Aren’t negative emotions bad? (part 2)

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#35 in a series; continued from #34)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

What if you’ve been taught in the church that negative emotions like anger are bad? How does that affect our relationships? And what can we do about it?

In part 1 of this post, I argued that anger is not itself sinful; we learn this from the examples of both Jesus and Paul. Anger and other negative emotions are part of being human, and they have their place. Trying to pretend they don’t exist doesn’t make them go away. It just drives them underground, where they may influence our attitudes and behaviors in ways that may be more difficult to recognize.

What we need are communities that allow us to acknowledge and embrace this aspect of our humanity, while also encouraging godly responsibility. Here’s an all-too-brief manifesto of four principles to which I would wish every believing community would subscribe:

  1. Negative emotion is part of being human. As I’ve suggested repeatedly in earlier posts, negative emotions can serve a positive function — they help us to avoid things that are potentially harmful. Yes, they can sometimes get us into trouble. But a person who is entirely without anger, for example, will probably never make a stand for justice, and a person without fear will take foolish risks.
  2. Negative emotion is not intrinsically sinful, but we are called to be responsible. To say that negative emotion is human does not mean, for example, that we get to be as angry as we want, for whatever reason. Paul makes allowances for our humanness: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger!” But he still calls us to act as those who have been made new in Christ: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” (Eph 4:31). My point here is that recognition necessarily precedes responsibility. If we are forced to deny our negative emotions lest we experience shame or guilt, we cannot take responsibility for them or their effects.
  3. Our aim must be not merely to recognize and be responsible for the negative, but to cultivate the positive. Paul follows the words above with these: “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Eph 4:32). Paul isn’t trying to get Christians to play nice just for show. He’s trying to teach them what it means to live out the reality of who they already are in Christ, a body that is knit together in love (vss. 15-16). This is the embodiment of the reality of God’s kingdom; there is none more powerful.
  4. We must make it safe to recognize and deal with the full range of human emotion, as we seek to fulfill our calling as disciples. Imagine a congregation in which everyone was fully dedicated to being kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving toward one another. What would happen when someone became angry in their midst? It would be safe to admit one’s anger and to take responsibility for it. People would have a better chance of getting to the root of the matter — perhaps the anger was justified! — and to see what might need to be changed. By cultivating the positive, we make it possible to respond constructively and compassionately to the negative.

“Be angry,” Paul writes, “but do not sin.” So much of what we’ve been taught about discipleship is the “don’ts,” and we can be grateful that Paul gives us some leeway here. But the bigger picture, I think, could be summed up with Paul’s further, more positive counsel: Be loving to one another, and your anger won’t give the devil the foothold he’s looking for.