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Understanding how emotions affect our lives

(c) 2001 William R. Cunningham
May 20, 2001


This lesson deals with the subject of emotions and it is going to get a bit technical so be warned. I have looked at the psychological aspects of emotions as well as the physical aspects of emotion. Though I cannot claim to be an expert or even proficient at the subject, I can say that I know a lot more now then when I first began this journey.

I said that this lesson is somewhat technical. I dare say that it is not your typical Sunday morning sermon or typical Bible study lesson. However, I feel that the subject matter is very important and directly affects our lives that I felt it important enough to cover anyway. Of course, the applications of this lesson will be from a Christian perspective. However, the information pertaining to emotion directly will be quite technical and can be applied to any area of human existence that involves human behavior.

Think about emotions for a moment. Now consider the decisions that you have made, the mistakes that you have made, and the responses that you had towards people because of your emotions. You will find that emotions are a big player in our daily lives. Emotions can lead us to destruction as well as lead many to a perceived utopia. Emotions drive many because we all tend to seek those things that are emotionally pleasant or in other words, make us feel good in one way or another.

You are not totally protected just because you know the Bible and you live according to the word of God. Your emotions can quickly take you out of that mode of operation without you being aware of it. Your emotions will cause you to do things that you would never do if you had thought about it. Emotions might cause you to say things that you don't really mean overall but at the moment that is what you felt. Emotions can cause people to lose their jobs, destroy their marriages, sever relationships, end friendships, and disobey God's Way.

Emotions are a powerful force in our lives that we really should be aware of. If we are more aware of the emotional aspects of our lives then we would be more capable of dealing with things more objectively then subjectively through the way of emotions. That is what this lesson is about. It is merely to heighten your awareness of emotions so that you can avoid stumbling out of the Way of God.

Emotions Defined

Now let me first get a bit technical, which I think is very important for comprehension of this topic. What are emotions and how do they factor into our everyday lives? Emotion is the "feeling" or "affective" component of human behavior, where feeling describes an internal subjective state. It is a subjective response to stimulation. Emotions are subjective because the response and perception of the stimulus is different for every individual. Emotions are psychic and physical reaction (as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling and physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action.

Emotion can be described as:

  1. An intense mental state that arises subjectively rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a strong feeling: the emotions of joy, sorrow, reverence, hate, and love.
  2. A state of mental agitation or disturbance: spoke unsteadily in a voice that betrayed his emotion.
  3. The part of the consciousness that involves feeling; sensibility: "The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect" (Isaac Bashevis Singer).

In short, emotions are simply subjective feelings brought on by stimulation.

Dimensions of Emotion

There are at least two major dimensions of emotion. They are:

  1. Intensity: The severity of the emotion
  2. Qualitative: The perspective of the emotion

An example of the idea of the intensity of an emotion would be the transition from annoyance to hatred. Annoyance is a less intensive emotion then hate. Love is a more intense emotion then to like.

The qualitative dimension of emotion is the pleasant or unpleasant classification of an emotion. For example, pain (as in having your feelings hurt) is considered an unpleasant emotion, whereas happiness is considered a pleasant emotion.

Another very important thing to consider about emotions is that they are subjective, which means that the emotional perception and response is particular to each individual. For example, something that induces a very intense emotion in one person may be insignificant to another. Emotional subjectivity means that each individual subconsciously defines the whole emotional process (such as the intensity of the emotion or the perception of the stimulus).

Emotional Models

There are at least two historical explanations for emotions, that is, why we feel a certain way given a certain stimulus. The two explanations are the James-Lange model and the Cannon-Bard model. See I warned you that we would be a bit technical. Bear with me though.

James-Lange Model

This model basically stipulates that emotions derive from physiological changes of the body. For example, a stimulus causes the body to undergo certain physiological changes such as increased heart rate or perspiration. The individual perceives these changes and attributes a certain emotional state to it. So the awareness of physiological changes leads to an emotional state.

Cannon-Bard Model

This model stipulates that the physiological changes of the body and the development of an emotional state are independent and happen simultaneously when presented with stimulation. So if you see a large dog for example, then you will experience physiological changes and at the same time experience fear (if you associate large dogs with fear). So the emotional state in this model is directly proportionate to the stimulation and not the bodily changes.


OK. Now let's get more practical now that we know a little bit about the technical or scientific aspects of emotions. Emotions play a major role in our lives. As a matter of fact, emotions are very closely tied to motivation. The qualitative dimension of emotions in many instances motivates us in one direction. For example, we might be motivated to do something because it will bring us to a state of positive or pleasant emotions. Likewise we might do something else in an effort to avoid unpleasant emotions. We intrinsically classify certain actions with the resulting emotion so we tend to do those things that will bring about pleasant emotions and we tend to avoid those activities that will bring us unpleasant emotions.

The degree of motivation is directly proportionate to the expected emotional intensity. We will be much more motivated to do something as opposed to another option if the former will bring about a more intense emotion, either pleasant or unpleasant (avoidance).

In the Christian community and in particular in movements such as the word of faith movement, you might find that people seem to be motivated by emotions. This applies to other areas as well. For example, the play on emotions seemed to be a very important aspect to the Amway meetings. It was the rule of the day to pump the people up so that they would perform. There were even "pump up" sessions (as I call them) to get the new people excited and therefore perform. If their performance could be linked to the emotional high then chances are they would go out and do all they can to accomplish their goals, which were based on emotions. Note that I am not saying that that was good or bad. It was just the way it was and how I perceived it.

We have to therefore consider the cause of our motivation. Consider the following scripture.

James 4:2-3 (NKJV) You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.

Here is an application of the motivation/emotion relationship. James said that the reason that you don't receive when you do ask for something from God is because you ask with the wrong motives so that you can fulfill your pleasures. Your asking is not done to edify but merely to obtain pleasure. Now obtaining pleasures in life is not evil but if it is the motivating force in your life then it will lead you to destruction (no treasures in heaven).

I believe that this is one of the most fundamental aspects of emotions in our lives, namely motivation. How are you typically motivated? Let me shed some light on you based on my own experiences.

The Church Game: An Illustration

I have been in many church services where emotion was the name of the game. If the minister could pump the people up then he or she could suggest just about anything and the people would obey. For example, if the minister could get the people pumped up about receiving from God whatever they ask, then he or she could easily suggest that the road to that blessing is through giving. The people would be so excited and pumped up about receiving from God that they would gladly and without thinking give their money in the offering and usually more than they could afford or more than they would have if they thought about it.

The same holds true for more serious issues. People are hyped about healing and become so emotionally stimulated that they might forgo their medication because of the belief that they are healed. This belief is founded on an emotional state while in service and causes you to hold on to that belief even after the service. Only until "bad" things start to happen do you take more appropriate actions. However, there are some that are so deceived that they stay with the emotional responses and suffer greatly because their healing did not come from God but was only a head game played on them by a minister.


A significant component of emotion is expression. Expression is simply the way that our emotions are displayed or the way they are manifested externally. For example, sadness may be expressed as crying or acts of depression. Hollering or punching something might express anger. There is no particular gesture for a given emotion. For example, crying may indicate sadness or it could indicate joy. Hollering or punching something might indicate anger or it might indicate excitement.

Many emotional expressions are learned and culturally specific. For example, applause in North America indicates approval but the opposite is true in certain European countries. Clapping the hands to some Chinese indicates anxiety or disappointment.

Emotional expression is also specific to the individual. Some people express fear differently then others for example. This is why it is important to understand the gestures of an individual before you respond to them (judge them). A person that keeps silent during a family tragedy might be perceived as insensitive when all along he or she is in deep sorrow and their method of expressing that sorrow is internal.

You must keep in mind that emotions and their corresponding expressions are very complex. The study of emotion is also complicated by the fact that it is primarily subjective. Each individual defines emotions. What is happiness for one person may not be for someone else. What excites one person may terrify another (roller coasters for example). Therefore, it is important to learn and understand what the gestures of people that you have relationships with mean. When is your husband getting angry for example or when is he happy? Knowing his gestures will help you identify the way he feels even if he doesn't know how to tell you. The same holds true for wives.

Expressing Emotions To God

Consider the following scripture.

Psalm 3:1-4 (NKJV) Lord, how they have increased who trouble me! Many are they who rise up against me. Many are they who say of me, "There is no help for him in God." Selah But You, O Lord, are a shield for me, My glory and the One who lifts up my head. I cried to the Lord with my voice, And He heard me from His holy hill. Selah

Here David is troubled and he cries out to God.

Psalm 6:2 through Psalm 6:3 (NKJV) Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled;But You, O Lord-how long?

Psalm 22:1-2 (NKJV) My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, And from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.

Here again we see the Psalmist crying out to God.

Should you believe that a life of faith means that you will not respond emotionally to situations that you are in? No. Consider the following scriptures very carefully.

John 11:35 (NKJV) 35Jesus wept.


Luke 22:41-44 (NKJV) And He was withdrawn from them about a stone's throw, and He knelt down and prayed, 42saying, "Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done." Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

We plainly see that Jesus Christ showed emotion in these scriptures. He prayed even harder when he began to agonize. He sought God out the more because of the way he felt. Therefore, we should seek God more when we feel similarly emotional (good or bad).

Emotions are a normal part of life and expressing them is also normal. The problem comes when we allow our emotions to control us and dictate the actions that we take. In both of the cases in the above scriptures, we see that Jesus took the appropriate action. He healed Lazarus and He continued to do the will of God respectively.

Therefore, be encouraged and know that it is acceptable to go to God about the way that you feel. Tell God how you feel just like the psalmist did. Don't feel that a life of faith means a life without emotions.


Experiments seem to indicate that we have control over our emotional reactions. Reactions to emotion or stimulus are a very complex process. However, it appears that much of the emotional control that we exercise is cognitive (intellectual). Our emotional control can also take the form of pursuing those activities that will produce pleasant emotions and avoiding those that will produce unpleasant emotions. Drugs can also control emotions.

Real control of your reactions to stimulus takes practice and an awareness of the process. Sometimes this process may take the form of desensitization. That is, you expose yourself to the stimulus so much that after a while it doesn't have the same affect. After a longer while you'll find that you might not be affected by it at all. An example of this is the process that is sometimes called "face your fears." Being exposed to those things that scare you is believed to desensitize you to their affects. Enough exposure would result in you not being afraid of the stimulus anymore.


Activities motivated solely by emotions are very dangerous. Emotions derive from stimulation, which could be external or internal. Reacting emotionally in the realm of decision-making may prove to be fatal in many instances. For example, deciding to purchase a house because of the way you feel (subjective) instead of established criteria that you want in a house might result in the purchase of a house that does not really meet your needs. Marrying someone because of infatuation may result in a disastrous marriage. Infatuation is temporal.

Emotions are not stable. They are affected by stimulation that can occur at any time, which means your emotional state could change at any time. What pleases you today may not please you tomorrow. However, if you made a decision on yesterday's pleasure then you might be very disappointed (or in a lot of trouble) if you no longer have that same pleasure today. It goes without saying that commitments should not be based on emotion since emotions are so unstable. The rule of thumb I suppose is not to commit yourself based on an emotional state.

Consistency With God's Way

I think it is impossible to live according to God's Way and live emotionally at the same time. Your emotions will stir you towards anything that gives you pleasure and away from anything that you perceive to be painful. This may lead you into direct opposition to what God wants. Sometimes God might lead you into undesirable (though not destructive) situations so that you might grow or mature.

Therefore, if God is leading you one way and your emotions motivate you to go another way because of pleasure or avoidance of pain, then you are in grave danger and will at the very least not obey God. Sometimes doing what is right might bring upon pain. Consider the following scripture.

Matthew 5:11-12 (NKJV) "Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Sometimes your commitment to live God's way might bring upon persecution even if that persecution is just ridicule by others. However, there are people in parts of the world that are killed because of their faith. Emotions would say to deny God to save your life. However, their faith says to deny emotions and stay with God. Therefore, we cannot rely on emotions to show us the correct way. Knowledge is key. Do what you know to do and not what you feel to do.


How do emotions affect us day to day? We have found that emotions are a major impetus for motivation. Therefore, the affects of emotions can be seen in some of the things that we pursue. In a typical sense, we cannot escape the power or affects of emotions because we simply do not know how. We are driven by our emotions because we have reckoned them to be a normal part of life. Emotions can wreak havoc on a relationship when the pleasure (pleasant emotion) doesn't exist anymore. As a result of that, more problems occur because displeasure (unpleasant emotion) will motivate you to avoid that displeasure, which in this case originates from the relationship (or at least the other person).

In many cases emotions can be poison to us because of the way they might motivate us. We seek those things that will make us feel good knowing that the good feeling is only temporal and has no real meaning in life accept for simple pleasure and enjoyment. So the thing that may poison us is also the thing that may give us relief (temporally).

Let me give some illustrations of the affects of emotions.

The Marriage Example

In a marriage relationship, emotions are typically very high in the pleasure range-usually during the honeymoon phase at the beginning of the marriage. If these pleasure emotions become stale and replaced by unpleasant emotions then the marriage relationship could suffer. Either the husband or the wife will begin to associate his or her spouse with unpleasant emotions and will begin to avoid him or her. This will of course affect the relationship because a married couple should grow together instead of apart. This emotional change usually takes place during the disillusionment phase of the marriage. See my study on marriage for more information about this.

Another major problem in the marriage relationship pertaining to emotions is that love is usually associated with emotions. A good feeling about someone, usually a form of infatuation, is called love. Love is therefore lost if the infatuation (emotion) is lost. This is very unfortunate because true love is not based on emotion, though it might stimulate certain emotions. Therefore, it wasn't really love that was lost. Only the pleasure associated with the spouse was lost. Should you pursue those pleasures with your spouse again or pursue a relationship that is independent of emotions? I suppose it all depends on your relationship with your spouse.

On the one hand emotional stimulation is very important in a marriage and probably any relationship. However, a marriage or relationship based solely on emotions is doomed to fail. The overall goal of a marriage is to maintain the commitment. This commitment is not dependant on emotions though affected by it. Commitment is affected by emotions in the sense that you might not feel like being bothered with your spouse anymore. You might conclude that there is so much pain associated with him or her that you just want out (so that your emotional pain might leave).

So we see that a marriage relationship is very much affected by emotions. Though a marriage doesn't depend on emotions to exist, we must admit that a marriage without any emotions would be strange. I believe that there should be some infatuation for each other. The wife should look at the husband and experience pleasant emotions and likewise the husband to the wife. A marriage devoid of this will be somewhat stale in my opinion and move to the state of functionality.

Sex Example

Sex is associated with great pleasure. It is a force that is so powerful that nations have been lost because of it. Families and relationships have been ruined because of the power of sex. However, the power is not in mere sex. Sex itself is a very primitive activity. All animals do it. The power of sex is really in the emotional motivation of sex among other things. Sex drives people because of the great "physical" pleasure that is associated with it. They will even tolerate the relationship with an unpleasant wife for sexual activities with that same spouse. There are many marriages that are stale and yet the husband and wife still maintain a good sexual relationship according to my research. It may sound strange but that just shows you how powerful an emotional motivation can be.

We talked previously about the physiological changes to the body and how those changes are perceived. Many times sexual or sensual exploits are pursued not merely because of sex; rather they are pursued because of the stimulation and its corresponding affect on the body. In this case, sensuality becomes a drug necessary to reach a certain emotional state so that you can experience the physiological changes to the body. You become addicted to those changes because they are associated with great pleasure.

It is easy to see how emotions affect our lives in the area of sex, which might affect all areas of our life in one way or another. People pursue sex in various forms (pornography, pedophile, etc.) because of the basic emotional pleasure that they bring (though in fact it is more complicated then mere emotions). Pursuing sex because of mere emotions can lead to a road of adultery and therefore a ruined life, fornication, disease, pain, and loneliness. It also can lead you into direct opposition to God at the very least.

Religious Example

Emotions have a lot to do with many religious settings. Many church services rely on emotion to excite the people and in some cases suggest a certain response. For example, I have observed some church services where certain music is played in repetition and the preacher arouses the emotions of the congregation with great oratory skills. Next the people respond by "speaking in tongues", giving their money, or whatever else the preacher might want. The people don't realize that they are compelled by their emotional state until later when they have thought about what they have done. Emotional reactions usually do not involve the thinking processes, which is why you can be led so easily via emotions.

Emotion is not a major force in the Christian faith. As a matter of fact you may find the opposite. If emotions were primary motivating factors then it is doubtful that the apostles would have continued preaching the Gospel because doing so was associated with pain and suffering in many cases. As a matter of fact, some of the apostles were martyred because of their faith and refusal to stop preaching the Gospel.

Therefore, do not let yourself become enslaved by your emotions and do what you are told by anyone. Learn to activate knowledge and wisdom, which are short circuited by emotions.

New Home Illustration

Have you ever shopped for a new home? If you have then you will know what I'm going to talk about and if you haven't you will learn something very valuable in a moment especially if you are looking at new construction.

Home sellers will make their house as emotionally appealing to you as possible. They want your emotions to be a major part of your decision making process. However, your goal is to avoid that. Yes your new house will stimulate you emotionally but you should not allow that to be the deciding factor in whether you buy or not.

Learn to be objective instead of subjective. Learn to use your thinking abilities and reasoning to make the appropriate decisions. Emotions will not lead you down that role unless the decision is purely for emotional benefits of course.


Emotions are the subjective responses to stimulation. They are categorized in terms of intensity and qualitative. Emotions are a normal and very significant part of our lives though we do have some control (or more than we think) over how we respond to emotional stimulation. Emotions motivate us to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Because of the motivating factor of emotions, they can be somewhat dangerous if the motivation takes us on a destructive road such as drugs or sex and ultimately into disobedience.

Emotions can bind relationships or be the cause of the breakup of a relationship. Every person expresses his or her emotional state in any number of ways. Even the same response may be associated with different and opposite emotions among different people. Emotions affect us religiously, in relationships, and everyday life. It would behoove us to understand our emotions and learn to avoid making binding decisions based on them. Amen.

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