Emotions, puritans, affections and passions

Nicky Lock

Puritans, passions, philosophy and preaching all featured in the “Theology of Emotions” conference at Moore College a couple of weeks ago. Two days packed with lectures on the cultural view, the puritan view, arguing for and against God and Jesus having emotions, the Holy Spirit and emotions, emotional exegesis and preaching left me with brain ache and exhausted – is that an emotion?

And therein lies a problem.  Most of the presenters at the conference presented varied definitions of what ‘emotion’ is: one talk began with the quote “ it would be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the term ‘emotion’ for its range and meaning have altered significantly over the years, due in part to changes in the theories about emotion. So, too, the word ‘passion’ has a long and varied history, and we should be aware of the misleading assumption that there is a single, orderly, natural class of phenomena that is simply designated different labels in different languages at different times.”(Solomon 2000)

Even within the Puritan approach to understanding and dealing with the affections and passions” there are varying views:  either“passions are the emotions of the sensitive appetite, whereas the affections are the emotions of the rational appetite OR  affections and passions are the same, belonging to the sensitive appetite OR affections and passions are the same, belonging to both the rational and sensitive appetites; hence, humans share some affections-passions with animals whilst others are unique to them.” (Yuille 2007)

Yet we all know something of the subjective experience of emotions even if we can’t agree on a definition! Some of the presenters shared of their own personal experiences of great emotion, and as a group we were guided into experiencing emotion in response to looking at the narrative of the resurrection account using a preaching technique called ‘emotional exegesis’.

But still there was still some confusion about what to do about emotions and how to talk about emotions from the pulpit: are they good or bad, do they need to be acknowledged or ignored, expressed or repressed?

Some of the confusion seems to arise since there is general recognition that not all emotions are bad: in fact we do seem to be designed as emotional beings and these emotions have uses for a number of human activities and can be seen to be useful in drawing us closer to God. There was general agreement that it is not the emotion per se that is the problem: rather it is the direction in which it is expressed that can be problematic. But what about those out of control emotions that don’t seem to be useful and can lead us into harmful behaviour – how do we understand those? How do we keep them under control?

Matthew Elliott’s (2005) proposal is that we get to know our emotional state, value what is before us, check that against what we believe about how the world works, and if necessary, challenge that belief. This is in accord with modern cognitive behavioural therapy, but leaves out any aspect of God meeting us when we are in a despairing emotional place.

This method of dealing with problematic feelings seems based on the premise that all feelings are in some way dependant on how we make sense of the world i.e. how we see and interpret a situation will determine how we feel about something. This makes sense only up to a point. Neuroscience is demonstrating that the emotional brain reacts very rapidly to situations and causes us to respond before we have the opportunity for any evaluative thinking.

These emotional responses appear somewhat instinctive and are called ‘adaptive’ in that they are useful action responses e.g. our emotional brain recognises the general form of the tiger before we could “know” it is a tiger and moves us to run away. Fear keeps us away from danger; anger assists us in protecting ourselves when we are under threat. According to Greenberg (2008), “emotion is above all a relational action tendency”. One way of viewing emotions is to see them as warning lights that are telling us to do something: to act in ways which bring us peace, calm and joy and to avoid pain, shame and fear. In other words, they are useful for survival in motivating us to get those things which are good for us.

This is in agreement with the Puritan view: “the affections are those natural, perfective, and unstrained motions of the Creatures unto that advancement of their Natures, which they are …ordained to receive, by a regular inclination to those objects, whose goodnesse beareth a natural conveniencie or vertue of satisfaction, unto them; or by an antipathie and aversation from those, which bearing a contrarietie to the good they desire” (Reynolds,  quoted in Yuille 2007).

Additionally, part of our maturation is to learn what is termed ‘affect regulation’, in other words, to care for ourselves when things are getting difficult and we are having an emotional reaction that is uncomfortable. If I am irritated with my boss, it is not helpful to be rude to her: instead I might hold my tongue in the moment, and think over later about what was going on in the meeting. I might discover that I have genuine reason to be annoyed, but I need to find a calm way to talk about my problem with her.

Healthy emotional responses, however, can become dysfunctional: over strong fear reactions can lead to anxiety and phobias, over strong anger reactions can lead to hurting others through aggressive language and actions. Over strong attachment feelings can lead to clingy and controlling behaviour. These are all called ‘mal adaptive emotions’. Counsellors are attuned to picking up these mal-adaptive emotional patterns, but we all can recognise them from time to time: the relative who complains and whines constantly about being left out of arrangements, the aggressive reaction from the shopkeeper when we don’t have the correct change. These emotional patterns often feel manipulative; as if they are put on by the other person to make us behave differently.

These mal-adaptive emotions can be caused by a number of reasons: a pathogenic childhood which resulted in poor internal sense of self, trauma resulting in extreme sensitivity to certain triggers, or an ability to feel, own and respond to primary emotions. These causes can also prevent people from regulating their emotions properly – they can be under regulated and too emotional, or over regulated and unemotional.

Simply trying to think differently about these mal-adaptive emotional reactions and to change our perceptions about the situation is often not enough in these complex situations. A deeper process of understanding what is happening is needed, and a realisation and acknowledgement that our reaction has been coloured by our past difficult and painful experiences is required. This may happen in a frank and meaningful conversation with a supportive friend or pastor, or in a sustained quiet time when laying the whole situation before God, or in the counselling room with a trained professional.  Further work to untangle the historical experiences from the present, with an acceptance and compassion around the past events, often proves essential for being able to move on. Wrestling with God over the “then” and the “now” can be a painful and difficult process, but a worthwhile one.



Matthew Elliott. Faithful Feelings (Leicester: IVP, 2005).

Leslie Greenberg and Rhonda Goldman, Emotion Focused Couples Therapy, 2008, pp 3-40.

Robert C. Solomon, ‘The Philosophy of Emotions’ in Handbook of Emotions: Second Edition, eds. Michael Lewis and Jeannette M. Havilland –Jones (New York: Guildford Press, 2000), 4.

J. Stephen Yuille.‘Puritan Moderation: The Pursuit of Self-Mastery’, Churchman 121 no.3 (2007) p.224.