Last weekend I had the pleasure of seeing Pixar’s Inside Out. I was pleasantly surprised by it, not expecting it to be as thought-provoking and multi-faceted as it was. One of the themes—and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, given that it was mentioned in the first ten minutes of the film—was the purpose of the emotions. As Joy was introducing the various emotions, she mentioned that “fear” kept baby Riley safe and “disgust” kept her from eating poison. Our emotions, or “passions”, have important roles to play in not just keeping us safe, but also helping us to grow into mature adults.
As Christians, we don’t believe emotions should be suppressed. I think it can be common to fall into that trap, seeing our emotions as hindering our spiritual journeys or getting in the way of our quest for holiness. Perhaps we struggle with anger and wonder if we’ll ever receive the Holy Spirit’s fruit of patience. Maybe we’ve grown suspicious of our emotions, knowing that we can’t rely on them when we pray (think of the dark night of the soul, when God “feels” far away) or that we can’t trust them when we make decisions (what is right doesn’t always “feel” good).
Yet God gave us our emotions to help us in our quest for holiness, not to hinder us. The difficulty lies in our fallen human nature, where the effects of original sin lingering in our souls (we call it “concupiscence”) have weakened us and made it hard for us to know the truth and hard for us to choose the good. At times, we give into the flesh and allow our feelings to lead us. How many of us can relate to St. Paul when he laments, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Roman 7:15), or when Jesus warns us “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt 26:41)?
The goal of the Christian is not to suppress emotions, but to order them. Our emotions are supposed to help us, not rule us. There are times we listen to them, but there times when we need to reject them, too. There are times when anger causes me to sin, because I give into the disordered passion and scream at my coworker. But there also may be a time when my anger at a situation of injustice causes me to perform an act of charity for someone to right the wrong. The Christian is called to recognize the emotion and then judge the appropriate response. The Catechism says, “The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them” (CCC 1768). When our emotions are ordered by our intellect and will, we are living a life of virtue. The good is easier to do because we are in the habit of doing it and it gives us joy.
The belief that we need to suppress our emotions has dangerous repercussions, and I’m not even thinking of what Freud would say about it. I’m simply thinking of how boring life would be. Misunderstanding the role of passions in our lives can lead to a pretty blah existence. The Christian life should be a passionate one! If we look at the lives of the saints, we don’t see people who suppressed their emotions. Ordered them, yes. But suppressed, no. In fact, the Catechism says that “in the Christian life, the Holy Spirit himself accomplishes his work by mobilizing the whole being” (CCC 1769). God doesn’t just want to use your mind, but your emotions. “Moral perfection consists in man’s being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite” (CCC 1770).
Christians should be passionate people. There can be no milquetoast Christians. We have to only look at the example of Jesus Christ to see a full range of emotions, always properly ordered. One of the most famous examples of Jesus showing emotion is when he drives the money-changers out of the temple (John 2:15), even making a whip out of cords. He sees injustice, irreverence, and ignorance of His Father’s house and covenant, and He reacts accordingly. In Luke’s account, just before He’s in the temple showing anger, he’s weeping over Jerusalem for their lack of faith and understanding.
At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, there’s a powerful show of emotion when Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. He asks the man come to him and then asks the Pharisees if it is permissible to heal on the Sabbath. When they remain silent, Mark recounts that Jesus “looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). The Pharisees are too cowardly to speak their minds, closed as those minds are. The Pharisees’ stubbornness and ignorance directly leads to neglect of their fellow man, and in the face of such injustice the proper response is anger.
It is a good examination of conscience for us. Are we milquetoast Christians or Christians on fire for love, justice, and truth? Are we like St. Paul, whose passion practically leaps off the pages of his letters, asserting his love for his people (2 Cor 11:11), admonishing those who lead people astray (Gal 5:12) or defending his ministry (2 Cor 11:22). Think of the passion of St. Catherine of Siena, whose love for the Church caused her to even set the Pope straight! Think of the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi, the poetry of St. John of the Cross, or the fervor of little St. Thérèse of Lisieux.
What Gospel are we preaching with our lives? Can people tell by our lives that we have found the Truth, that we know Jesus Christ, and that he has made a difference? Is our passion contagious?
Don’t misunderstand me—I’m not asking everyone to be extroverts who go around and preach on street corners, nor am I saying we all need to be the life of the party and laugh and smile all the time. Each of us have been given different personalities and have had different life experiences that have molded those personalities. And every single one of us is being asked to use those to further the Kingdom of God in some way. We don’t do the Gospel any favors when we suppress our emotions and lose our personalities.
In Inside Out, we met joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger. These are not the passions St. Thomas Aquinas would have outlined for us, but they’re still good for us to consider. Are we saddened by the suffering of the poor? Are we disgusted by our sin? Do we have fear of the Lord—the filial fear that’s the gift of the Holy Spirit? Are we angered by injustice? Do we greet every blessing—regardless of how small—with joy and gratitude? Are we praying and working to develop a life of virtue, so that our emotions are helping and not hindering us? Do we allow Christ to use every part of us—even our human emotions?