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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

Your Emotions Are Not a Sin: And Why You Have More Agency than You Realize.

(Learn about how your emotions are the expression of your physiological state that communicates a physical, psychological, social, or spiritual need; how you can learn to appreciate your emotions; and how to develop a stronger sense of agency in responding to your emotional state.)


Emotions tend to invoke a pretty strong response: either you hate them or love them. Obviously, that’s an overgeneralization, but you get my point. Certain people love to spend time understanding the emotions of themselves and others, learning about emotional intelligence, and willingly express their emotions to others. Other people (*ahem, past and sometimes current me*), loathe the fact that they have emotions. They view emotions as a nuisance at best, and at worst, as a bane of their existence.


Likewise, we tend to view certain emotions as “better” or more valuable than others. These are the emotions often labeled as “positive” or “good” emotions, like: happiness, joy, love, relaxation, excitement, contentment, etc. These emotions are viewed as superior to the “negative” or “bad” emotions, such as: depression, hopelessness, anxiety, shame, anger, jealousy, etc.


Furthermore, the Church has long been co-opted and complicit in this cultural game against our emotions. From the days of the early Church, which was influenced by the Stoics and Greek philosophers, who feared “passions” and emotions because of their impact on your reason and logic, to certain current Christian denominations and theological influences that teach that your feelings are sinful, the message that continues to be perpetuated is that if you even FEEL a particular feeling (i.e. often of of those “negative” emotions) then you are inherently sinning. Just for feeling it.


In and of themselves: your emotions are not sinful. Rather, they are a signal trying to communicate a message and a need.


To make sure we’re defining the terms and that we're on the same page, let’s take a quick look at what an “emotion” or “feeling” actually means. One of the definition that best captures the meaning of an emotion states:


“An emotional response originates with a perception of the environment that triggers an neurological response” (Lester, 2003).


Meaning: your feeling of “anger” or “sadness”, etc. is actually a composite of physiological reactions and visceral states that are a result of a change in your external or internal environment. (Think about it: how do you know that you’re angry? Your awareness of your “emotion” of anger often begins with a felt sensation or visceral experience [i.e. red face, clenched fist/jaw, racing heart, etc.]).


Well, if having a physiological reaction to a change in your environment is sinful, then we’re all in trouble.


I’d like to offer an alternative perspective and some hope. What if:


To feel depressed is not a sin.


To feel hopeless is not a sin.


To feel anxiety is not a sin.


To feel shame is not a sin.


To feel anger is not a sin.


To feel jealous is not a sin.


...need I go on?


In fact, each of these emotional states serve as a signal to you that something in your environment has made you aware of a physical, psychological, social, or spiritual need. Meaning, that we can actually begin to appreciate our emotions, rather than resent or repress them, as they serve as an indicator that we need to take effective action to appropriately respond to or meet a real, felt need.


Now, where the power of sin and brokenness is involved is in how we respond to this initial signal that our bodies communicate to us.


  • What is your view of yourself when you feel depressed? Do you tell yourself that you’re worthless and of no good? Do you then seek to numb this feeling with food, alcohol, sex, or endless scrolling on social media?

  • What about when you feel anxious? Do you desperately grasp and seek to find a way to exert your influence in spaces and places where you actually don’t have agency?

  • What about your anger? Does it cause you to lash out to others? Do you get verbally, emotionally, or physically aggressive? Does your anger turn inwards and cause you to stew in bitterness, resent, and loathing of self and others?


The power of sin and separation from God can hinder how we appropriately respond to our emotional state and underlying felt need. However, just because you have an emotion or a need does not mean in and of itself you are actively “engaging in sin.” It means you live in a broken world that is subject to pain, suffering, and imperfection, and that you are human.


If this message resonates with you, yet you’re unsure where to begin or how to take effective action and response to your emotional state, here’s a few recommendations for you:


  1. Spend some time researching the role of emotions in the Christian Scriptures. In particular, how does God and the person of Jesus engage in or experience those “negative” emotions? This was a particularly powerful exercise for me that decreased the shame I held around the specific emotions of anger, grief, etc.

  2. Read the book “The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counseling” by Richard Lester. While his book specifically addresses the role of anger in the Church, his research, observations, and recommendations are applicable to the experience of any emotion and provide a nuanced, theologically and neurologically sound perspective of how to engage with emotions.

  3. Thinking about starting counseling? Finding a counselor who can make space for your emotions, yet who can also equip you to learn skills and techniques in how to respond to your emotions (even if it’s as simple as learning to notice your emotional state) can support you in your journey towards emotional AND spiritual health.

May you feel permission to have, see, and experience your emotions. May you feel permission to be a broken human in progress of redemption, restoration, and reconciliation to yourself, others, and God.


Click here to learn more about how I can support you in your counseling journey or to schedule an initial free consultation.


Resources

Lester, A. D. (2003). The angry Christian: A theology for care and counseling. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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