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I’m not sure when “emotional” came to be an insult, or when crying was first viewed as “weak,” or for men, “feminine.” History records former eras when men and boys were instructed in the art of weeping in order to appear respectful or to pledge fealty. In our day, however, stoicism is synonymous with strength, and emotional rigidity is commonplace.

Even so, emotional intelligence and health are commonly topics of conversation and subjects of research. There exists a desire in the wider culture to overcome the stifled tendencies of our past and to embrace a more emotionally vibrant future. But in the church, we are less than certain of what such a future might look like because, for us, it must be biblical. And all these conversations and research seem so “not.” On a weekly basis, believers ask me what the Bible says about these issues. Thus, we must turn to Scripture to tell us how to process our emotions properly in the presence of God.

God himself is emotional, and emotions are given by God to creatures made in His image.

Introducing himself as YHWH to Moses, he describes himself first and most prominently as merciful (Ex. 34:6-7). Lest we think mercy is not an emotion, I would ask anyone to describe where mercy is generated. Is it not in the innermost heart of a kind and compassionate being? This is the God who when Israel cries out in pain and injustice, “saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” [1] The gut-level emotional response to Israel’s pain leads to deliverance, the Ten Plagues and an epic Exodus (as well as some classic movies). As Karl Barth writes about this passage, “the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible.”[2] Or as Craig Blomberg comments, “mercy may be God’s most fundamental attribute.”[3] We see emotion in the example of Christ: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (Jn. 11:33).

Emotional Freedom and Spiritual Vitality

Yes, God is stirred emotionally, often.[4] Thus when we are moved likewise, we must, like the psalmist, “pour out my soul” (Psa. 42:4). Otherwise we can never be godly. Instead, we will get backed up in a sort of emotional-spiritual constipation. Our feelings will congeal until we are unable to know or express ourselves except when it’s “acceptable” or “expedient.” And even then, it might be in an explosive flash. As is often said of such moments, “I dunno … I just snapped.” This testimony has been borne out again and again through anecdotes within my own church family—and as mentioned before, in my own life. The psalmists understood something we barely recognize today: the importance of emotional freedom to spiritual vitality. “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psa. 62:8). If we are not emotionally healthy, we cannot be spiritually healthy. As Dan Allender and Tremper Longman write,

Ignoring our emotions is turning our back on reality; listening to our emotions ushers us into reality. And reality is where we meet God … Emotions are the language of the soul.[5]

How do we meet with God in this way and “listen to our emotions”? Here I want to introduce a spiritual practice that has been crucial in my own life: inventory of spirit.

Spiritual Inventory

Søren Kierkegaard claimed that the worst fate of all is “ losing one’s self.”[6] But to lose one’s self seems to be precisely what’s going on in many people’s lives. For evidence, just look at how many claims there are of people “finding themselves.” How can you find something without first losing it? To know yourself is a difficult task. The psalmist knows that he needs God’s help:

Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting![7]

The psalmist doesn’t understand what’s going on inside him. He can’t explain how he feels, what he’s thinking, or whether he’s headed in the right direction. It’s difficult to get to know that internal mystery. Thus he needs God to search his heart. How can we practice inventory of spirit?

I started writing in a diary last year at the behest of a fellow leader in the church who told me it changed her life decades ago. Hesitantly, I gave it a shot. For the past ten months (missing a few days here and there), I’ve been writing down answers to simple questions. How am I feeling? What did I do today? What’s going on in the environment around me as I write? What are my fears, insecurities, struggles? How are my victories with sin going? Has anyone said anything troubling or annoying? What am I aching for today?

Mechanics of Spiritual Inventory

Writing down those “thirsts” and bodily “aches” (Psa. 63:1-2) has liberated me to express my full self before God. It’s helped me realize what’s actually going on inside. And while it’s still difficult to know precisely, I can’t deny how clarifying journaling has been for my emotional health. Donald Whitney, in his book on the spiritual disciplines, writes,

A journal is a place in which a person records information important to him or her personally for preservation or consideration … to document the works and ways of God … an account of daily events, a record of personal relationships, a notebook of insights into Scripture, and/or a list of prayer requests.[8]

Whitney’s description is helpful to understand the mechanics of spiritual inventory. A journal, or sometimes a liturgical guide such as a Life Journal, is a place to capture those internal searchings, prayer times in the Spirit, and moments of realization.

Beyond the written record, what’s most beneficial is the time spent doing it. Your mind is given that focused, dedicated, effort to search out your emotions, dive into your thoughts, and meditate on the word of God in light of all that is going on. Once you buy a VW Beetle, you start noticing them on the road everywhere. In the same way, once you start taking spiritual inventory of your heart, you start to notice your emotions all the time. And as you notice them, you can, like the psalmist, bring them to God.

Liturgy and Regularity of Spiritual Inventory

An important principle is this: Spiritual inventory must happen regularly, not sparingly. Nobody can predict when such a habit will become necessary, which is why we call them “practices.” They are a way of getting ourselves ready for when these skills (inevitably) become crucial. This is why we must embrace liturgy.

An example of an interesting liturgy is Psalm 56, a gutteral prayer about fear. It expresses heartfelt, raw, angry, emotion to God. The psalmist is taking inventory of his insecurity and resolving to “not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” (Psa. 56:4). What’s significant is how Psalm 56 begins: “To the choirmaster: according to The Dove on Far-off Terebinths. A Miktam of David.” These are liturgical instructions, addressed to a music director. Evidently, the Israelite worship leaders of the time saw this emotional vomit as important enough for the whole congregation to sing regularly. To pray Psalm 56 when we’re “not feeling angry” is precisely the point. We sing these songs, pray these prayers, not because we feel that way right now, but so that when we do, we’re ready.

This is why two thirds of the Psalms are laments. Their aim is to form people into emotionally intelligent followers of YHWH who, when sorrow strikes (and it will), know what to do, and what to say. Worship will become the default in every scenario. Walter Brueggemann has written on what happens when we do not regularly practice lament:

One loss that results from the absence of lament is the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology. Where lament is absent, covenant comes into being only as a celebration of joy and well-being.[9]

In other words, if we don’t regularly learn to take stock of our negative emotions, we will only know how to express happy ones. More detrimental, we will have no idea how present God is in our grief, potentially leading to deconstruction. Regular training in emotional inventory helps us be genuine before God, who himself is “acquainted with grief.”[10]

The Blessings of Bearing our Soul to God

When we seek the Lord honestly and authentically, we tap into power. “Seek YHWH and his strength; seek his presence continually!” (Psa. 105:4). In order to access that power, we need to embrace the psalmists’ practice of bearing the soul to God. Through the practice of inventory of spirit, the soul (that is, the person) can be strengthened by offloading great burdens to God and receiving great hope from him (see 1 Pt. 5:6-7). This emotional unblocking is a removal of barriers which so often prevent us from accessing everything God has for us. Therefore, we can confidently claim, biblically and experientially, that emotional growth leads to spiritual vitality. May we boldly enter the presence of God in order to emerge with the heart of David from Psalm 131, “tranquil, and quiet.” In other words, strong.


  1. Ex. 2:25
  2. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics’ II.1, 370.
  3. Craig Blomberg, New American Commentary, 100.
  4. Not in the pejorative sense, and not in the same way humans often are. He is not like us; but we are made like him. See Num. 23:19 and related passages.
  5. Dan Allender and Tremper Longman III, The Cry of the Soul, quoted in Pete Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Discipleship, 9.
  6. Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death.
  7. Psa. 139:23-24
  8. Donald Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
  9. Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament.”
  10. Isa. 53:3

Riley Taylor lives in the Pacific Northwest and is the lead pastor at Mountlake Church.