I am reading Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues by Robert C. Roberts, preparing for a preaching series this summer. Twenty years ago I read his book, The Strengths of a Christian, which continues to shape how I look at the virtues of self-control, patience and perseverance. I posted on Strengths previously.
In Spiritual Emotions, Roberts asks the questions, can Christians shape or tend to our emotions? Or are they simply electro-chemical reactions in our brains that we have no control over? Can emotions be something that we cultivate and link to our Spiritual lives?
Roberts proposes that emotions are concern-based construals, a framework for interpreting a situation and responding to it. I am reminded of an example of this in Stephen Covey’s classic, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book, Covey described riding on a subway car and becoming very irritated with a father whose young children were acting out. The children’s behavior was loud and disruptive and Covey became more and more irritated, even angry, with the father for not intervening. Finally Covey confronted the father about the obnoxious behavior of his children. The father, who seemed preoccupied, looked over at his children and then responded, “Yes, I guess they are being unruly. You see, we just came from the hospital where their mother, my wife, died today.”
Suddenly Stephen Covey’s understanding (construal) changed from one of anger to one of compassionate understanding. At first he interpreted the situation one way, “an inattentive father,” that fostered anger within him. But his interpretation or construal changed when he realized that the father was inattentive due to grief, fostering compassion.
Now, according to Roberts, Stephen Covey had some choice in how to respond to the new information. He might have stayed angry, thinking that his subway ride was still being interrupted by these disruptive children and that it did not matter what the reason was. Most of us would see such a construal or interpretative framework as being selfish and un-Christian. Or Covey might have become embarrassed and upset, again focusing more on his own needs. Instead Covey made a choice (perhaps out of habit) to respond with compassion and offer assistance.
Emotions are not just feeling that arbitrarily hit us and we have no control over them. Neither can we automatically dictate what emotions we will have. They are fruit of the Holy Spirit, which we help cultivate and grow over time, practice and attentiveness. I believe Robert’s book will help me in this practice.
Lord Jesus, shape my heart to be a harbor of love and not fear.