ecclesiastes 3:7-8 NKJV) A time to tear, And a time to sew; A time to keep silence, And a time to speak; {8} A time to love, And a time to hate; A time of war, And a time of peace.

Once we are in touch with our own emotions and the emotions of others we need to put those feelings into words so that they touch minds and hearts and minister the grace of Jesus Christ to the world. With Jesus as our model and some guidance from the Wisdom literature of Scripture we will look at how to speak and act with emotional understanding and appropriate expression.

Issues of Timing -There Is A Time

We are not free to just “let fly” with our emotions. According to Scripture there is an appropriate time for each and every form of emotional expression. This is not chronological time such as “at 3 pm you may weep” but event time linked to life events and happenings “at a funeral it is a good time to express sympathy”. An emotion “out of time” is jarring and unedifying and may even be cruel. Laughter at a pastor’s joke is appropriate; laughter at a person’s misfortune is not. Each expression of emotion has its time and place. Each is “beautiful in its time” (Eccl 3:11). Emotions in their time are truly of the Spirit and a blessing to others.

Generally our emotions should be matched to those around us so we “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15 ) Emotions should be congruent in both type and intensity. For instance if people are rejoicing loudly it is appropriate to rejoice loudly with them, if they are weeping quietly it is appropriate to weep quietly in sympathy. When Mary and Martha wept over Lazarus – Jesus also wept. In times of deep suffering and anguish silence can be the best counsel (Job 2:13). Culture, circumstances and social dynamics normally tell us what emotional expression is appropriate in any given situation but this can be modified by the Holy spirit from time to time.

People who get the social timing of emotional expression wrong can quickly become social outcasts. The classic comic figure is someone who always makes a mess of things in social situations. At the other extreme are people who always blend in perfectly. Such people may lack authenticity and become false and hypocritical, weakened morally by over-compliance with the norm. The “time to speak” is dictated ultimately by the Holy Spirit not social convention (though such conventions are useful and we should know them). Jesus and the prophets often seemed to be “speaking out of turn” in setting forth God’s message to their time and place. Others such as Ezra and Daniel seemed to fit much more closely into the warp and woof of their social situations.

However God calls us to speak we should remember that it is His interests we are serving with our every word and every expression of emotion. Our communication is to flow from the Spirit and be for the edification of others. It is not our own interests we serve or our own need for expressing ourselves. Ultimately love of God and love of neighbour should govern the expression and timing of our emotions. Lets look at a few Scriptural guidelines on how we can do this.

Issues of Intensity - Being Strong With The Strong And Weak With The Weak

We need to match our emotional expression with the strength of the person and the depth of the spiritual needs of those around us. When Jesus spoke to people who strong, hard and stubborn he was strong and harsh and direct (Matthew 23:1-10). On the other hand with the broken and hurting he was so gentle that it could be said of Him “ a bruised reed He will not break” (Isaiah 42:3). Paul makes the puzzling statement “with the weak I became weak” (1 Corinthians 9:22). This means that Paul did not overwhelm weak souls with his powerful personality. Instead Paul measured the strength of his reactions to what the person needed and could take. Paul also tells us to “uphold the weak and be patient with all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and that no-one was weak without him becoming weak (2 Corinthians 11:29). On the other hand when Peter was in error this same Paul “withstood him to his face” (Galatians 2:11). The revivalist Charles Finney used to classify sinners into “hardened”, “awakened” and “penitent” each requiring a different approach from the evangelist.

We see a good example of this principle early on in the book of 1 Samuel when Hannah is weeping before the Lord (1 Samuel 1:9-18). Eli the high priest at first sternly rebuked Hannah thinking she was drunk. It was a “strong” response – and in this case it was inappropriate. On realising that Hannah was pouring out her soul before the Lord Eli changed from a “strong” to a “weak” or gentle response. He became conciliatory and replied “may the Lord grant your petition”. In doing this Eli adjusted his emotional expression to suit the spiritual needs of the situation. Eli was big enough to admit his mistake and adjust his response.

We are to be both priest and prophet. Is the person strong and hard and do they need to be brought to repentance? Then be strong and speak like a prophet. Are they troubled in soul like Hannah - then minister grace like a priest.

Issues of Place - Private and Public Emotion

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul writes about the use of the gift of tongues saying that private tongues were for private moments and not for the general worship service. This established the principle that only things that are edifying to the church as a whole should be brought into the public domain. Private spiritual and emotional experiences may be very helpful to the person in private – but they are not for general public consumption.

In church life we have different levels of sharing, that which we share with God alone, and that which we share without our family and close friends, that which share with a cell group and that which will share with the general public. As a rule of thumb the higher the level of emotion the more private the sharing should be. Emotional sharing is restricted to where it can safely edify the people who hear. Even between Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper Jesus said "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” (John 16:12) He limited His most intimate sharing to what the disciples could cope with and be edified by.

The principle of “for the edification of all” needs to be carefully weighed up when there is sharing of intimate personal testimonies, or the use of the prophetic and the visionary and even during times of passionate intercessory prayer in a known language. I know a woman who is a powerful and prophetic intercessor who groans and travails before God. Unfortunately her private travail, her pain, her anger, and her righteous indignation are voiced with such deep intensity in the evening service that people are not edified but only embarrassed. This has caused many to leave that service or even find another church. It is the right emotion in the wrong place. While it is deeply sincere and not sinful as such, it is simply not edifying or helpful. Her emotional outpouring that has its place before the throne of God in private is out of place in a general worship service. Powerful private emotions, even when they are holy emotions, are not for general public consumption. Lets see how even Jesus and the apostles observed this rule.

Much to the frustration of bible scholars and students of prayer, Jesus never revealed publicly the nature of His private prayer times with the Father. Neither did He reveal to His disciples much about His dreams and visions or describe in any detail His experience of the spiritual world. Also Paul was very reticent in describing what was probably his most powerful spiritual experience in 2 Corinthians 12. Scholars still debate whether this was Paul’s experience or that of someone he knew. If Jesus and Paul and the apostles were highly reticent to speak about their private spiritual experiences and if countless great men and women of God since have shared their reticence perhaps we should be very careful about expressing these sorts of things in public. I am especially careful about the expression of private dreams and visions or the numerous accounts of trips to Heaven or Hell. In Colossians Paul sternly warns Christians about people who take their stand on visions they have seen and depart from the Head, which is Christ (Colossians 2:18,19).

The exception to this is in small groups where intimacy has developed over time and permission for deep sharing is an understood part of the group dynamics. Those who followed David in the wilderness, the 12 disciples of Jesus and the various missionary companions of Paul are Scriptural examples of small groups that seemed to have lived and shared at a very deep level. Cell groups, bible studies and 12 Step groups are all places where sharing and emotional expression can go deeper for Christians. We all need outlets for our deep emotions and while friends and family should provide this, often they do not do it very well so some alternative structures need to be created. If our private world fails us we cannot just take our overwhelming emotions public. They need to be shared in private with a counsellor, a therapy group or a small group that will willingly accept emotions at that level and keep them in confidence. It is simply not safe to share yourself in public with a fallen world, which is not committed to respecting you and your privacy.

How can we know what is appropriate expression of emotions and spiritual experiences? Firstly we need to ask does it match the emotional tone and volume of the group. Is the sharing much more intense than what other people are sharing? Is it much “deeper” than the group normally copes with? Is it in a tone of voice that is much louder and strident than the other sharing? Is it about matters that other people cannot cope with or have no personal experience of? Are people looking awkward and embarrassed? Are you expecting people who hardly know you to act as family or close friends, or even to be therapeutic for you?

Secondly we need to ask if God meant us to share it in the first place. With some visions God told people to “seal up the scroll”, and yet others were to be announced. When the seven thunders spoke the apostle John was not allowed to write down what they said. (Revelation 10:3,4) but to Ezekiel God said, "Son of man, eat what you find; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel." (Ezekiel 3:1). We need permission from God to share our dreams and visions and without that permission the general rule should be to keep quiet and wait on God for His timing for that revelation.

Thirdly we need to spiritually evaluate that which we think the Lord has told us to share especially if it has a high emotional content. Often the best thing to do is to carefully write down exactly what you think God wants you to say – just as the prophets wrote down their revelations. Then wait on it in prayer for at least 48 hours. The finally share it with two or three others that you trust and who can help you if you have accidentally said something that is not quite in line with Scripture. Many churches have the policy that all prophecy should be passed by the elders before being aired in public and this seems to prevent much abuse of the prophetic.

Fourthly we need to be careful about the presence of young people and those with more sensitive and impressionable dispositions. Some horrifying sermon illustrations (especially one about a father letting his son be killed in a swing bridge to save a passing train) are so emotional that they can only be described as manipulative. These can scare young people in the congregation leaving them with distorted views of God and church. Sermons need to be G-rated when children are present.

Fifthly ministers need to be extremely careful about sharing intimate or sensational information, especially that of a sexual nature, from the pulpit. There are certain lines we need to draw when dealing with social evils and Paul refuses to comment about certain gross perversions that “should not even be mentioned among the saints” (1 Corinthians 5:1, Ephesians 5:3). Sensational and vivid material is seldom edifying unless it is masterfully handled. It tends to spark unhealthy associations, start rumours, and lead to idle curiosity or inform people about things they are better off being ignorant about. Confessions in particular should only be made to God alone or to highly trusted and confidential others. If some details have to go public because of the public nature of the offence they should be kept to an edifying minimum.

Finally deep emotions should only be shared when there is genuine trust already present – not to elicit trust or as an act of manipulation. Some clever people share their emotions in a way that gets people in. They use emotional sharing to build trust – which they later violate. Proper emotional sharing is built on pre-existing trust and is not a tool to manipulate others with.

Once we have the timing of our emotional expression right and decided on how private or public it is to be we then need to make sure that we deliver a clear, unambiguous and balanced message.

Issues of Balance – Ensuring You Get Both Parts Of Your Message Across
Emotions are often mixed and in order to express them clearly we need to give a picture of all the emotions involved in a particular situation and their relative strengths. For instance consider a Christian father watching his daughter go out on her first date with a godly young man from the church youth group. He may say something like:

“Jill, Steven is a good choice and I am pleased that you have chosen to go out with him and not some other guy. He is a guy of real character and I am sure he will treat you well. However that skirt you have chosen is a bit too daring. I know it is your first date and you want to be attractive but I want you to change it right now. I also want you back here by 10:00 pm and no later. That will make sure that your Mum and I can feel that you have a responsible attitude to dating and we can trust you in the future. Have a good night and have fun and don’t forget to pray. I hope you enjoy the movie it sure sounds good.”

Here the father is expressing a wide range of concerns each in balance with the others giving a coherent message. The anxiety is not out of balance with the love and the clear rules are set in a general context of approval, care and concern. This is what I call the “light and shadow” technique. It involves expressing all aspects of an issue, its boundaries, the light and the dark and the various contrasts so it cannot fail to be understood.

Often I use the phrases “I am saying” and “I am not saying..” e.g. “I am saying you need to redo that work, but I am not saying that you are a bad employee. I continue to value your services.” By giving the contrasts, by clearly stating what you are saying and what you are not saying, the message is made completely clear and misunderstanding is removed. The concerned father in the illustration above may have just said “You are not going out in that skirt.” without any further explanation. If he had done so the daughter may have leaped to a range of rather dramatic and negative conclusions. By including the reassurances, and placing things in context, potential misunderstanding and conflict was avoided. Paul often uses this technique in his epistles where he reassures the church of his prayers, love and concern and then firmly corrects a wide range of issues.

This use of the “light and shadow” technique takes a while to master. First of all you have to know the main fears of the other person and then you have to possess the courage to address them directly. For instance in getting someone to do some very sub-standard work again you might say “This work is well below your best George and I’m disappointed the you produced it. You are in no danger of being fired but I very much want you to lift your game and to do this over again. I value your work and I think highly of the contributions you have made in the past but this is just not good enough. I am sure you will do a better job this time around.” The obvious fears of dismissal and of being thought incompetent are addressed and reassurance given. At the same time the message that it is not good enough is clearly and firmly conveyed.

This raises one of the trickiest questions in human communication – how much emotional truth can we tell in a given situation? We may have the timing right, the choice of audience (private or public) correct, a balanced and tactful statement but how much do we tell people about the emotional truth of the situation?

Issues of Emotional Truth – Why Not Fake It Till We Make It?
Is not some pretence a normal and even an essential part of life? What about people who are in constrained social roles such as an archbishop or mayor where a high degree of emotional control is required? Do you really want an emotionally honest policeman during a crisis? Aren’t we supposed to be joyful, so what’s so wrong about faking a bit of enthusiasm?

Christians do not express emotions for mere impression management, or for personal catharsis under the guise of authenticity. Emotions are expressed for the glory of God, for the edification of His people and or the love of one’s neighbour. Thus a policeman in a crisis will not vent his or her feelings but maintain good emotional control and a professional demeanour as that is the right, loving and most edifying course of action in a crisis. Contrary to some pop psychology books this is not repression. It is in fact responsible Christian emotional management. It is not pretence; it is self-control.

Pretence is when you pretend to be experiencing an emotion that you do not really have within you. Self-control is when you bring a real and existing emotion into line with God’s will. Faking it till we make it tends only to produce good actors and skilful hypocrites. False emotion ends up deluding people and eroding our morality. We cannot lie about our emotional state without lying about ourselves and the danger is coming to believe the lie and losing touch with ourselves forever. On the other hand should we not be so in love with “total sincerity” that we answer the question “how are you?” with a list of woes and complaints!

Our emotions should be true and not false but they should also be appropriate and edifying. We are to express true emotions that are modulated by the circumstances, timing and needs of the situation. We think before we emote. We aim to edify, to be appropriate, to inject those feelings into the situation that encourage, uplift or console. We balance truth with grace, bringing both to bear on the situation. Jesus did not retreat from expressing emotion, His emotions were real and authentic and spiritual. There was a solid and appropriate truth about them. Yet they conveyed grace and fitted the moment perfectly.

Thus we should never fake an emotion except if you are actually an actor. Christian emotion is to be real, but it is also to be self-controlled. The emotion revealed should fit the circumstances, and it should edify others. If I am boiling mad nothing is gained by “being honest”. I am far better off maintaining self-control. But neither should I fake happiness in order to disguise my anger. That ends up being self-distorting and untruthful. God is self-revealing but He is also self-concealing! He reveals the truth about Himself, a bit at a time, as we can manage and cope with. He does not reveal all of Himself at once. Similarly, we need to reveal the truth about ourselves, so we cannot pretend emotionally, but we need to fit that truth to what others can bear.


In this chapter we have seen that there is a proper time for very emotion and that this is an “event time” not a clock time. We also saw that emotions have a proper intensity that depends on the person – being strong with the strong and weak with the weak. Emotions they have their proper audiences and private emotions belong in private. We have also seen a little on how to balance emotions in our speech and how to express them wisely and truthfully for the glory of God and the edification of others. Much more about appropriate emotional expression can be learned by observing people of integrity in your own culture and surroundings. Watch how they handle situations and how the delicate balances are achieved, what is said and what is left out, how they encourage and how they rebuke and how they carry the image of Jesus in their behavior. The final chapter will be about love. After all is not that what we are aiming at as we express our emotions?

Discussion Questions

1. Read Ecclesiastes 3:1-11, what does it tell you about the timing of emotional expression?

2. How forceful should we be with people? What does it mean to be strong with the strong and weak with the weak? Have you ever been in a situation like Eli where you have realized that you have needed to change your approach?

3. How openly can we share our emotions? Which emotions are best kept private?

4. “Let everything be done for the edification of others.” How does this principle affect the way we communicate personally? How does the principle affect how we should communicate in church?

5. List some ways in which misunderstandings can cause big problems. How can using the “light and shadow technique” help avoid this? Use the light and shadow technique as you tackle the following problem “Some good natured but rather active teenagers sit down the back of the church, nudge each other and are a bit playful during services though not in a bad way. Some of the crusty members of the church are affronted by this and have come demanding that something be done. You need to say something to both groups here. What do you say and how do you say it?

6. Should we fake it till we make it? Why not?