“So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.”Job 2:13
The book of Job, while offering a study of human suffering, also presents a study of human emotion, particularly the emotions experienced and expressed in times of suffering.
We all know the variety of emotions that flood, swirl, and drift through our hearts in the valley of chronic illness. Like Job, we can easily identify the frustration, grief, pain, doubt, fear, and loneliness—to name a few—that grip our souls while physical ailments grip our bodies.
Where do these emotions come from? Are they good or bad? How do we handle them? What purpose do they serve? Can they glorify God?
I’m not an expert, but I invite you to join me in turning to God’s Word and trusted sources to learn about emotions in times of suffering.
1. The nature of emotions
Emotions alone are not bad. God Himself experiences emotions, and He created us to likewise know the full range of emotions through which we experience and respond to life.
God experiences emotions
From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture reveals our God as a deeply emotional Being who, though spirit, feels and expresses all the sentiments familiar among humans:
- Grief (Gen 6:6)
- Jealousy (1 Kings 14:22)
- Anger (Num 11:33)
- Disappointment (Is 5:4)
- Compassion (Is 49:15)
- Pleasure (Is 42:21, Ps 147:11)
- Hurt (Jer 3:20)
- Gladness (Zeph 3:17)
- Satisfaction (Gen 1:31)
- Pity (Jonah 4:11)
While not exhaustive, this list gives us a glimpse of the breadth God’s own heart.
Jesus experienced emotions
The gospels and other passages make it clear that Jesus, God in human form, experienced the same emotions we do, especially in His suffering.
These passages may not explicitly name an emotion, but you only have to read them to feel the emotion implicit in the words:
“And He said, ‘Where have you laid [my friend Lazarus]?’ They said to Him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept.”John 11:35
“And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”Luke 22:44
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?Psalm 22:1-2
Why are You so far from helping Me,
And from the words of My groaning?”
Isaiah 53:3 describes Christ as “a Man of sorrows [physical and mental pain] and acquainted [through personal experience] with grief.”
In other words, Jesus was no stranger to suffering–or to the emotions that often accompany us through our valleys.
Humans experience emotions
“Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness . . . .’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”Genesis 1:26-27
This passage tells us we are created in God’s image, in the likeness of the eternal Existing One. As commentators point out, this likeness belongs not in our physical capacities but in our non-physical capacities: our nature, our intellect, and yes, our emotions.
In other words, what makes us human is our likeness to God. Including our emotions.
As a result, if our emotions both reflect God’s nature and result from His creation, they cannot be intrinsically bad.
Many individuals and schools of thought, however, discredit emotions and their value. But what is God’s perspective of our emotions? Should we express them? If so, how?
Let’s come back to the Bible.
2. A place for emotions
A place in God’s Word
When we think of poetry in the Bible, our minds turn first to the book of Psalms. Then maybe to Song of Solomon. Then maybe to Proverbs or Lamentations.
But did you know that the book of Job is also a book of poetry? From the beginning of chapter 3 to the middle of chapter 42, the literary form of poetry is used to communicate the words of Job, his friends, and finally God Himself.
But why poetry?
In his book How to Read the Bible as Literature, Leland Ryken describes poetry as “heightened speech used to express intensified feeling or insight” (103, emphasis mine).1 He also writes,
“Whereas stories present a series of events, a lyric [poem] presents either a sequence of ideas or a series of emotions. . . . Emotion, especially, is often considered the differentiating element of lyric [poetry]” (110, emphasis mine).
Under divine inspiration, the writers of Scripture often used poetry to convey their emotions. The Inspirer Himself, with masterful skill, used the form of poetry to communicate Himself to His people (see the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament).
Yet poetry is more than just present in Scripture; it’s prevalent. Ryken points out that after story, poetry is the most common literary form in the Bible (87).
And guess what the most common type of psalm is? The lament psalm (114).
This prominent role of poetry–the artistic expression of deep emotion–throughout the Bible clearly indicates God’s value of emotions and the expression of them.
A place in God’s presence
While God gives emotions a significant place in His Word, He also gives them a special place in His presence. Over and over again throughout the Bible He reminds us that He sees our tears, He hears our cries, He knows the anguish in our hearts even when it reaches too deep for us ourselves to plumb.
This year I have come to treasure Psalm 56:8:
One night this summer I was out on my back patio, talking to God about the pain I was feeling in body and in spirit. As the tears spilled down my face, I cried out to Him, “Don’t you see? Don’t you see these tears I’m crying? Don’t you see the pain I’m feeling?”
When I eventually came inside, this psalm was waiting for me with the answer that yes, God does see. He catches each one of my tears and keeps it because my emotions are precious to Him.
Job 34:28 promises, “For He hears the cry of the afflicted.” Psalm 34:17, “The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears.” Psalm 69:33, “For the LORD hears the poor.” Psalm 139:2, “You understand my thought afar off.”
No matter what we’re facing, no matter what we’re feeling, God promises us a place for our emotions when we come to Him in prayer.
3. Our response to emotions
We know emotions are useful and God provides a place for them, but how do we handle them?
I’d like to return to the lament psalm as a pattern of how to handle our emotions. Using Psalm 54 as an example, Ryken outlines the common structure of the lament psalm (114):
- an invocation or introductory cry to God
“Hear my prayer, O God;vs. 2
give ear to the words of my mouth.”
- the lament or complaint
“For strangers have risen up against me,vs. 3
And oppressors have sought after my life.
They have not set God before them.”
- a petition or supplication (which in this psalm appears in the beginning)
“Save me, O God, by Your name,vs. 1
And vindicate me by Your strength.”
- a statement of confidence in God
“Behold, God is my helper;vv. 4-5
The LORD is with those who uphold my life.
He will repay my enemies for their evil.
Cut them off in Your truth.”
- and a vow to praise God or praise of God.
“I will freely sacrifice to You;vv. 6-7
I will praise Your name, O LORD, for it is good.
For He has delivered me out of all trouble;
And my eye has seen its desire upon my enemies.”
From this example, along with biblical principles, we can draw several practical applications:
Don’t stifle your emotions
The psalmist doesn’t say “Everything is fine” or “I’m doing fine” when either would be an obvious lie. He honestly describes his situation and his heart to the Lord.
In a presentation on emotions at a church women’s event, one of our deacon wives, Dawn, said,
“The reality is that stuffing/avoiding difficult emotions pushes them deeper into our heart, where they will cut new channels and flow out in other ways to wreak havoc in our lives and the lives of those around us. This is where our emotions go from ‘difficult’ to sinful.”3
DO: Find a safe place where you can express your emotions: a journal, a friend, a counselor, etc. While our first place should always be prayer, God provides additional places for His children to safely share their laments.
Don’t dwell in your emotions
The psalmist takes time to describe his situation (external and internal) to the Lord, but he doesn’t dwell there; he expresses himself and then looks to God in both prayer and praise, focusing on Truth to remind himself of truth.
I appreciate what Emily P. Freeman writes in her book Simply Tuesday:
“We like to talk about celebrating the gifts we have been given, but facing the losses is important too. Not to wallow, but to keep company with them long enough to recognize what part they play in our story, to name them, and eventually release them in the presence of Christ” (178-179, emphasis mine).2
If we stay too long in our emotions, particularly the negative ones, they can easily become a horrible pit of miry clay (Ps 40:2) that will keep us trapped in an unhealthy place.
DO: Give yourself time to recognize, identify, and process your emotions, with the Holy Spirit’s help. Then ask Him to lead you in the next step forward.
Don’t follow your emotions
The psalmist describes his situation and expresses his emotions, but he doesn’t then say, “I’m alone, no one is with me, no one is for me, I’m never going to escape, everyone wants to kill me.” He doesn’t let his emotions determine his perspective.
Emotions come from the heart, and the human heart is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer 17:9).
As Jon Bloom writes, “God designed your emotions to be gauges, not guides. They’re meant to report to you, not instruct you.”
Dawn also said,
“The emotions themselves are not lying BUT what they are rooted in reveals what you value and what you believe about God, yourself, others and your circumstances. When your emotions begin to speak, listen to them and ask yourself about what you value and believe. Our problem is when what we value is SINFUL or what we believe about God, ourselves, our circumstances, and others is a LIE.”
DO: Listen to what your emotions are trying to tell you. If your emotions are drifting away from truth or reality, ask God to bring them back into orbit around the central truth of His Word, the ultimate reality.
Don’t manage your emotions alone
The psalmist concludes his lament with words of prayer and praise directed to God. He yields his situation and his feelings to God and gives God room to work in both.
Every part of our lives—the internal and the external—needs to be submitted to God so that He can both sanctify it and control it for His glory.
I’d like to quote Dawn one more time:
“Our emotions are complex, and their sanctification is a process–an individual process that takes a long time to reroute. Be gentle with yourself and press into God! . . . We cannot necessarily figure out the source of every emotion, but if we continually take them to God by faith, He promises to graciously do the changing that is needed to develop holy emotions for His glory.”
DO: Submit your emotions to God. Only He can truly control them, and only He can sanctify them for His glory and for productive use both in our lives and in His Kingdom.
1Ryken, Leland. How to Read the Bible as Literature . . . and get more out of it. Zondervan, 1984.
2Freeman, Emily P. Simply Tuesday: Small-Moment Living in a Fast-Moving World. Revell, 2015.
3Dawn M. “Holy Emotions: Rolling Into Eternity by God’s Grace for God’s Glory.” Dec 2, 2019. Used with permission.
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