Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled: Dealing with Emotions in the Christian Life

By Grant Hawley


Emotions are probably the one area of life where most Christians find their biggest struggle.

Some believers have no idea that God even cares about our emotional lives. Others think that they are on their own when it comes to trying to keep their hearts under control. Both seem to have their emotional lives driven by circumstance.

But on the night before Jesus was crucified, He was greatly concerned with His disciples emotional well-being.

Let's put ourselves in the disciples' place for a moment, and see what was going on from their perspective.

The disciples have all left everything to follow Jesus.

The disciples have been kicked out of the synagogue for confessing that Jesus is the Christ (John 9:22, 12:42). The synagogue is the social hub of the culture as well as the religious hub, so they were significantly cut off from society.

Their lives are threatened by the religious leaders (John 11:8-16).

This, however was all okay because they are expecting Jesus to set up the Kingdom right then. He had already come into Jerusalem riding on a donkey's colt (see Zech 9:9) to shouts of "Hosanna! 'BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!' The King of Israel!" (John 12:13). To the Jews, these were signs that the Kingdom was on its way in.

The Passover Meal

This brings us to the Passover meal. After washing the disciples' feet, Jesus says something the disciples did not expect. "Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me" (John 13:21). Each of the disciples, asked "Lord, is it I?" (Matt 26:22).

Then He adds to it by saying that He is going away and that they cannot follow Him (John 13:33-36). What else do they have from a circumstantial perspective? They have nothing and nowhere to go, and even their safety is in jeopardy.

Lastly, Jesus says that the leader among the disciples, Peter, will deny Him that very night.

Peter believed that his commitment was absolute, that he was willing to lay down his life for Jesus. But the reality was, at least for the moment, far from it. His denial would be direct and repeated. In fact, comparing the various accounts in the gospels shows that Peter denied Jesus a total of six times that night, three before the rooster crowed once, and three more times before it crowed again. What a crushing thought.

The very next words out of the Lord's mouth didn't reflect disappointment or anger at Peter's upcoming denial. Jesus was concerned with Peter's and the rest of the disciples' emotional well-being. "Let not your heart be troubled," He said (14:1).

This is a command. It is a sin to let our hearts be troubled, but this doesn't mean that we should compound that trouble with guilt. To sin is essentially to miss the mark of God's best for us. It is a sin to have a troubled heart because God's desire for us, His best for us is for us to have joy and peace.

Jesus also did not leave them with a command only, but left them with every help they would need to obey it. And how ridiculous would it be to say to someone "stop being upset" as their whole lives come crashing down around them and not help them to overcome those feelings?

The Solution

So, if the disciples are not called to wrestle their own emotions down, what is their responsibility? Jesus spends the next four chapters talking about what He will do to help them, but He sums up their responsibility in the next phrase: "you believe in God, believe also in Me" (John 14:1). We know that the eleven faithful disciples who made up Jesus' audience were already believers (John 2:11, 13:30) who already possessed eternal life. Jesus' focus here was a continued and matured belief in Jesus to meet all of their spiritual needs.

No passage of the Bible describes in detail the attributes, character, and desires of all three Persons of the Trinity like John 13-17. Twenty-three times in John 14 alone, Jesus uses the word "Father." Jesus' unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit is stressed (John 14:7, 9-11; 16-20; 15:23; 16:13-15, 27, 32; 17:5-10; 21-26), and this unity is especially manifested in the Godhead's unity in their unending love for the disciples.

Furthermore, the unity that is described between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is offered to the disciples as well (every believer in Christ has God living within [Rom 8:9, Col 2:6], the focus of this passage is an experience of that fact):

John 14:20-21

At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you. He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him."

John 15:5

"I am the vine, you are the branches [a vine and its branches are united, where does a vine end and its branches begin?]. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing."

John 17:20-26

"I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me. "Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father! The world has not known You, but I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me. And I have declared to them Your name, and will declare it, that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them."

The disciples can be united with God and one with each other in God.

For this reason, I interpret John 14:2, "In My Father's house are many mansions [literally: dwellings]; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you", differently than many others. One other time in John, the phrase "My Father's house" appears, and it is not about heaven. In 2:16, the phrase "My Father's house" refers to the temple, which we later learn is His body (v 21). Are we promised a place in heaven? Of course we are. But this is not something new to the disciples (John 6:39). Jesus was speaking about their place in His Body, the Church. This is the focus of the entire Upper Room Discourse in John (chapters 13-17). His unity with them, not the promise of heaven, is the answer to the disciples' troubled hearts.

Jesus says explicitly, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid." (14:27), letting us know that the answer to the disciples' troubled hearts is not a circumstantial change, the only way the world gives peace. The answer is that He will give them His peace, by giving them Himself.

This brings us to the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5:22-23: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control..." All of these things describe the nature of God, and if we live by the Spirit, letting Christ replace us, His emotional life (full of love, joy, and peace) becomes ours. This is how Christ can promise His peace (14:27), love (15:5-12), and joy (15:11; 17:13) to the disciples despite their unbelievably bad circumstances.

Paul reflects the very same phenomenon in 2 Cor 1:3-7:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.

In the Greek, the words for comfort, suffer, and tribulation appear redundant, so the translators have tried to add variety by using words like consolation, and trouble. Repeatedly, Paul shows that suffering and tribulation bring in comfort.

The Vine and the Vinedresser

This brings us to the True Vine analogy in John 15:1-12. This analogy has been badly butchered by people trying to read a justification context into it. Only the eleven faithful disciples are present and there is no possibility of them losing eternal life. Furthermore, Jesus' focus is helping them to not have a troubled heart and threatening them with the lake of fire would be counter-productive to say the least. Lastly, in verse 2, "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit," the word for take away is the Greek air?, "I lift up" not aire?, "I take away". A better translation of the verse is found in the marginal reading of the NKJV: "Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He lifts up; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit".

This also matches the viticulture practices in the Middle East (both now and in ancient times), where due to extreme temperatures grapevines grow on the ground, rather than on raised wires. This is usually an effective way for grapes to grow, however, some branches send out small, thin roots that dig shallowly into the ground. These branches cease to depend on the main vine for sustenance, and live instead on what nutrients they can get directly from the ground. The result is either no fruit, or small bitter grapes. The vinedresser then goes and props up those branches using a rock and a stick so that the branch must depend on the vine for nutrients. This results in a much greater production of fruit.

The question, then, is what does it mean to be lifted up? Many believe that this means to be encouraged, and this certainly may be the case. However, when we compare the analogy to the historical situation another possible interpretation arises. The problem that is being corrected by lifting up the branches is that the branches that do not bear fruit are depending on the earth's insufficient sustenance. The possibility of this is then removed so that the main vine's life could flow freely.

Likewise, the disciples had all of their connections with the world removed so that no source of comfort would remain other than the life of Christ. If this is what the analogy means, we can see that the disciples' terrible circumstances were actually the loving care of the Vinedresser.

It is important for me to speak candidly about this, so that no confusion can come in. The cares of the world are hindrances to our love, joy, and peace. When something in our lives keeps us from depending on Christ, many times the very best thing that God can do for us is to remove it. I have an old friend who made a fortune in foreign stocks and later lost it all. He is one of the most humble and sweet-spirited men I have ever known, and his loss of the world's treasures was one experience God used to build that aspect of Christ's life into him. Thank God for loss, when it means we gain Christ.

And what a treasure He is.