Proverbs On Emotions

The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the bones.
—Proverbs 15:30

The book of Proverbs is God our Father coaching us in newness of life. What does gospel newness look like, specifically and practically, including our emotions? And why not emotions? God is emotional. Look at Jesus. He was God among us, and he was emotional.[1] He had to be emotional. Emotion is part of humility. Jesus did not stand aloof but got involved. One of the ideals of the Stoics was apaqeia, freedom from emotion, living above all that. Jesus would have failed as a Stoic. The Bible says, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). He entered in wholeheartedly, to redeem our fallen emotions.

How do we see real emotion, perfect emotion, in Christ? In many ways. But his primary feeling in this world was compassion. He looked at the rich young man and loved him (Mark 10:21). He was moved with pity by the leper (Mark 1:41). He wept over Lazarus (John 11:35). He wailed over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). He sighed over the deaf man (Mark 7:34). Jesus cared deeply, and he still does today. Wherever the gospel goes, people’s compassion is aroused. Paul wrote, “I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:8). The heart of Christ melted this stuck-up Pharisee’s heart with yearning and affection. And today the emotions of the risen Christ are flowing into Nashville through us as we humble ourselves and get involved. Gospel emotions are a vital part of the display of Christ to our city. Emotions are a major way we create a gospel culture here at Immanuel Church, where people can experience a compassion that comes from God.

But Jesus felt more than tenderness and compassion. He also got angry. He got angry at the Pharisees. He was “grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). When his own disciples wanted to shoo the children away, he was irritated, and he showed it (Mark 10:14). He was angrily offended at death when he stood at the grave of a friend (John 11:33, 38). He busted up the moneychangers in the temple (John 2:13-17), and the Bible says he made the whip himself. So it wasn’t a mere outburst. He meant it. He called people pigs (Matthew 7:6). He called people hypocrites (Matthew 15:7). He called people wolves (Matthew 7:15). Jesus never wavered in openly resenting what’s wrong with our world.

But he went beyond anger at wrong. He also suffered for it. It’s why the Bible calls him a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3). He took our sorrows as his own. He didn’t have to, but emotional vulnerability is part of the price love is willing to pay. His heart was tormented in his Passion. He said, “Now is my soul troubled” (John 12:27), “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:37-38). On the cross he felt the flames of hell, he smelled the smoke of hell. But he endured the cross for a reason, and that reason was the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:2). The Bible says that Jesus was anointed with the oil of gladness above his companions (Psalm 45:7). In other words, he was the happiest man around. The Bible says he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21). That’s high octane joy. He told us why he came: “. . . that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). He did not come to give us an emotionless ethic; he came to give us the fullness of his joy. He did not come into this world with a burning sense of wrong but with a happy sense of mission. And he lived in close fellowship with God all the way.[2] How could Jesus not be a happy man? I want you to see Jesus Christ in all the fullness of his personal magnitude and beauty. It’s who he is today, right now.

Jesus lived for us, in our place, the perfect human life, with every emotion in alignment with God. And here in the book of Proverbs, we have his wisdom for our emotions – our turbulent emotions, our negative emotions, our dead emotions, our distorted emotions. We need the emotional life of Christ, and he wants to give it to us.

Our basic weakness, our flaw, our foolishness is what the New Testament calls “desire.” For example, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire, when it has conceived, gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). The word there for “desire” means something like “emotion in overdrive.” It is the death-creating power inside us, in our wacko emotions. Let’s never think that just because we feel something honestly and effortlessly and sincerely that therefore it’s an okay feeling. We sinners sin honestly and naturally. We don’t have to try. But the gospel remedy is not zero emotion. If Christ finds us and receives us as emotional jungles, he doesn’t turn us into emotional deserts. He cultivates us as emotional gardens, with life and color and order, where our drivenness and compulsiveness are redeemed into a holy and beautiful freedom and intensity. That’s the gospel emotion Christ gives by grace. If you are out of control, or dead inside, give yourself to Christ today. His heart is open to you right now. Let’s open ourselves now to his wisdom.

Fear and boldness

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
—Proverbs 1:7

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
—Proverbs 9:10

The wicked flee when no one pursues,
but the righteous are bold as a lion.
—Proverbs 28:1

One of the reasons we don’t fear the Lord enough is that we fear people too much. We fear their disapproval. We get our okayness from the pingbacks we sense from other people. But wisdom redirects our hunger for approval. Whose approval will really satisfy us? If God approves of us up front on terms of grace, that satisfies. If you are in Christ today, God wants you to know that your relationship with God tomorrow is pre-approved. God will correct you, as need may be, but he will not reject you, because Christ won God’s approval for you. That assurance draws our hearts on toward him. The Bible says that when we are filled with spiritual wisdom, our goal changes; we want to be “fully pleasing to him” (Colossians 1:9-10). We’d like to please everybody. But we must please him. That’s the fear of the Lord. Wouldn’t it be great to stop fearing people so much?

Here’s how. If the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the fear of man is the beginning of folly. Let’s all admit, that’s a real problem among us here in Music City USA. We’re always performing, hoping for applause. Then we’ll be successful, then we can feel good about our lives. We even perform in front of ourselves, in the theater of our minds. We’re going onstage to build emotional capital from human approval. But it’s all false. What if they find out what frauds we really are? We have a religion here in Nashville. Our god is human approval. Our heaven is the spotlight. Our hell is bad reviews. Our ritual of worship is keeping up appearances. We have the wrong fear. And it’s the beginning, the entry point, the thin edge of the wedge, for folly. Living a lie hollows us out. We end up so insecure, we flee when no one is even pursuing us – always fugitives, never settled and at peace.

To fear the Lord means his opinion is the only one that finally matters to our hearts. And he promises his approval through Christ. He doesn’t leave us on-stage. He puts Christ on stage and says to us, “His performance is your review. You can stop posing. You can stop fearing exposure. You can stop looking back over your shoulder and worrying about the sins of yesterday. You can know for certain today and never doubt that goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, because of Christ.” If you fear the Lord enough to let that gospel satisfy you, you will be bold and confident and valiant as a lion, like Christ himself.

Anger and restraint

Hatred stirs up strife,
but love covers all offenses.
—Proverbs 10:12

Good sense makes one slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense.
—Proverbs 19:11

A man of wrath stirs up strife,
and one given to anger causes much transgression.
—Proverbs 29:22

Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding,
but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.
—Proverbs 14:29

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty,
and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.
—Proverbs 16:32

We all feel anger, and not all anger is wrong. In fact, the closer we get to Christ, the angrier we’ll get at real evil. We are cowards and compromisers by nature. We need holy anger, if we’re going to represent the real Jesus to our city today. But it is so hard to sort out which anger is good and which is bad, isn’t it? The book of Proverbs helps us get to the point. What do we do with our anger?

The anger that is hatred stirs up strife. The word translated “strife” in Proverbs 10:12 has to do with judgments, opinions. It’s when someone walks up and demands of you, “So what do you think about __________?” – as if you’re expected to have a strong opinion. But wisdom is not intimidated. Wisdom asks, “Why should I feel intensely about that issue? And why does anybody need my opinion? Why are we even talking about this? Is this issue the gospel?” Twitter and blogs and emails would be cleared of much conflict, if we humbled our opinions before Christ. What are we here for? What does God want us to be stirring up? He says, stir one another up to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10:24).

Even if you’re angry for good reason – sometimes there is real provocation – still, it’s a glory to overlook a personal offense (Proverbs 19:11). We have a higher standard than getting even. Our standard is glory, because God is glorious. He overlooks our offenses because of the cross. He doesn’t embarrass us. He is above that. God is beautiful. There is more than one word in the Old Testament for “glory,” and this word means beauty. This word is used to describe beautiful clothing (Isaiah 52:1), beautiful jewels (Ezekiel 16:17), a beautiful city (Isaiah 28:1), and the beauty of God (1 Chronicles 29:11). And he makes beautiful people who know how to ignore a slight. They judge themselves instead.

Anger is a judging emotion. Anger is our hearts feeling that something is wrong. And a lot is wrong. But wisdom brings this judging emotion itself under judgment. Fools unleash it without filtering it. In so doing, they exalt, they lift up for everyone to see, their own folly. But the wise rule their emotions with a nobility that outclasses world conquerors: “He who rules his spirit is better than he who takes a city.” Conquering a city is child’s play compared with ruling the turbulent, demanding, upset world inside us. The one is only the battle of a day. The other is the conflict of a lifetime.[3]

Here is how the gospel helps us rule our anger moment by moment – the doctrine of the wrath of God. Christ is coming again in wrath to punish all evil with terrible finality. That is the clear teaching of the Bible. It is a great resource for tolerance and patience right now. Miroslav Volf put it well: “The certainty of God’s just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it.”[4] If you really believe Christ will come in final and inescapable judgment, you don’t need to be anyone’s judge right now. Christ has all the wrath this world needs.

Jealousy and tranquility

Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming,
but who can stand before jealousy?
—Proverbs 27:4

Anger can be violent, but jealousy is worse. Here’s why. Anger at its best is reacting against something that is wrong. But jealousy is reacting against something that is right and good. If you wrong someone, they might forgive you. But if you’re better than someone, they might never forgive you. Jealousy is that bad. Cain killed Abel not because Abel had wronged him. “Why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:12-13). The Bible says it was out of envy that the enemies of Christ brought him down (Matthew 27:18). And the early church was persecuted because of jealousy (Acts 5:17; 13:45). Who can stand before jealousy? It will keep coming after you, until you come down to its level. If you refuse to knuckle under, it will punish you – and blame you for it all. This is one of the reasons we admire Paul. When he was put in prison and had to cancel all his preaching gigs, other preachers in the early church were glad. With Paul out of the way, they finally got the limelight. Was Paul jealous and resentful? He was happy, because Christ was being preached, even out of bad motives (Philippians 1:12-18). When Christ, not Self, is who matters most to us, it’s frees us to be happy even when we’re shoved aside, overlooked, passed by.

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
but envy makes the bones rot.
—Proverbs 14:30

Joseph Epstein’s book on envy says that, of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.[5] It decays not only the soul but also the body: “Envy makes the bones rot.” So how can you tell if envy is rotting you away? Ask yourself this. That person you resent – does it irritate you when they succeed, and would it make you happy to see them fall? When you look at that person, is all you can see what’s wrong with them and never what’s right about them? Of course, you and I are complex individuals. We can’t be understood without taking a lot of nuances into account. But everyone we envy – they’re easily categorized! Obviously, that is not the mind of Christ nor the spirit of the gospel nor the wisdom of Solomon. It is selfishness. And it’s no fun.

But let’s say the person you dislike really is horrible. Really. Some people are. Here is the wisdom of Christ for you:

Fret not yourself because of evildoers,
and be not envious of the wicked,
for the evil man has no future;
the lamp of the wicked will be put out.
—Proverbs 24:19-20

If anyone is truly evil and successful – we don’t envy losers – that brightly shining, impressive, formidable, evil person will be snuffed out and come to nothing under the judgment of Christ. Can you think of one evil person in all of history who ended up with a life you want for yourself? Can you name even one? Why do we fret? Why do we burn up inside with envy? Do we believe in Christ – really? Is his story big enough in our minds? Even Gollum had a role to play in The Lord of the Rings. Don’t you think God is wise enough for that in real life?

Cheerfulness and the gospel

All the days of the afflicted are evil,
but the cheerful of heart has a continual feast. —Proverbs 15:15

A joyful heart is good medicine,
but a crushed spirit dries up the bones. —Proverbs 17:22

The light of the eyes rejoices the heart,
and good news refreshes the bones. —Proverbs 15:30

We’ve been lied to so many times about how to be happy – by getting our perfect little world assembled around us just the way we like it. It seems obviously true. But it isn’t. External things cannot satisfy an internal longing. Which is perfect, really. It means that, when life is hard, even then a real cheerfulness can still treat us to a feast deep within. That feast is the love of God for us.

Here is how it happens. God sends someone to you, someone whose heart he has touched. You can see it in their eyes: “The light of the eyes [of one person] rejoices the heart [of another person].” The gospel makes people radiant. So, someone like that comes to you to say, “God isn’t what you think. You think he hates you. You think his primary emotion toward you is disgust. But you’re projecting onto him your own feeling. You hate him. That’s what’s happening here. You feel that way because you have sinned against him, but you’re too proud to admit it’s all your own fault. So you make it his fault. You think he’s out to ruin you. And you think that’s why your life is hard. But God isn’t against you. He isn’t out to accuse you. God himself has already answered for every accusation at the cross of Christ – if you’ll receive it. We’re more loved than we ever dreamed. If you will open up and trust Christ, the accusations are over forever. God’s power is greatest not in destroying sinners but in taking their sin onto himself and freely, happily giving back love. He loves you in that way. He loves you in the way your heart longs to be loved – not with a shallow pep talk or cheap flattery but with real forgiveness and acceptance and joy.” God sends someone to tell you that, so that you can know and let it in. The joy of the gospel is contagious. The light of the gospel rejoices the open heart.

You can feel alive again by pressing that gospel into your heart. Will you? God is ready to receive you. Receive him.