Feelings have big muscles. They are often the most powerful force in our lives. They can bully our minds, our consciences, and our wills. They can even knock out the facts and bring truth to its knees.
This is perhaps okay when the feelings are good, when we experience joy, peace, and happiness. But more often anxiety, fear, sadness, and guilt rear their ugly heads and start shoving us around. That vicious tag team can quickly bruise and bloody us, confusing our minds and blurring our vision. Nothing looks good when we’ve gone a few rounds with them. We just want to slink out of the ring of life and crawl back into bed again.
How then can we get our emotions under control? How can we knock down guilt and wrestle fear to the ground? How can we summon allies like joy and peace to our side, especially when we often feel so alone in the fight of our lives? How can we be happy when there is so much to be sad about?
The Bible trains us to think ourselves out of bad moods and painful feelings. Consider, for example, Asaph’s experience in Psalm 77.
Step 1: What are the facts? Asaph’s life situation is not defined in detail in Psalm 77. Asaph calls it “the day of my trouble” (v. 2), a deliberately general description that fits many life situations.
Step 2: What does he think about these facts? When he considers the troubles in his life, Asaph concludes that God has rejected him, doesn’t love him, has broken His promises, and has even changed in His character (vv. 7–9). As a result, he thinks that the past was great (v. 5), but the future is bleak and gloomy (v. 7).
Step 3: What is he feeling? He is inconsolably distressed by his trouble (v. 2) and overwhelmingly perplexed when he even thinks of God (v. 3). He feels abandoned by God and pessimistic about enjoying God’s love and favor again (vv. 7–9).
Step 4: Can he change the facts? There’s no evidence that Asaph could change the facts or that his situation changed.
Step 5: Can he change his thoughts about the facts? At the end of verse 9, he pauses, and he takes time to be quiet, to still his soul and calm down. When he does that, new thoughts begin to form, transforming his perspective and outlook.
In verses 10–12, he deliberately forces his mind to think new thoughts, to explore new areas for meditation. He says, “I’m not going to think like this anymore. I’m going to change my thinking habits and patterns.” He firmly resolves:
I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.
I will remember the works of the Lord.
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will also meditate on all Your work,
And [I will] talk of Your deeds. (vv. 10–12)
Notice that he refocuses his thinking upon God’s powerful acts of providence through the centuries (vv. 13–20). Specifically, he notes how God sometimes leads His people through deep waters (v. 19) and sometimes through the wilderness (v. 20), but ultimately He leads them to the promised land (v. 20). For the believer, this is not just about thinking better; it’s also about believing better. It involves thought patterns in the head, but it also involves faith patterns in the heart.
Step 6: What is he feeling now? Judging by Asaph’s words in verses 13–20, there’s a very different tone in his voice. He no longer questions God’s existence, character, and providence but praises Him:
Who is so great a God as our God?
You are the God who does wonders;
You have declared Your strength among the peoples.
You have with Your arm redeemed Your people. (vv. 13–15)
Instead of doubt, there is confidence; instead of pessimism, there is optimism; instead of vulnerability, there is security; instead of distress, there is comfort. Asaph’s facts have not changed, but his feelings have because, with the help of God’s Word and works, he has changed his thoughts about the facts. We can see similar patterns of spiritual and emotional therapy in Psalms 42 and 43; Job 19; and Habakkuk 3.
Notice, I’ve asked six questions in two groups of three. The first three—about facts, thoughts, and feelings—help us identify our thoughts and recognize how they affect our emotions and behavior.
The second three—also about facts, thoughts, and feelings—help us challenge our thoughts, change them, and so change our feelings and actions. That’s fairly easy to remember, isn’t it? In summary:
- How did I get into this mood? Facts, thoughts, and feelings.
- How do I get out of this mood? Facts, thoughts, and feelings.
The key is to identify which specific thoughts drive particular emotions. If I think about loss, I’ll be sad. If I think about sin, I’ll feel guilty. If I think I’m too thin or too fat, I’ll feel embarrassed.
But if I think about God’s gifts, I’ll be thankful; if I think about God’s beauty, I’ll be inspired; if I think about God’s sovereignty, I’ll feel peaceful.
Develop an ability to challenge and change your thoughts, beliefs, and emotions by using this biblical pattern.
This article was extracted from Dr. David Murray’s new book, The Happy Christian (2015). David is also author of Jesus On Every Page (2013), and Christians Get Depressed Too (2010). Married with five children, he is Professor of Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Seminary and Pastor of Grand Rapids Free Reformed Church. He blogs at HeadHeartHand.org
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Emotions” post which address other facets of this subject.