Do you tend to buckle under pressure? Get stressed out, overwhelmed? These are important questions, because it is when problems arise in your life that a mental coup is likeliest to occur—when the dictator in your mind works hardest to conquer you.
Sometimes, life can seem like a litany of problems. You get sick or injured. A family member mistreats you. You have money troubles, job troubles.
When those issues come up, how do you respond? Do you face them? Do you maintain a positive approach to solving them? Do you seek wise counsel?
Or—do you get moody and depressed? Does it seem fairly often that you need a good cry?
Do you complain, whine and gossip? Blame other people?
Do you deny the issue is even a problem? Try to ignore it or escape it? Do you just quit—roll over and see how bad it will get?
If you tend to take any of these latter approaches, that is a sign that you are under the power of this mental despot.
What is it? It is emotion
Emotion can be one of the most enjoyable blessings we possess. Without it, our lives would be bland, flat, colorless—hardly worth living. Our relationships would be boring, our jobs monotonous.
However, if you fail to assess and, to a large degree, master your own emotions, that is a virtual guarantee that you will often mismanage your problems and create many new ones.
How skilled are you at handling this critical part of life? Are you constantly riding the extremes of the emotional spectrum? Or, on the other hand, are you casual or indifferent about things you should feel deeply about? Your personal fulfillment, happiness, peace and well-being depend in large measure upon your answers to these questions.
Many people are mature physically and intellectually, but have simply never grown upemotionally. And that reality is reflected in failed relationships, personal dissatisfaction, depression and misery.
We need to give serious thought to how we measure up in this critical area of our personal development, and how we can grow beyond where we are. We must tame that mental dictator, and learn emotional maturity.
Let’s get the right perspective on emotions. They are widely misunderstood.
Why do we have emotions?
In the last couple of decades, scientists have studied emotions intensively after largely dismissing them for many years. But science builds its findings on the faulty foundation of evolutionary biology, which assumes that emotion is all a result of how environmental factors impacted human evolution. For example, we supposedly have “fear” today, manifested in physiological changes that heighten our motivation to act quickly, because our prehistoric ancestors fled from danger; those who didn’t run were killed off and didn’t procreate.
It is true that such emotional reactions can help us face physical threats. But that is a product of design, not happenstance.
The truth is, God gave us the power of feelings. He gave us emotions so we can experience joy and love; we can have deep relationships; we also can experience anger and jealousy, fear and sadness—a variety of emotions.
Why? Well, consider these states of mind, described in the Bible and attributed to God Himself! God is said to experience love (John 3:16; Scripture says God is love—1 John 4:8, 16), joy (Matthew 25:21, 23; Galatians 5:22), hatred (Psalm 11:5; 45:7), anger (Judges 10:7; Psalm 7:11), indignation (Isaiah 34:2), jealousy (Exodus 20:5; 34:14), concern (Deuteronomy 5:29), grief (Genesis 6:6; Psalm 78:40), sorrow (Isaiah 53:3) and compassion (Matthew 9:35-36).
But wait, some may say. Emotions are physical—physiological—chemical. God is spirit. He couldn’t have emotions.
Just what are emotions?
The word itself comes from the Latin verb motere, “to move,” coupled with the prefix e, which connotes “move away.” The implication is that emotion is an impulse toward action. It is seated in the spirit in man (Job 32:8; 1 Corinthians 2:11), that spirit God gives uniquely to human beings to empower our intellect and distinguish us from animals. Webster’s Dictionary defines emotion as “physiologically involving changes that prepare the body for immediate vigorous action.”
So in what way could God have emotions? It is true that He does not and could not have the physiological changes we experience when we have emotions. Yet He has these profound states of mind ranging from love to hate, joy to sorrow, that we associate with deep emotion.
God created the human race in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), and wants us to grow to become like Him (Matthew 5:48). He expects us to grow toward being able to think as He does.
The implication in Scripture is that God gave us these chemical, physiological changes to help us understand the depth of His thinking. Certainly our emotions provide a physical type or counterpart to the depth of God’s mind; they supply a profundity to our thoughts and experiences not otherwise possible. And they stimulate us to act in ways we would not otherwise find the motivation to.
The fact is, learning to manage our emotions is a significant means by which we can learn to think like our Creator.
A Two-Edged Sword
But emotion is a two-edged sword. As great a blessing as it is, our emotions also can be capricious and subject to manipulation.
Evidence of this mental dictator is everywhere. The daily news is full of tragedies caused by people who simply lacked emotional control under difficult circumstances and thus committed crimes of passion. Others allow grievances to quietly build and, rather than handling their feelings maturely, end up exploding in violent acts, perhaps even against themselves. The same lack of control is evident in the common, petty arguments and interpersonal warfare between co-workers, neighbors and family members.
Negative, destructive moods and attitudes can tyrannize your mind if you let them. Yes, there is a time for righteous anger, for indignation, even the right kind of jealousy (e.g. 2 Corinthians 11:2); there is a time for sorrow (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4). But whenever God experiences such things, He keeps them under control, and is, on the whole, a joy-filled Being who walks in light, not in darkness (1 John 1:4-5). Wouldn’t you prefer that kind of life?
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, some who experience lust or sexual arousal permit those feelings to become more important than personal chastity or even marital fidelity. Substance abuse or addiction also indicates a mental hijacking. Enslaved to emotion, many people allow the rest of their lives to fall apart.
Herbert W. Armstrong wrote, “[W]e poor humans act as though we believed man to be merely the highest of the dumb brutes—as if man were equipped with instinct, and the purpose of life were merely to enjoy such feelings, sensations, emotions and moods as impulse attracts us to, without thinking or mental direction!” (Good News, February 1982). That truly is the most common approach to emotion today.
You need to acknowledge this startling fact: If you fail to master your emotions, you are not really running your own life. You are susceptible to emotional manipulation from all directions. “He that hath no rule over his own spirit is like a city that is broken down, and without walls” (Proverbs 25:28). This can lead to serious consequences in many aspects of life—not only in your relationships, but also your diet and health, your productivity, your overall well-being.
If you find yourself resenting family members, angry at people, frustrated and negative about yourself, depressed or moody—or, on the other hand, unable to manage your desires, however unpleasant or destructive the consequences—like it or not, you are emotionally immature.
Many places in Scripture speak of evil spiritual powers—the origin of which is a very real and active spirit being called Satan the devil—that influence us toward such emotions!
Why Emotional Mastery Is Vital
You simply must learn to master your feelings and emotions. It is in your best interest to direct your mind, direct your emotions—so that rather than you serving them, they are serving you.
It is only through emotional mastery that we can work out constructive solutions to the problems we face. Gaining this vital skill may keep you from losing a job, or rescue your marriage—even save a life by averting a deadly confrontation.
Think about this important proverb: “He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city” (Proverbs 16:32)—a stark contrast to the emotional child we read about in Proverbs 25:28.
Why would God praise the person who can conquer his spirit over the one who can actually conquer a city? Well, imagine what God can do in the life of the person who develops emotional mastery. This is a person who will not be tempted by an emotional rush to do something he shouldn’t—a person who will not be swayed off course.
Perhaps you begin to see more deeply how important emotional mastery is. The implications are profound. In fact, mastering your emotions is really the essence of godly character.
Mr. Armstrong defined emotional maturity, “The technical art of putting into practice the Ten Commandments. It is the real secret to human happiness” (ibid, March 1985). Another author defined it as development from the state of taking to the state of giving.
Emotions tend toward action. Thus, if we give in to the wrong emotions, we end up carrying out the wrong actions.
However, if we reject wrong emotions, and cultivate the right emotions, that will help us to embrace the right actions. Right emotions propel us toward right action.
The First Step to Emotional Mastery
We need to take control in this important arena of life. But how?
The first step to mastering our emotions is to become aware of them.
We must learn to become very attuned to what is going on in our mind—to recognize when we are getting emotional in a destructive way, and think hard to identify what is causing the emotion. There is a big difference between being caught up in the heat of anger, and realizing that you are angry. In the first case, your mental dictator is in complete control. In the latter case, you “step outside yourself,” and put yourself in a position to make reasoned decisions.
You may have a legitimate cause—someone mistreating you, a genuine trial in your life. But again, the question is, how will you handle it? Will you allow your emotions to take over? Or will you approach the problem in a mature, constructive way that will help you arrive at a solution? It will make all the difference!
“He that is slow to wrath is of great understanding: but he that is hasty of spirit [or quick-tempered] exalteth folly” (Proverbs 14:29).
The Power of Choice
In locating the source of your upset, it may help to realize that emotions are based on your perceptions, not necessarily on reality.
Let me illustrate what I mean.
One day my wife’s car broke down in town, and she didn’t have a cell phone on her. She called me at work from a pay phone and asked if I would pick her up at the gas station where she was stranded. Though I was only 10 to 15 minutes’ drive away, she waited two hours and I never showed up. This gave her plenty of time to mull over my insensitivity to her plight. She became more and more emotional—lonely, frustrated and angry. By the time she called a second time, she was in tears.
My version of the story is this: Immediately after hanging up after our first conversation, I got in my car and drove to where she told me she was. When I arrived, she was not there. I drove to every other gas station close by, to no avail. In exasperation, I went back to work and began phoning every gas station in the book, asking if they could spot her car in the parking lot. After over an hour of searching, I was truly frustrated that she had never called back to correct the miscommunication and tell me where she was.
All the emotions we each experienced were based on our perceptions—assuming the worst about the other person. So much of the time, we exhaust ourselves with such mental agitation. Faulty perspective can generate countless destructive emotions that need to be forcibly checked with cold reason. We worry ourselves sick over mere possibilities. Molehills become mountains.
It is important to realize how much control we really have over our reactions to such circumstances.
If someone says something derogatory, for example, do you take it personally? Do you hold a grudge? The longer you cling to such thoughts, the easier they are to justify. Alternatively, you can choose to alter your perception of the offense. You can shrug it off—perhaps with a thought such as, He must be having a rough morning, or, Surelyshe is unaware of how hurtful that remark was. We can soften our hurt with empathy or mercy.
If the offense you experienced is a genuine problem that needs to be dealt with, it would still be counterproductive to try to do so while under the sway of hurt feelings, anger and resentment.
An airline flight I took was delayed by a storm. The plane sat on the tarmac for some time while air traffic controllers worked with the pilots to chart an alternate route to our destination. When a new course was agreed upon, the pilots realized they needed more fuel to make the trip. Topping off the fuel tanks necessitated further delay.
The passengers aboard this flight could have been thankful that we would 1) avoid the storm and 2) have enough fuel to land where we needed to go. Instead, they chose to become incensed. You could hear audible expressions of anger throughout the cabin. Their emotion made an inconvenient situation into a tense one.
You are the captain of your mind. You cannot control everything that happens to you—only what you do in return. You cannot prevent every inappropriate thought from entering your mind—but you can choose whether to reject them or act upon them. Emotional immaturity makes you a victim of circumstance. Emotional maturity gives you the power to choose your response.
Cultivate the Right Emotions
It is a mistake to dismiss emotion as being unimportant. Emotion is vital. Not only does it make life more interesting, but we can hardly get by without it. Again, emotions are impulses to action. God intends us to be people of action—fueled by constructive emotion. He gave us emotion to control and use, to combine with our rational thinking to help us think and feel deeply, to propel us forward, to drive us toward right and noble action. Emotions are a wonderful gift.
But emotions are temporary. Yes, we may tend to hold on to a grudge or offense for years. But the positive emotions we should cultivate—the affection that binds a family together, the excitement that fuels fulfilling and productive work, the remorse that prevents us from repeating a mistake, the empathy that helps us comfort the grieving—these can fade all too quickly.
God encourages us to stoke and stir up those right emotions, those useful emotions. He tells us to direct our minds to what will motivate us onward. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). The choice is ours.
The common thinking is that emotion is opposite and counter to reason. In actuality, these two motivational tools should perfectly complement and enhance each other as we endeavor to live positive, morally upright lives.
We must strive for a level of maturity where we never allow our emotions to drive us outside the bounds of God’s law. Again, emotional maturity is “the technical art of putting into practice the Ten Commandments.” Ideally, our emotions should impassion us to more perfectly keep God’s law.
Godly “emotion” is actually a state of mind produced by God’s mindin us, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:5). Consider, for example, what is commonly called love. What is God’s view? He says “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10) and that it is “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy [Spirit] which is given unto us” (Romans 5:5). The Apostle Paul explained, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, Revised Standard Version).
God’s love is not an emotion, the way we view emotions. It is a way of life—a perfect spiritual law. It is not temporary. It never ends! It will go on and on—until one day it fills the universe.
This is the emotional mastery we should work to develop. This is how we need to respond to problems, difficulties and trials—bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. That is true emotional maturity!
The Battle in Your Mind
God wants us to have emotions—to cultivate deep, godly emotion. He wants us to have a proper fear of God. He wants us to hate evil. He wants us to get angry at sin. He wants us to grieve at appropriate times. He wants us to have full joy! He wants us to earnestly yearn for His Kingdom. When we develop these states of mind, we are learning to think like God.
Satan the devil also wants us to have emotions—to cut loose emotionally. He wants us to fear other people. He wants us to hate other people. He wants us to get angry quickly and hang on to that anger for days or weeks. He wants us to grieve over ourselves. He wants us to rejoice over other people’s failures. He wants us to earnestly yearn to go back to sin, one more time!
This battle is going on in your mind!
Evaluate your own life. You are to become an expert at handling problems in a mature way. When troubles arise, you have an awesome opportunity to respond with emotional control—to collect yourself and tackle the problem head on—to make the right decision and to grow in godly character.
Tame that mental dictator. Learn, practice and grow in emotional maturity, and improve your life!