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The Role of Emotion in Spiritual Formation

Several years ago, I received a phone call from my niece, Madison: “Uncle Phil, I prayed to receive Jesus into my heart tonight. I know I’m supposed to be baptized now and I was wondering if you would baptize me at church.” I was overjoyed to hear the news and was eager to have a much longer conversation with her about what had transpired.

If there is anything my niece loves more than me, it’s chocolate doughnuts. She and I sat down over a sleeve of chocolate mini-doughnuts and chocolate milk to talk about what prompted her phone call. She proceeded to explain that she realized she was a sinner, that she had committed wrong acts, both intentionally and unintentionally, and that those constituted sin and that sin separated her from God. I asked her a few clarifying questions and was satisfied that she knew what she was doing and was genuinely repentant and aware of her need for the Savior. As we wrapped up the conversation (and the doughnuts) she said, “Uncle Phil, I want to be a real Christian.” Madison clearly was not pointing to some sort of strange two-tiered Christianity of “regular” and “special” Christians; however, she was expressing a profound desire that gets to the heart of Paul’s vision of spiritual formation: to “present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Col 1:28).

For Paul, this process of moving from spiritual infancy to maturity (spiritual formation) is at the heart of what is going on in the life of every Christian. To describe this reality, he even goes so far as comparing this process to laboring through the pain of childbirth (Gal 4:19). Though I have not personally experienced giving birth, I was in the room when my son was born, and I think a good word to describe my wife’s experience in childbirth is “anguish.” For Paul to use such a strong term would suggest that he was genuinely hurting on behalf of the Galatian church for them to grow into full maturity. Or to put it in Madison’s words, for them to become “real Christians.”

Dallas Willard defines spiritual formation as “the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.”1 Willard’s use of the term, “inmost dimension of the human being” and the gospel itself reminds us that being formed in Christlikeness is a far deeper and substantive work than behavior or learning Bible facts. In like manner, Richard Averbeck writes, “At the inner core of spiritual formation is deep personal intimacy with God and the personal Christ-like integrity and character worked in us from there by the Holy Spirit who is in us; that is, in our human spirit.”2

Both these writers are pointing to the reality that spiritual formation is a deep work of God. God is at work in the process of transformation, forming us in our inmost being, in the unseen places where emotions are embodied and act as the language that expresses the stories and memories stored in the heart. When we begin talking about a person’s will, their desires, and the emotions that carry those desires, we begin to get at the core of the human person. If real transformation is to take place, change must begin here, which raises a critical question: What role does emotion play in spiritual formation?

The language that emanates from that unseen place is emotional. Emotions are expressed in words that tell the collective story. They call out for relationship and intimacy. They ask that needs be met, desires be answered, and longings attended to. Emotions are the expression of hope that life and relationship are available and offered in Christ-honoring connection, that followers of Jesus lock arms and hearts to pursue him together in the body.

From life’s earliest moments humans demonstrate desire for relationship. Research has shown that the circuits in our brains are wired toward connection and make us more aware of others and our effect on them.3 As we are formed into Christlikeness, our brains (which are wired for connection) change, giving us greater access to our emotions that are expressed through greater relational awareness and capacity to truly care for others. This fact alone has powerful ramifications for life in the body of Christ as members of that body are being formed in Christ and are expressing themselves relationally and emotionally. How exciting to consider how much deeper intimate, gracious, truth-telling relationships would grow!

Culture has often celebrated and encouraged getting smarter, being better, and becoming tougher as the way to a full life. However, life has a way of showing us that without a robust emotional life, we end up with more degrees or certifications (or more partially read books) that don’t give us the solutions for a truly full life. We try harder to be good but are never quite good enough. As a result, we beat ourselves up for being “weak,” or “faithless” when we can’t make ourselves tough enough to be emotionally unaffected by life.

For far too long, conventional wisdom, and sadly, conventional church life, has preached a theory of change that consists of getting smarter, being better, and becoming tougher as the way to be formed in Christ. In other words, we have been fed a steady diet of harnessing the power of intellect, morality, and willpower to “try to be Christlike.” And it has been to our detriment as followers of Jesus.

A survey of the human brain shows that God did not make us to live like this. The human brain is divided into halves, or “hemispheres.” In a broad sense, the left hemisphere focuses on analysis, data points, and facts. The right hemisphere focuses on more of the “intangibles,” such as feelings, the sense of awe, and desire. As psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist writes: 

If a neuropsychologist had to choose three things to characterise most clearly the functional contributions of the right hemisphere, they would most probably be the capacity to read the human face, the capacity to sustain vigilant attention, and the capacity to empathise.4 

God created us to desire relationship, attunement, and connection, and wired our brains accordingly. Yet conventional ways of teaching spiritual formation often appeal to left-brain functions, such as learning more biblical content and attempting more self-discipline. These aspects of learning are absolutely critical, but we must recognize they follow from and are deeply intertwined with our experiences, and the emotions we have about our experiences. We must come to grips with the fact that “the left hemisphere is a wonderful servant, but a very poor master.”5

Instead, we are called to follow a Savior who lived with an ongoing awareness of his feelings and expressed them openly and often. Compassion, by definition, means to “suffer with,” to be moved internally and viscerally.6 B. B. Warfield characterizes Jesus’ compassion as a “profound internal movement of his emotional nature.”7

Paul is in pain for the Galatian Christians to be formed in the Messiah. Our call is no different than theirs. We are called to be formed; a word that is consistent with transformed and conformed into Christlikeness.8 Jesus’ life pattern of compassion and Paul’s graphic description of his internal pain are two of the many examples in the Scriptures of the emotional nature of spiritual formation.

When God breathed life into humankind, he was not simply creating “another creature,” he was breathing into humans his own relational way of being. As God in three persons is eternally in perfect relationship, God put the same desire for connection and relationship into Adam and all of his offspring; and the language of relationship is emotion. People will do all sorts of things that defy reason out of desire for relationship, and they do it because, at their most basic relational base, they are feeling, relationship-seeking creatures. Our emotional makeup forms the foundation for how we connect with God and others.9

The desire for relationship makes an early entry into the pages of Scripture. In Genesis 2:18 God comments on how we’re made. He states, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” From humankind’s earliest moments, our deepest longings are for intimacy and relationship. The soil from which spiritual formation grows is deep within us, seeking intimacy with God and showing forth his character from that core. From the desire for intimacy with God and others come:

  • Anger that passionately says, “I care”
  • Loneliness that seeks intimacy through relationship and connection with others
  • Hurt that cries out for relational healing and attention to woundedness
  • Sadness that honors loss and memory and expresses lament over the loss
  • Fear that signals possible danger and ultimately can lead to discernment and yet dares to approach God through Christ who bridged the unnavigable gulf between God and us
  • Guilt that reminds us that we are sinners who need forgiveness
  • Shame that demonstrates to us our continuing need for a Savior and our limitations
  • Gladness that emanates from having lived fully in relationship10

These core emotions are the language of relationship with God, with others, and our true identity. They reveal to us the fact that we are needy and what those needs are, and ultimately, to find our hope and life in God as we live in relationship with him, others, and ourselves.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “And we who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (emphasis mine). Until our faces are unveiled, we strive, yearn, agonize, suffer, and seek intimacy and our true home in Jesus the Messiah, our Lord. It is with veiled faces, full of need and full of hope, that we speak from deep within ourselves where the Holy Spirit dwells and speaks for us in words we don’t even have (Rom 8:26). As long as our faces are veiled in our suppressed state, our formation into Christlikeness is often spoken in the groans, and yes, at times, the joyous exaltation in the worship of the one who, at the very onset of our being, put within us the language of relational connection. We have been given the gift of emotion as the transporter of our voices of desire for connection, the vehicle that carries us along as Christ is formed in us.


  1. Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation: What it is and How its Done,”  https://dwillard.org/articles/spiritual-formation-what-it-is-and-how-it-is-done
  2. Averbeck, Richard. “The Human Spirit in Spiritual Formation,” Metamorpha, October 1, 2011, http://old-v1.metamorpha.com/blog/2011/10/01/richard-averbeck-the-human-spirit-in-spiritual-formation/
  3. Religious and spiritual contemplation changes your brain in a profoundly different way because it strengthens a unique neural circuit that specifically enhances social awareness and empathy while subduing destructive feelings and emotions.
  4. Iain McGilchrist. The Master and His Emissary. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), xxii.
  5. McGilchrist, xxiv.
  6. To be moved as to one’s bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion (for the bowels were thought to be the seat of love and pity), “Bible Lexicon,” Studylight.org, accessed Aug 27, 2023,  https://studylight.org/lexicons/eng/greek/4697.html
  7. His compassion fulfilled itself in the outward act, but what is emphasized by the term employed to express our Lord’s response is, in accordance with its very derivation, the profound internal movement of his emotional nature. B.B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of Our Lord (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Short Classics, 2013) , 19-20. Kindle.
  8. Both words, transformed and conformed, have a common root, form, meaning a pattern or a mold. “Being transformed” refers to the process; conformed refers to the finished product. Jesus is our pattern or mold. Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Books, 1994).
  9. Where intellect and emotion clash, the heart has the greater wisdom. In a pleasing turnabout, science—Reason’s right hand—is proving this so. The brain’s ancient emotional architecture is not a bothersome animal encumbrance. Instead, it is nothing less than the key to our lives. Thomas Lewis and Fari Amini and Richard Lannon. A General Theory of Love. (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2001. Kindle.
  10. For a deeper and more comprehensive treatment of the core feelings, see Voice of the Heart Bible Study by Jeff Schulte and Phil Herndon, which is based on the book, Voice of the Heart by Chip Dodd.

About the Author

Phil worked in the trucking industry as a young adult until finally realizing his true passion was helping people walk through difficulties and heartache. He completed graduate school in 1992 with a Master of Arts degree in counseling and a Master of Arts degree in religious education. He served as a pastor in Texas for many years until relocating to Tennessee. Phil became the Clinical Director and co-owner of River Tree in 2020 and joined Tin Man Ministries as Clinical Director in 2023. He loves his role in developing, encouraging, and equipping the staff as they walk with people through their life journeys, and equipping the church for the work of the ministry. He is the co-author of The Voice of the Heart Bible Study and leads workshops at churches across the country.

Phil lives in Tennessee with his wife Sheila.


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