Published on August 29th, 2013 | by Joanna Holman

(Book Review) Joy and Tears by Gerald W. Peterman

In Joy and Tears, Gerald Peterman sets out to make the case that emotion is a legitimate and necessary part of the Christian experience and to explore what the Bible teaches about “negative” emotions that are sometimes criticised in Christian circles.

One of the most practical parts of this book is the way it attempts to chart a course between two of the common extremes when thinking about emotions: on one side, a stoic over-control of emotions that expresses nothing, and on the other side, an overly dramatic approach that expresses everything wildly. Peterman offers his study of scripture to support his middle-ground case for a wide-ranging but self-controlled emotional experience and expression.

The sections on guilt, shame, and contentment were most helpful to me.

Guilt and shame

I have heard many people consider guilt and shame to be essentially the same thing. Joy and Tears argues otherwise. The author suggests that the emotional dimension of guilt is a response to believing we’ve done something wrong, whereas shame is a sense of embarrassment or being exposed that may not stem from wrong behavior. He explains that while they can feel similar in experience, they require different responses. If there is true guilt over doing something wrong, then the response should be repentance. In the case of shame, the response should be working to prayerfully untangle what is making us feel ashamed.

I think this is particularly helpful to ponder when it comes to mental health issues. It can be easy to feel shame over a diagnosis of a mental illness or the impact of a mental illness on you and your responsibilities, but this is not guilt—you haven’t done anything wrong.

If you want to further explore guilt and shame, I’d recommend reading some of Brene Brown’s work on the topic. Chapter 3 of her book Daring Greatly would be a good place to start.

Contentment

I like the discussion in Joy and Tears of contentment. The importance of being content is often discussed in churches with wide applications. Peterman argues that the Biblical teaching about contentment is primarily about money, and that by overextending it to other aspects of life, we risk encouraging complacency with things in life that aren’t how they should be. He instead suggests that an emotionally and spiritually healthy discontentment should manifest itself in some areas of life.

While I’m not convinced that money is the only focus for Biblical contentment, I find his discussion of healthy discontent to be worth the price of the book and the time spent reading it.

In applying this concept of discontent to mental health, I see a balance between accepting that, for right now, we are how we are, and the entirely appropriate longing for the world and our lives to be made right.

Mental illness

The most substantial frustration I had with the book was that it only dealt in passing with the impact of mental illness on a Christian experience of emotions. A Christian response to mental illness is a big, complicated topic that could easily be a book on its own, so perhaps Peterman felt the subject was outside the scope of this book.

Mental illness makes questions of personal responsibility for emotions more complicated. Leaving mental illness out of a discussion on a Christian approach to emotions risks downplaying the connections and impact. In reality, a large proportion of the population will either personally experience mental illness or be dealing closely with someone who is.

Closing thoughts

Given the insufficient discussion on mental illness, I wouldn’t make Joy and Tears the only book you read to gain a Biblical perspective on emotions. But read alongside other books, it offers a lot of food for thought.

My guess is that you may find it most helpful if you are prone to under-expressing your emotions. Whatever your emotional bent, it will definitely be worth pondering the scriptures he highlights on the topic.

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