You may not have used the verb “moralize” before, but it simply means “to give moral weight.” Usually, when someone uses the verb moralize, they are being made to feel guilty for something that they do not believe should be considered wrong. Hardly anyone would ask, “Why are you moralizing lying?” but many would ask, “Why are you moralizing anxiety, sadness, or a sense of purposeless?”
The gist of the question is, “Are these latter experiences inherently and always wrong?” In Christian circles, the question would be more specifically worded, “If the Bible says ‘be anxious for nothing,’ ‘rejoice in the Lord always,” and that God has a plan for our life, doesn’t that mean that anxiety, sadness, or a sense of purposeless are always and inherently wrong?”
But often our moralizing of unpleasant emotions is much less direct. From my experience, the more common method of moralizing unpleasant emotions is through indirect questions intended to cultivate self-reflection.
- What do you think God is trying to teach you?
- What aspect of God’s provision in your life are you dissatisfied with?
- What has become too important in your life that you aren’t satisfied with what God has given?
- Who is deciding what is necessary for you to feel joy or peace?
- Have you been having your quiet time and does that improve your emotions?
These are not inherently bad questions. But they are sin-focused questions. There are occasions when these questions reveal pertinent information and repentance is a central component to resolving unpleasant emotions. But notice how each question implies there is a moral root to the experience of unpleasant emotions. That is where people begin to feel morally trapped in a conversation.
An emotional Catch-22 emerges when these are the only kind of questions we ask. Either we’re perfect or we’re hurting. If we’re not perfect, then our hurt is our fault. This Catch-22 emerges, not because the questions above are bad, but when the questions above are the only questions we ask.
So, we ask ourselves, “What other kinds of questions need to be added to the list?” Here is a balancing set of suffering-focused questions.
- What kind of life transitions have you faced recently?
- Do you feel like you understand your roles at work, school, home, with friends, etc.?
- What kind of changes have happened in your peer relationships?
- How have your sleeping and eating habits been recently? How’s your health?
- What kind of hard things have you faced recently?
These questions leave room for life to be “hard” without me having been “bad.” Christians are prone to beat up on Job’s friends (Old Testament book), but unless we are equally interested in asking this last set of 5 questions and know what to do with the responses as we were to the first set of 5 questions, we are like Job’s counselors.
Well, this begs another question, “What percentage of our unpleasant emotions are accounted for by each set of questions?” The simple answer is, “We don’t know.” If anyone says with confidence that the vast majority of unpleasant emotions are caused by one or the other set of questions, they are merely revealing their bias. That is, they are trying to force life into the box they like best. Be nice to them, but don’t put too much weight on their words.
The reality is that the two sets of questions are not mutually exclusive. Life is hard. People are sinful. We do learn things from hard times. Our bodies do impact our emotions. Caring for our bodies is part of honoring God with our whole life. In reality, the question is not “which set of questions” but “how much of each is in play for this person at this time” and “which set of questions will give us the most fruitful starting place for change.”
Even with this more nuanced question, the answer is still, “It will vary from person to person.” Four people have a very similar experience of unpleasant emotions in a comparable context and each have a different answer to these questions.
For example, you can have four people feeling purposeless as they experience empty nest in their late 40’s and:
(a) one be due to idolatry of the children,
(b) one be due to sleep apnea and the cognitive distortion of inadequate sleep,
(c) one be due to a mid-life crisis from the over valuation of work, and
(d) the final one be from the prolonged strain of an emotionally distant spouse.
Persons A and C would have a strong moral component to their unpleasant emotions. Persons B and D’s unpleasant emotions are not primarily rooted in the moral dimension. Yet, none of these individual’s emotions are exclusively moral or immoral. One can idolize their children and still experience some normal grief when they move out. One can have sleep apnea and allow fatigue (a form of temptation) to move them towards emotions that dishonor God and harm other people.
The point of this reflection is that we need BOTH sets of questions (which are representative, not exhaustive). Let’s admit it, most of us have our preferred set of questions. There’s nothing wrong with that. Physicians are going to prefer questions related to the body. Sociologists are going to prefer questions related to social networks. Pastors are going to prefer questions related to the soul. That’s only natural. We tend to see first what we know best… because that’s what we look for… because that’s what our instinctive questions point us towards.
But its not enough to admit that both are needed. We need to be proficient enough in both that we can assess when either is needed.
- I want to talk to a doctor who is able (and willing) to assess when my body is fine, but my emotions are sour.
- I want to talk to a sociologist who is able (and willing) to assess when my social network is healthy, but my emotions are raw.
- I want to talk to a pastor who is able (and willing) to assess when my soul is striving after God, but my emotions are struggling to upbeat.
I will trust each most when they can (and will) tell me when their niche isn’t where the problem lies.I want to talk to a pastor who is able (and willing) to assess when my soul is striving after God, but my emotions are struggling to upbeat. Click To Tweet
For the record, each can still tell me lots of helpful stuff even when their primary focus isn’t the primary problem. The doctor can tell me many things about bodily health that will help my emotions. The sociologist can tell me numerous things about relational dynamics that will enhance my emotional regulation. The pastor can tell me many things about how the emotions express value for God that will make my experience of emotions more meaningful. This reflection isn’t about helpfulness.
The question we began with was about moralizing. So, let’s conclude with some summary thoughts about emotions and morality that tie together what we’ve discussed.
- Emotions do have a moral component. Emotions reveal our values.
- Emotions are not purely a moral experience. Emotions also reveal of bodies and social settings.
- Emotions exist at the intersection of body and soul.
- Unpleasant emotions can be a godly response to hard circumstances.
- We need to have questions that assess all of these areas.
- We need to be as skilled at ministering to questions that are rooted in suffering as those rooted in sin.
- We will gain the trust of those we want to minister to best when they can tell we don’t force the conversation into our preferred niche.