Experiencing our emotions and choosing what to do with them

“Is feeling angry a sin? Are emotions sinful?”

Photo by Andrii Yalanskyi | Dreamstime.com

3 min read

For many questions, there is not a simple answer. In this case, however, we can offer a very direct response: the answer to both of these questions is “No.” Feeling angry is not a sin. The emotions we experience as human beings are not sinful in themselves.

When God created the human race, he gave us a foothold in two worlds: the material and the spiritual. Human beings are complex. We are composed of body, mind and spirit. We acknowledge our engagement with both the outer world and inner worlds. Heart and soul are a hidden aspect of our persons, but they have an external manifestation.

There are many examples of how feelings and emotions are part of our ordinary everyday life. Even the world of social media has found it necessary to create a way of communicating these. In the earliest days, it was decided that ALL CAPITAL LETTERS meant that you were shouting. Then various forms of punctuation were used to tell your audience whether you were happy :) or sad :(. Nowadays, those symbols are automatically formatted as emojis,  or L.

Simply put, all our emotions are an ordinary part of human life. They are good in themselves. Of course, simple answers do not always answer the real question, or the question behind the question. Emotions and feelings that are good in themselves can at times lead to sinful actions. When expressing strong emotions, we are not always satisfied with words on a page. Sometimes, anger can build up and become rage. Jesus himself looked at the human heart, knowing that uncontrolled anger could lead to an extreme outcome such as murder.

The question behind the question is more of a statement: I am feeling this strong emotion. What do I do with it? How can I express it so that it does not hurt me or anyone else?

When this is the real question, it is necessary to offer a more articulated response.

A little girl had a habit of becoming very angry very quickly. Once, at a very public gathering, she “lost it.” Her mother had a feeling of helplessness. She became very upset herself. As her daughter’s situation intensified, she dragged her child out of the room to a hallway where she could try to settle her. Unfortunately, their emotions were so strong that they began feeding off one another. There was a real danger that one or both of them could hurt someone.

A person who had worked with the little girl stepped in at that moment. It was evident that the emotions were too powerful for both the mother and the daughter. The little girl had learned—but had for the moment forgotten—three little ways to handle her feelings, which allow for an emotion to be paused: 1. Breathe slowly. 2. Count to ten. 3. Say a little prayer very slowly (such as a “Hail Mary”).

The child chose one of the methods, and gradually she calmed down. When she calmed down, her mother calmed down. As it happened, the little girl’s older brother was there watching this unfold. He learned a “trick” that he could take home with the family to release the tension of a situation so that they could deal with it.

The secret to dealing with difficult emotions is to talk to them and to listen to them. Emotions are simple reactions to life’s circumstances. In the first instance, they are not intentional actions on our part. They are reactions that happen spontaneously. If we have developed skills to direct their energy in a positive direction, we can usually keep them in check. If they are too heavy, or we have not learned to breathe, count or pray when we experience them, then we have to find a new way to respond.

There are always two movements to an emotion: first to experience it, then to make a choice about what to do with it. Sin can be part of the second movement if we are not careful. But listen to your emotion and you will always be able to learn something new. Behind anger, there is always a situation that must be acknowledged and accepted as real. When we meet what is real, God gives us the capacity to breathe more freely.

Jesus experienced all human emotions. When God created human beings, he said that what he had created was very good. So, in themselves, all human emotions are good. We can learn how to live with them and direct them whenever we accept them and make a choice to use them to build up a community of love with those around us.

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.

Fr. Timothy Hayes, a pastor of the Diocese of Columbus, offers answers on faith questions together with a group of priests who share the spirituality of unity