Finding God in Negative Emotions

man alone outdoors

While we often rightly emphasize the role of consolation in Ignatian spirituality, I have recently been thinking more about finding God in negative emotions. I don’t here mean when we feel sadness, anger, disappointment, or other strong emotions, that God comes to comfort, soothe, or encourage us. That’s also true, but here I am thinking of cases in which negative emotions—that is, emotions that don’t feel good—already indicate the presence of God. Here are three examples.

Righteous anger. While many of us were taught that anger is a morally “bad” emotion, I appreciate Aristotle’s insight that proper anger is a virtue if it is directed toward the right people, over the right things, and for the right amount of time (Nicomachean Ethics IV.5). Consider instances of social injustice: famine after a hurricane, systematic racism, or terrible poverty in the midst of great social wealth. Anger can be a first moment of awakening that helps us to notice injustice. In the book of Amos, God expresses anger at the wealthy people in Israel for “buying the poor with silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:6). We should not nurse our anger. Eventually, anger must transform into love, compassion, and patience, even for those who cause or perpetrate injustice. But anger can be a healthy initial emotion by which God leads us to pay attention to social injustice.

Sorrow. Of course, often it is not others, but we ourselves who are the causes of an injustice or hurting others. Sorrow and contrition can initially feel awful. I remember in high school goofing around with a Nerf football in the school library when I thought I’d gently punt the ball over to a friend. Instead, the ball went flying into the chandelier and shattered it. Glass fell everywhere. I felt completely ashamed and dragged myself to the teachers’ lounge to tell them what I had done. Luckily, the teachers were understanding, and my initial fears of being forever condemned to a reputation as “the girl who broke the chandelier” were not realized. But sorrow and regret are good emotions when we’ve acted badly. True sorrow leads to saying to another, “I’m sorry.” Sorrow can lead us to conversion, humility, and eventually forgiveness. In that way, sorrow is already a sign of God’s action in us.

Longing. When we are away from a person whom we love, we greatly miss his or her presence. We grieve those who have passed before us. Or we can also miss a community of people after an intense shared experience—for example, in a bout of post-holiday blues. Longing can feel like having a hole in the heart. Yet these feelings of longing are also signs of our great care and connection to one another—longing already indicates love. I still miss my mother every time I say goodbye to her, since we live in different parts of the country, yet I appreciate that we have a loving relationship that means enough to long for it. Similarly, in times when God feels absent, or consolation disappears into dryness, God is still present in the very longing for a return. God can be known in the very longing for God and for others to whom we are connected in God. Longing points us toward God, the deepest source and object of our loves.

How have you experienced finding God in negative emotions?

About Marina McCoy 49 Articles
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, where she teaches philosophy and in the BC PULSE service learning program. She is the author of Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy (Oxford University Press, 2013). She and her husband are the parents to a young adult and a teenager and live in the Boston area.
Contact: Website

13 Comments on Finding God in Negative Emotions

  1. These are important thoughts and well said, but what about depression, feelings of hopelessness, fear, humiliation, self-centeredness (a negative feeling if viewed as an unjustified feeling of importance), mixed emotions … ? God is speaking to us in these situations too, but the “resolution” isn’t always very evident. The tendency at times is to rush to see a psychologist or an understanding friend, but perhaps God is simply calling our attention to matters over which we don’t have much if any control.

    • Thanks, Paul, for your comment, and thanks to everyone who posted. Just to clarify, I would not want to say that every negative (or positive) emotion’s source is from God, but only that sometimes emotions that don’t “feel good” are, in fact, from God, i.e., feelings that can lead us closer to God and to others. I like that in Ignatius’ thought, we are to pay attention to emotions and then also reflect on our responses to that emotion. We need the heart and the head, as I often have to remind myself!

      • Thanks Marina for your post on negative emotions. One very negative emotion is depression. How can I find God in the midst of my depression. Or the depression of others? Perhaps we experience “The Abandoned Christ” in the depression. May you or someone shed light on this. It weighs so heavily.

  2. I am so grateful that so many spiritual leaders are supporting us. It is a true sign that the Spirit of God is in our midst. Thank you so much. This gives God praise!

  3. Thank you so much, Marina, for expressing so beautifully, what I often find myself feeling, but unable to pinpoint. There can be a danger in shooshing away negative emotion at first glance, without being present to it and what it might be trying to tell us. Thank you again, for articulating this and bringing it to attention.

  4. I think also of the emotion Resentment….which often crops up as a caregiver. I struggle daily with that and then the guilt that comes with it.

  5. Thank you Marina; you captured it ALL! Righteous Anger (YES) The Longing is a big problem; no close family anywhere near, not even siblings. Mother & Father ,gone to God long ago; Mother died at (43yrs). I am eighty, not having spent all my life in just one place,I find the lack of close personal contact causes much sadness. Jesus is the one true friend I can rely on. But it would be good to have a few here also. I guess, as one who is older , we sometimes outlive the ones we loved the most. RESENTMENT? is not only soul-destroying it can actually make one very ill, mainly affecting the Liver! so I hope whoever has that one ,prays harder to turn it into compassion. It sure does nothing to hurt the one you are resentful about! God Bless all the great Spiritual Writers for their insight. Maybe Diane, can get some respite care, I hope so. You have to look after yourself too. Maybe you could pretend you are caring for Jesus or even Lazarus?? God bless you for doing it. A.M.D.G.(?)

  6. Thank you Marina for your shared wisdom and insights especially in regard to “God can be known in the very longing we have for others to whom we are connected by God.” This grief, this longing, of missing someone who has died brings great desolation. We shared the experience of Jonathan Trejo-Mathys dying so young to cancer amidst having a young family and building his philosophy career. Your words brought be comfort in creating a shift in my sometimes desert experience of grief and loss of my brother-in-law. The dryness left a patch of drought on my heart, and in pausing to reflect, I realize, that I miss that connection. That human part of us that feels unrooted when it is lost, and I discovered that my spiritual roots grow deeper. One cannot fully disconnect from God’s love as it is unwavering and infinite. I realize that God gave me an opportunity. As it is sung in Les Mes, “To love another person is to see the face of God,” and God blessed our family with Jonathan for a far too short of a time, but how powerful it was. This longing found a bit of consolation in that what a blessing it was to have and the fact that the connection doesn’t die with the death. It is rooted in God’s love, in memories, in his children’s faces…that longing is because of loving so well. What grace. Thank you Marina and everyone at BC. AMDG.

  7. Thank you for your insight. However, the negative emotions you describe aren’t those ascribed to the intense, painful experiences that are part of the human condition such as death, illness, job loss, drug addiction, and homelessness. These are the circumstances of darkness where finding God’s light in overwhelming pain seems insurmountable. I am conjuring catastrophic episodes, more extreme scenarios where it is hard to find God’s goodness. Millennium old treatises, such as the book of Job, try to understand how God allows bad events to target good people. The underlying justification proposed by Old Testament prophets is chastisement for unfaithfulness. Jesus teaches otherwise.

  8. Thank you for all these good thoughts. I haven’t thought of looking for God in my negative emotions. Pray for relief from them and to have a clean heart from that which is not good.

  9. When I experience these feelings, I pause a bit, meditate then look inside of as to what went wrong. Some of them are unavoidable and hard to find the answer but I have learned not to dwell too much on the them. The are there not to stay with me, may be its a wake up call. May God grant us strength to move on and let Him heal us.

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