Regulating the Passions (Emotions) is Essential for Christian Morals

In one of my philosophy classes this past semester, we discussed how a few early modern philosophers–Descartes, Spinoza, and Hume–handled the “passions.”  I’ll explain what I mean by “passion” here: The current use of the term is different, but in this usage it is the opposite of “action.” “Action” is obviously something that one does while “passion” is something that happens to somebody.  Emotions are put under this category, and for present purposes I’ll use “passion” and “emotion” interchangeably.  The passions have received a good amount of recent attention and can be a vexing issue: How much control can we be expected to have over something called “the passions,” the very name of which implies a certain passivity on our part?  What role does that play in ethics?

Just think about our experience with emotions.  Sometimes, emotions seemingly just come upon us, and we seem to be very “passive” because we cannot control them.  On the other hand, it is common for people to exhort others to be patient, not be angry over something, be more compassionate, etc, which assumes a level of control and volition.  It is not merely actions that flow from these emotions that are under examination, but the very emotions themselves.  After all, even if someone does not participate in child sex trafficking but feels joy and desire when he hears about it, it would still strike many people as depraved.

I tackled this question in my term paper and focused mostly on Descartes’ theory of the passions. Since that paper is twenty pages long, I will not reproduce it here ;), but I will bring some of that discussion in this post and, more importantly, look to Scripture for guidance, something I could not do in the paper.  I think that we can see important insights in Descartes that are biblically consistent (he was, by the way, a Christian), and they basically tell us that while we cannot be expected to control and change emotions on a whim, we can be expected to partially regulate our emotions and develop our character to feel the right ones at the right times.  In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to call an emotion wrong or irrational, and in Christian terms, an emotion can very well be sinful.  Developing a character that regulates emotions well is part of being virtuous.

Descartes’ Theory and the Contemporary Debate

Descartes is famous for his mind-body dualism, and the passions for him are very much a study of the interaction of both aspects of a human being.  For him, while the passions were bodily, they impressed themselves on the mind through a special gland in the brain.  The mind and the will could not directly control the passions, but through the mind’s (soul’s) ability to control this gland, it could indirectly regulate the passions by manipulating the effects of the passions.  By doing so, it could habituate the body in such a way to resist certain emotions while encouraging others, and this was the key to virtue.  Reason is the main resource to regulate the passions.  He denied that the passions could be started or stopped on a dime, but he advocated a mastery of character so that the right emotions flow naturally.  Thus, while Descartes’ views on human physiology are wrong, his theory captures the experiential conflict of emotion: In some sense, they are passive, but in a real way, we seem to have control over them.

I argued in my paper that Descartes’ theory is more in line with what is called the “cognitivist” view.  There are a ton of different theories out there right now, but I’ll just focus on two:  The cognitivist theory and the “feelings” theory.  The feelings theory basically views emotions as purely physiological and qualitatively no different than feelings of sense perception.  Some advocates of this view can go so far as to say that one is sad because of the physiological effect of crying, for example.  As may be clear, it seems difficult, if not impossible, to claim significant control over one’s emotions in this theory.  At best, one can perhaps advocate mimicking the physiological effects to try to produce the desired emotion; if you want to feel happy, for instance, just try to smile.  Furthermore, it is difficult to say whether or not an emotion can be wrong in this view.  After all, if someone touches a stove and feels hotness, we don’t normally hold him responsible for that.  Feelings theorists typically deny that any evaluation, use of reason, or proposition is significantly involved in an emotion.

The cognitivist view, on the other hand, closely associates the passions with evaluations or propositions.  Its proponents argue that we are not merely angry, but we are angry at someone and about something.  In other words, Bob isn’t just angry but is mad at Jim for stealing his candy.  Even when some people have difficulty pointing why exactly they are angry or sad, if we were to dig deeper we’d find the reason.  This view implies a significant amount of control over the passions because they are closely related to reason and beliefs.  If we were to find out that Jim did not in fact steal Bob’s candy, then Bob’s emotion is simply incorrect.  If Bob, upon learning this fact, nonetheless still feels anger towards Jim or otherwise refuses to believe the evidence, then we can claim that Bob’s emotion is irrational.

These are only two theories and choosing a theory has much to do with one’s metaphysical assumptions.  It can therefore be frustrating to peruse every option and choose one.  Fortunately for Christians, we have a great arbiter of truth: The Bible.  While it would be anachronistic to merely put Scripture under a modern philosophical label, I think it is clear that the scriptural view of the passions is far more in line with the cognitivist view than any other.

Scripture on the Passions

Scripture does not have an extended discussion on the passions, but it does have much to say about not only how Christians should act but how they their characters should be like.  After all, on the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear that even if one does not act on lust, God still sees the lust in one’s heart.  Another example is in Galatians 5, the famous passage on the fruit of the Spirit:

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (NASB)

Paul lists these out as characteristics that believers should have, in contrast to characteristics that believers should not have, such as outbursts of anger and envy.  As can be seen, much of these are passions, such as love, joy, and patience.  This list is prescriptive as much as it is descriptive; if Christians do not display these things, something is wrong.  Paul makes it clear that right belief is the foundation, for Christians must understand that the deeds of darkness are of the flesh while those in the Spirit need to look like this.

In addition, we can turn to how Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (2011 NIV)

Not only is “love” considered a passion, Christian love is characterized by such things as not being easily angered and not envying, as well as not delighting in evil but rejoicing in truth.  Obviously, this implies that it is important to know what is evil and what is the truth (in other words, it’s important to have right beliefs).  Otherwise, you can easily love the wrong things, which would make one’s love twisted and backward.

What is the overarching reason behind a Christian’s love?  This:

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7-12, 2011 NIV)

Clearly, John gives us the reason we should reflect on that should drive us to love, and that is that God first loved us, showing this love by sending Jesus as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  This belief is what informs our love and motivates our love.  God self-sacrificially gave of himself, and therefore we are to be self-sacrificial in our loving as well.  Again, it is important to emphasize that right belief and faith is essential to loving in the right way.

For Descartes, reflecting on reasons was the best way to regulate the passions.  While reason is still important in a Christian view, ultimately it is reflecting upon the Gospel and the Bible that gives us the motivation and reason to love, have grace, control our anger, etc. The Holy Spirit is also who produces these virtues in us as we walk with God.  Thus, prayer, reflecting on biblical truths, and putting those truths into practice is the way that a Christian habituates his character to be a responsible emotional agent.


While most people don’t know it, I think a cultural version of the feelings view has become more and more popular in our society.  Think about how many people operate: When somebody is offended or gets his feelings hurt, especially someone who is in a more “protected” category for the media, fault is automatically placed on the alleged offending party.  Very rarely is the person’s offended emotions evaluated for its rationality or justification.  Thus, it is common for people to belt out the defense of “That’s just the way I feel!”, as if their emotions are unassailable, something that I address here.  This attitude has crept into the church as well, as many people make decisions based purely on emotion and lash out against teaching that challenges them or makes them uncomfortable.  The logic they use is basically, “That makes me feel bad, and therefore it’s their fault,” without much of a hint of self-reflection.  Often, when they are reprimanded for this, they get angrier or more bitter.

Furthermore, churches that have been swayed by this attitude have sacrificed truth in an effort to make everyone feel “loved” and feel good about themselves.  Thus, we have churches who have cratered to culture on issues such as sexual ethics, abortion, and even absolute truth and morality.  This even often produces an anti-intellectualism in the church, as people look down on those who study Scripture and theology seriously and advocate some vague concept of “love” instead.  Some churches, I kid you not, have gone so far as to claim that it does not matter what one believes but only that he “loves.”  As can be seen by the passages above, it is impossible to fully love in the right way without the right beliefs about who Jesus is and what Scripture says.

These irresponsible views by Christians and by the wider culture cannot go unchallenged, as they largely elevate personal feelings over truth.  This is the easy way out, as it is very difficult to regulate one’s emotions, but it’s neither biblical nor rational.  To be morally virtuous, it is clear from Scripture that Christians are to deny their sinful desires and emotions and mold their character into one that continues to look more and more like Christ.  Can we decide to stop being angry or envious or trigger compassionate feelings on a dime?  Normally not.  However, there is a certain preparedness of mind that is very much a choice, and that preparedness comes with self-reflection, biblical meditation, accountability from community, and prayer.

For example, if you struggle with anger issues, reflect on God’s character, that he is slow to anger and instead of wiping out humanity, as he would be justified to do, he instead sent his Son as a sacrifice.  In the short term, resist actions out of quick anger, and in the long term, that resistance as well as Bible reading and prayer will go a long way in changing your character so that you naturally are a person who does not get angry easily.  This goes for a lot of issues such as sexual lust, envy, and insecurity.  It’s not easy and it will take a while, but Scripture never promises that sanctification would be easy.  Ultimately, it is about walking with God daily and being in communion with him, and when we are faithfully obeying, the Holy Spirit will continue his work in chipping away at our sin nature.  As that happens, we will find that we begin to have characters that are inclined to the right passions at the appropriate times, which are characters that are moving towards being holy, as our Father in heaven is holy.


One thought on “Regulating the Passions (Emotions) is Essential for Christian Morals

  1. Pingback: “Do You Have Good Reason to be Angry?” If Not, Your Emotions Don’t Matter That Much | leesomniac

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