Why do we sin? One reason has to do with our emotions. We can seethe over someone who has done wrong to us or spoken against us, and then lash out at them or slander them. We can envy what a person has to the point of wishing them ill.
Even though we believe we may be right in our negative feelings, the wrong emotions can get us into trouble with God. By recognizing this truth and responding to it, we can be found more faithful to God.
Hot in the desert
Do you remember when the Israelites complained bitterly against Moses and Aaron for lack of water (Numbers 20:2-5)? They griped that it would have been better to have stayed in Egypt than be brought into the wilderness to die. Moses and Aaron turned from them and fell on their faces before the Lord, and His glory appeared to them (v. 6). God instructed Moses to bring water from a rock for the people by speaking to it (vv. 7, 8).
However, Moses made a mistake. Rather than speaking to the rock in the presence of the assembly, he said, “Hear now, you rebels! Must we bring water for you out of this rock?” He then struck the rock twice (vv. 7-11). The Lord was displeased with Moses’ outburst: “Because you did not believe Me, to hallow Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (v. 12).
The severity of the punishment highlighted the seriousness of Moses’ mistake. There is an important lesson here regarding why Moses slipped up. Was it because he lacked knowledge? No. God filled him with understanding. Was it because something was wrong with his relationship with God? No. Theirs was described as a personal, face-to-face friendship (Exodus 33:11). Was it because Moses was full of pride and wanted to show off? No. Numbers 12:3 describes him as the humblest man on the face of the earth. Moses was certainly a righteous and holy man. What, then, caused him to sin?
Put yourself in Moses’ shoes. This wasn’t the first time the Israelites had complained bitterly about their situation in the wilderness. Moses had endured their rebellion against him and God many times before. How would you feel if you’d been wholeheartedly serving your people around the clock, and all they could do was grumble? Moses felt angry. Perhaps he also felt betrayed and unappreciated. He may have even had righteous anger at the way the Israelites were disrespecting God. Consequently, Moses lost control of his emotions and sinned against God.
Emotions and sin
Moses is not the only highly esteemed saint who did this. Consider King David and his adultery with Bathsheba. Wasn’t it lust that caused the man after God’s own heart to sleep with Uriah’s wife? Or what about Job, one of the most righteous men to ever live? In his terrible time of testing, he kept his integrity and did not sin. But after being worn down by the poor counsel of his so-called friends, Job bemoaned his situation so severely that God rebuked him: “He who rebukes God, let him answer it. . . . Would you condemn Me that you may be justified?” (40:2, 8). Job, too, fell victim to the emotions of demanding vindication. He repented in dust and ashes (42:6).
If these faithful men could let their emotions cause them to sin, then we can too. Human emotions are good, but we must beware because they are easily manipulated by sin.
Take disappointment, for example. Perhaps you have been disappointed with the direction your church is going or with situations in your workplace or relationships. Sometimes disappointment can cause us to be unfaithful to our responsibilities.
Worry can also lead us to sin. Remember how Saul was commanded to wait for Samuel while the enemy was gathering? Samuel didn’t arrive when Saul expected him, so Saul took upon himself the priestly duties that were not his to perform (1 Samuel 13).
Worry often causes us to be unfaithful to God’s commands. Sometimes when we can’t see how our needs are going to be met, we might seek to meet them in inappropriate ways, such as working on the Sabbath or cheating on our taxes. It’s no wonder Jesus told us not to worry (Matthew 6:25-34).
Even the powerful emotion of love can cause us to sin. If we love anything or anyone more than God, we break the commandment concerning idolatry. Jesus also said if we love mother or father or anyone more than Him, we are not worthy of Him (10:37).
Bitterness and resentment can cause us to be unfaithful to our Lord, whose life we are called to imitate. Sadness can motivate us to do a variety of inappropriate things to comfort and cheer ourselves, like excessive drinking, overspending, or engaging in unwholesome entertainment. Some may even curse God when sadness sinks them in great despair.
Darker emotions caused by the deep trauma of rejection or abuse can lead to sin. Failing to overcome the emotions associated with these, like exaggerated anger and fear, a person may treat themselves, and others, without love or compassion — and even harm themselves.
Realizing the strong link between our emotions and sin, Jesus wisely instructed us about the attitudes of our hearts. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, He taught that if we have lust in our hearts, we have already committed adultery. Or if we are angry with our brother without cause, we have committed murder (Matthew 5:21-30). Paul added to this, exhorting us in Ephesians, “Be angry, and do not sin” (4:26).
Reigning over emotions
If such a humble, obedient, and self-controlled man as Moses, in close relationship with God, could get carried away and err through emotion, then we need to be careful. Here are three positive guidelines for guarding our emotions.
First, we must be careful what we say and do when our emotions are stirred, remaining extra vigilant. We must check ourselves and call upon the Lord when we feel our hearts burning.
Second, we must keep sowing to the Spirit and building up our minds in Christ. The more we are filled with the Spirit and growing in spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, fasting, and service, the more emotionally stable and faithful we will be. God has not given us a spirit of fear but of love, power, and soundness of mind (2 Timothy 1:7). If we sow to the flesh, we will reap corruption. But if we sow to the Spirit, we will reap everlasting life (Galatians 6:8).
Third, if we have struggled with the same emotion for a long time, we should seek help from a professional counselor in overcoming it. We certainly need help from God, our Counselor, as well. First Peter 5:6, 7 instructs us to cast all our care upon Him, for He cares for us. We can bring all our bitterness, anxiety, fear, jealousy, loneliness, and despair to Him. He’s listening. He will refresh us with the mind of Christ. Read Psalms and see how honestly the writers expressed all their feelings to God. Let Him hear your cries. He is the God of all comfort.
If you’ve been battling with severe feelings of worthlessness, depression, rejection, and other similarly debilitating emotions for many years, the three suggestions for reigning over your emotions may be easier said than done. Or perhaps you don’t know where to begin.
A good starting place is tapping into God’s incredible strength, walking closer to Him in the Spirit. Three practical, simple steps over a three-week period can help you do this.
Week 1: Take time to prayerfully examine your relationship with God and honestly assess how it can be deepened. Make a list of your conclusions.
Week 2: Take action on one of your findings. Set quality time aside for God each day, bringing your need to Him in prayer and reading Scripture. Think about how to apply what you are learning during this time.
Week 3: Continue with Week 2’s disciplines, but add another need and spiritual discipline, like fasting and confession, based on Week 1’s findings. Take small steps in this direction, with prayer and thanksgiving.
We all have specific issues, so it’s best we tailor our own plan. If, in light of any serious emotional problems, you feel unable to tailor your own plan, seek counsel from a pastor or trusted Christian friend.
God’s will is that sin does not reign over us through our negative emotions, and that we be found faithful. God is also faithful in helping those with their eyes fixed on Him for the perfect peace that the world cannot give and that surpasses all understanding.