We are emotional beings. God made us that way. Although we each have different gifts that differentiate our intellectual and physical abilities, we tend to react to the world emotionally. As our creator, God uses these emotions to interact with us—He speaks to us in emotional terms. In the beatitudes, He promises comfort for our mourning (Matt 5:4). He tells us to not be angry with our brothers (Matt 5:22). As many as 365 times, He tells us to not be afraid (Matt 10:28)—one for each day of the year. He calls us to love (John 15:12) and join in communion with Him that our joy may be complete (John 15:11).
Years ago, psychologists categorized our emotions into six main areas; joy, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and fear. They revised the list when they realized that disgust is really under anger and surprise belongs with fear. So now we see four emotions: joy, anger, sadness, and fear. All of them can be healthy at times… even our Lord displayed all of them. He drove the money-changers from the Temple (recorded in all four Gospels), wept at the death of Lazarus (John 11), and prayed that His cup be taken from Him in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). However, anger becomes destructive for us when it’s wrathful, sadness is destructive when wallowing in depression, and fear—at its extreme—leads to despair.
God wants us to be joyful people—and we want it too. Much of our lives are spent in the pursuit of joy or happiness. We see anger, sadness, and fear as negative emotions. Anger generally results from feeling powerless or attacked. If we want to walk back to joy, we need to practice forgiveness and generosity. Sadness usually results from unkindness or loss. Walking back to joy from sadness comes through gratitude and generosity. Fear usually results from a perceived threat. Walking back to joy begins with hope and trust and also involves generosity. Note that there is a repetition of generosity… generosity is love in action. We find joy through love and love is a generous act of the will.
I use the following diagram to describe this relationship between the emotions.
When approached this way, we gain a new perspective on our Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray. In that prayer, He touched on the elements described above. As our creator, He knows who we are and what we need. Prayer with our Father in Heaven is an emotional experience where we adore Him as He deserves, express contrition for our failings, thank Him for our blessings, and reach out in supplication for our needs. All of these are expressed in the words our Lord gave us.
Going further, psychologists put electrodes on people to gauge their reaction to stimuli. They found that even anger and sadness themselves are subsets of fear. It makes sense. When we see an animal bristled and ready to attack, it looks angry—but it is likely afraid and using anger to ward off danger. When we see an animal crying in a corner, it is also generally afraid—fear of an unknown situation or a loss. Fear manifests through anger and sadness in our lives as well.
This understanding turns the arrow diagram from above into a line… from fear to joy. However, in the choices we make in life, we don’t generally “do” joy. What we do is love. Love is a choice we make more than an emotion we experience. The emotion is joy. The action is love. How could our Lord command us to love if love is an uncontrollable passion?
I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another (John 13:34).
Often seen as an out of control emotion that we “fall into,” love is actually a decision we make. Attractions and affections come and go. Love is a decision to serve others. Love is an action word. When we love someone, we want what is best for others and often seek to provide it. The greatest love we can show anyone is to lead them to Christ, our greatest good. Our greatest mistake in life is fearing to trust God and live life to the fullest.
This isn’t to say that there is no cause for anger, sadness, or fear in life.
Anger is a healthy emotion when encountering evil—it tells us there is a wrong that needs correction. It inspires action to oppose evil and defend the defenseless. It becomes unhealthy when it turns our minds to wrathful revenge—rather than resisting evil, we seek it! It’s been said that anger is the punishment we give ourselves for the sins of others. We should resist evil and forgive with a generous heart.
Sadness is a healthy emotion when experiencing loss in life—it tells us there is a loss to be mourned. We express our grief rather than bottling it up inside. It becomes unhealthy when we wallow in depression. Once again, the evil here is focusing on all that has or could go wrong instead of embracing the good and the love God shows us all. See the cross. God lived His life to show His unrestrained love for each one of us. Rather than being sorrowful in our loss, we should have an attitude of gratitude for what we have been blessed to share with others.
Fear is a healthy emotion when encountering danger—it tells us there is hazard to be acknowledged. It engages our fight or flight reflexes to extricate ourselves from something perceived to be harmful. It becomes unhealthy when it keeps us from engaging in life—when we focus more on what we have to lose rather than giving all we have to give. Fear keeps us from living the life God wants for us and from giving the love we were made to give. In its extreme, fear leads to despair from which we even give up on salvation. In trust, we can step out boldly to do the will of God in service to others—we can love freely and without counting costs. Love is the antidote to fear and all negative emotions—it is a gift we give to others so it is up to us.
This dichotomy between love and fear goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. Our first parents were not just confronted by a simple garden snake as sometimes depicted in art. They faced the great leviathan of history. Adam’s job to keep the Garden was a command to defend it (Gen 2:15). He was challenged by a being who intended to inspire fear where God had sowed love. In fear, Adam was silent in defense of Eve and through lies, the devil succeeded in causing them to doubt the love of God. Fear is a manifestation of pride and the foundation for all sin—it puts the will of the created self before the creator. Where they should have trusted God and relied on His love for them, Adam and Eve allowed fear to rule their hearts and they turned away from Him. Before they ate the fruit of the tree, they had already desired to be gods who decide what is good and evil apart from the will of God.
We envision an idyllic image of our preferred life. What holds us back from achieving it? Often, it is a fear of failure or even fear of our own success sabotaging us one decision at a time until our best life is only a distant, unobtainable dream. In moments of consequence, making the choice to love neutralizes the paralysis of fear.
Love embraces truth for truly our Lord is Truth and Love personified. Fear thrives on lies and festers in darkness. Love drives us forward and illuminates the desires of our hearts. Fear holds us back and paralyzes us. Love vows the best we have to give. Fear asks “what’s the worst that can happen?” Love is the realization of altruism. Fear is a manifestation of selfishness. The reverse of these statements is also true… generous people are loving while selfish people are fearful. Like the example of the animals above, bullies tend to be insecure.
We also fear the truth. We know and respect its power. The truth is a double-edged blade, dividing soul and spirit; joints and marrow (Heb 4:12). It divides and makes separations between people—between those who trust in truth and those who trust in their own understanding. We hold back on sharing some truths for fear it will drive away those who are not ready to hear it—often those we love. In doing so, we often scandalize those who need to hear the truth we have to share. We make ourselves the arbiters of God’s message. We demonstrate a lack of faith in not following Christ who would not compromise on truth even when it drove followers from Him (John 6). If we don’t share the truth freely, we are not sharing the Gospel. We are not leading people to Christ. We are leading people to a false Christ made in our image—shrouded in insecurity.
This isn’t to suggest that we should seek division in sharing hard truths uncharitably. The ultimate truth of all life is love. God loved us into creation and died to reconcile us with Himself. We share the truth with others because of our love for them, so truth must also be shared in a spirit of love. We are ambassadors for Christ and His Kingdom (2 Cor 5:20). As our Lord is both Love and Truth personified, He goes forth from us when we are courageous in our faith. He is our champion. The victory is His. We simply share love and truth to share Him with others.
No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life. The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers (CCC 166).
What can we fear if we trust in God? Nothing can take us from Him (Rom 8:28-29). The only thing we have to fear is fear itself (FDR). In our fear, we doubt the love and power of God to save us. We turn from Him. We despair of salvation. Just as love is a choice, so is fear. Turning toward or away from God is a choice we make—with eternal consequences.
When we recognize that fear and love frame each decision we make, we grow in our personal and professional lives. We seek new heights rather than agonizing about imagined depths. With an outward focus, we can understand the fear and love in those around us… and become better leaders… with greater empathy. We become better spouses, parents, and children.
In every decision we make, the love or fear we choose becomes the “why” that either inspires greatness or stunts our growth. They are the motivators to our will.
In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way” [St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,24,1 corp. art]. It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason [Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,24,3] (CCC 1767).
Recognizing that the emotions we exhibit are the same for all and the choices we have before us can be seen in a universal context, we can help others with their choices. The hard part of this process is that it requires getting to know people better. We have to engage in relationships.
Our greatest example of love in action will always be our Lord. He didn’t just talk the talk at us and tell us how to live, He walked the walk among us and showed us the way to follow. He told us to pick up our own crosses and follow Him to crucified glory. What do we see in the crucifixion? We see the love of God on display. We are called to sacrificial love… laying down our lives for those we love.
Does this mean we have to suffer physical harm? No. Go back to the premise that we are emotional beings. We can deny ourselves what we want in order to help someone else have what they need. We can put down our own egos to recognize the dignity of others. We can be humble in the example of Christ who put us before Himself. We can treat others as we want to be treated.
“Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Matt 7:12).