Humility of emotion



A few months ago, a good friend of mine said that her emotions had been reminding her that she does not make herself. She is subject to the people and things around her, and realizing that her emotions lay largely outside of her intentional control was humbling. It is true, as she recognized, that emotions themselves are neither good nor bad; our responses to emotion are where we bear responsibility. But her attentiveness struck me. She was reminded—by her emotions!—that she is made by God and is continually sustained by Him and affected by others. Most of us are not so spiritually reflective on our emotions; but perhaps now we can begin.

I have been listening to C.S. Lewis’s “Screwtape Letters” recently, in which Lewis excellently delineates many aspects of the spiritual life – especially in relation to emotions and virtues. I highly recommend the book, and there is an audiobook on YouTube that is only 3.5 hours!

Lewis imagines the correspondence between two demons in Satan’s employ; one, Screwtape, advises his nephew Wormwood as he tries to tempt his human “patient” away from the “Enemy” (God). The letters and storyline are wonderfully intriguing, and the advice is startlingly insightful; and I think that the description of humility applies well to evaluation of our emotions, too, driving home my friend’s point about her dependence – a dependence we all share.

Lewis incisively identifies the pitfalls of false humility, where one might “think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character.” Screwtape, the master tempter, says to his protégé, “The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue.… [God] would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one.” Here we see that humility is equal parts truth and self-forgetfulness: we must maintain the truth of talents God has given while forgetting the trivial comparisons that serve nothing for God and neighbor.

Screwtape continues, “Even of his sins the Enemy [God] does not want him to think too much: once they are repented, the sooner the man turns his attention outward, the better the Enemy is pleased.” I would add, for our discussion, that even on his emotions, God does not want him to dwell; once they are acknowledged, the sooner the person turns his attention outward (to loving God and neighbor through all duties and delights, enduring all emotions), the better the Lord is pleased.

It strikes me that a person who describes the events of their life with vivacity and drama could be described almost interchangeably as “expressive” or “emotional”—but there are two very different connotations to these descriptions in my mind. The first evinces a true humility of emotion for which we should strive. To be expressive seems to be an honest manifestation of one’s emotions without necessarily succumbing to them in the heart. Emotions do not rule one’s actions or attitude, but expressing them is a testimony of truth. This is the way of the Psalms! Read any of them – but I especially think of Psalms 42 and 143. On the other hand, to be emotional incorporates more of the heart, and it gives me the sense that the person could be deeply affected by each fluctuation. In this case, one needs to break free from the reins of emotions so that truth and trust in God might reign.

It is a meager beginning – but a beginning nonetheless – to pursue and rely upon God in every detail of our lives, even through each emotion. May we recognize the givenness of our lives and the ultimate Love we seek on every blue or gray day.