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A lesson in emotions from the life of Helen Roseveare

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For nearly twenty years, Helen Roseveare served as a missionary in the Republic of Congo, establishing medical services in the remote village of Ibambi. She persevered despite periods of civil unrest, lack of resources, and even amidst the revealing of personal weaknesses and failures, which sometimes threatened to undo her. In most biographical descriptions of Helen’s life, she is characterized as having a hot temper, difficulty relating well to others, and being easily discouraged. 

Helen herself wrote often of her unsteady emotional responses to the circumstances she encountered throughout her time on the mission field: “I tended to call certain sins weaknesses – or human frailties – and thereby to excuse them. Unhappiness, loneliness, fear, inferiority, all began to be acutely present.” At one point, Helen’s emotional instability became so evident that a woman from the mission center in the village confronted her. Helen described this encounter: “Danga…took me to task for this un-Christlike behavior. ‘Don’t excuse yourself. Call sin sin and temper temper. If you can only show us Doctor Helen, you might as well go home; the people need to see Jesus’”.

Like Helen, our emotions oftentimes wreak havoc on those around us, and most deeply, on our own souls. Noel Piper comments, “The outward circumstances of Helen’s life may be different from that of many of us, but her inner battles were the same. And as we all know, our inner battles don’t stay inside. They spill out and injure innocent bystanders, usually the people that we care about the most.” It can be a help to our own spiritual welfare when we see those inner battles revealed in someone else, as it can serve in granting us a better perspective on our own inner battles before they run out of control. Life circumstances often display the measure of a woman’s emotional stability, or lack thereof.

Emotions are not bad in and of themselves. However, when not rightly understood through the lens of Scripture, emotions can quickly become a rash and exaggerated response to what is taking place in one’s life. What begins as a nervous thought morphs into an extended period of fearful introspection because we have failed to apply biblical truth to the initial problem. We speak the truths about God’s sovereignty and goodness, yet we find ourselves filled with despair, tormented in our beds at night by doubts and worries about what others think of us.

The Bible does not actually use the term emotions, however, we can find many places in which the scriptures do address the “inner man”. The psalmist said to himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (Psalm 42:11). He identified a feeling, an emotion, which was plaguing his soul. And then he spoke back to it: “Hope in God”. The emotional upheaval within us is oftentimes an indication of our spiritual state. If we are disturbed by our feelings, we must identify what is behind them, which is typically a spiritual problem.

How do we examine our emotions? Mark Deckard provides a simple yet precise method: “A desire or emotion is right when it is appropriate to the context a person is in. Negative emotions can be correct when they are responding to the context of living in a fallen world.” For instance, it is right to have a sense of sadness when a loved one dies; or to be angry when a child is murdered. Our problem is that many times, our emotions are not biblically appropriate because we have allowed our sinful hearts to inform our emotions, instead of using biblical truth gained in our minds and applying it to our hearts.

Jonathan Edwards, in his studies on religious affections, wrote a great deal on emotions: “Affections and all their components – will, emotions, desire, belief, must in the end arise from the work of Scripture in our lives and therefore be compatible with Scripture in their actual outworking”. We cultivate godly emotions by allowing the work of Scripture to take root in our minds and hearts, and then teaching our emotions to be compatible with that Scripture. Our emotions, just as every other part of our being, must be brought into submission to the Word of God. It is only by the finished work of Christ, applied to our lives through the working of the Holy Spirit, which can transform our emotions to be pleasing and honorable.

One of Helen Roseveare’s favorite hymns summarizes the peace she experienced when her emotions were controlled by the Spirit: “Hope, hope, radiant hope – soon all dark shadows must flee. Then with what joy, full, complete, I shall be ever with Thee.”