The Emotional Health Needs of Young Adults and Singles

by Christina M. H. Powell

In today’s business and academic world, supervisors and professors emphasize the role of emotional intelligence in developing emerging leaders. Perhaps the new interest in training young adults to manage their emotions and social interactions wisely comes as a balance to the increased use of technology for communication. In a world of cell phones, text messaging, and social network Web sites, a need for understanding how to communicate face-to-face with other humans still exists.

Young adulthood is a time when understanding the role of emotions in making decisions and negotiating relationships is essential. As young adults separate from their family of origin, they face decisions that affect the rest of their lives: determining vocation, choosing a spouse, and selecting friends. During this season, young adults solidify their worldviews and seek spiritual answers to find their purpose in life. They formulate opinions on matters of ethics, such as the value of human life.

Pastors can provide young adults with the biblical framework for understanding the purpose of emotions, recognizing the appropriate context for expressing emotions, and discerning the danger of overreliance on emotions. Achieving and maintaining emotional health are integral parts of spiritual maturity. Discipling believers to improve their emotional health is a worthy goal for a pastor.

Here is how pastors can help address the emotional health needs of young adults and singles.

What Are Emotions?

Researchers define emotions as mental states that arise spontaneously rather than through conscious effort. Physiological changes often accompany emotions. People experience six basic emotions that others can detect by facial expressions: happiness, surprise, fear, sadness, disgust, and anger. We use 42 facial muscles to express these emotions. Some researchers include two other emotions in this list: acceptance and anticipation. Other emotions are described as combinations of the basic emotions. For example, remorse would be a combination of sadness and disgust. In the English language we have over 600 words to describe the various shades of emotions.

The word emotion is derived from the Old French meaning “to move the feelings.” Thus, we can think of emotions as feelings that flow from us. Emotions help us manage our lives and provide the intuitive part of decision-making.

The limbic system of the brain controls the body’s reaction to emotions. If something damages the section of the brain responsible for processing emotions, a person may lose the ability to recognize emotions and may have difficulty making plans. The classic example of such a patient is Phineas Gage, a railroad worker injured in 1848 by an iron rod blown through his head by an explosion. While he survived the blast and was able to talk and walk after the accident, his personality changed. He went from a responsible, sociable, capable man to one who was impulsive, unreliable, and incapable of making decisions. Thus, there is a biological component to our emotions. From the perspective of a Christian worldview, we can say that God created the systems in our bodies that produce emotions. Therefore, emotions must serve a useful purpose.

What Does the Bible Say About Emotions?

The God of the Bible expresses emotions. In Zephaniah 3:17, the Lord takes delight in His people and rejoices over them with singing. Psalm 78:40 shows God grieves over His people. God expresses anger in the many references to His wrath found throughout the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 9:8; 1 Samuel 28:18; 1 Chronicles 27:24). Yet, the Old Testament also describes God’s compassion (Hosea 11:8,9) and love (Isaiah 63:9). In the New Testament, we see Jesus expressing emotions. Jesus felt compassion (Luke 7:13); He wept (John 11:35); He was full of joy (John 15:11); He was amazed (Luke 7:9); He was consumed with zeal (John 2:17); He was angry (Matthew 21:12,13); and He loved (Mark 10:21; John 11:5).

The Bible teaches that we should not conduct ministry with clinical detachment. Rather the Bible tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15). The comfort we offer to others is simply the comfort we ourselves have received from God, who is “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). Ministry involves not only correctly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15) with our minds, but also setting apart Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).

The church needs to teach young adults a balanced biblical view of emotions. While we should not ignore or suppress emotions, emotions should not rule our lives. Many times Jesus told His disciples to not be afraid (Matthew 14:27; 28:10; Mark 6:50). The apostle Paul wrote “in your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). The phrase “do not be discouraged” appears several times (Deuteronomy 31:8; Joshua 1:9; 2 Chronicles 20:15). The Bible affirms that with God’s help, we can control our emotions and express them in healthy ways that do not hurt others.

Finally, we must base our moral standards for living and the basis for making ethical decisions on the Word of God rather than subjective feelings. The Psalmist asked and answered a question in Psalm 119:9, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” The truth in the Bible is objective truth that we can understand with our minds. Yet for that truth to have power in our lives, we must also feel it in our hearts. “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

What Are Key Components of Emotional Health for Young Adults?

Emotional health is not the absence of negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness, but rather the way a person processes these emotions. An emotionally healthy person is able to take challenges and keep them in perspective. The accumulation of life’s experiences makes maintaining a proper perspective easier for an older person than for a young adult. For a young adult, the end of a romantic relationship or a closed door on a career path may seem overwhelming. A pastor who has accumulated more life experience than the young adult to whom he is ministering may be able to impart this wisdom of keeping things in proper perspective. Keeping problems in proper perspective leads to resilience, another indicator of emotional health. Resilient people recover quicker from trauma and remain competent during stress.

What other factors make a person resilient? A strong social support network, spirituality, finding positive meaning in trauma, helping others, and an identity as a survivor rather than a victim contribute to resiliency. Young adults can find these factors that promote resiliency in ministries for them. A church can provide the social support young adults need and provide outlets for helping others. A pastor can provide counsel that helps a young adult find positive meaning in a negative experience, and choose the identity of an overcomer rather than a victim.

Another component of emotional health is emotional honesty or self-awareness. Emotional honesty means expressing one’s true feelings. A person’s awareness of his true feelings is related to his emotional intelligence. Young adults can struggle with emotional honesty by relating to others from one of two extremes. Some young adults can be blunt in relating their feelings to others and come across as disrespectful or abrasive. Others may be reluctant to share their true feelings out of their need for others to like them and to maintain their approval. Relationships with others suffer in both cases. Learning to share your real feelings respectfully with another person takes courage as well as practice. Pastors can model healthy communication within staffs, among leaders, and with individual parishioners. Gentle honesty in relationships builds the fellowship described in 1 John 1:5–7, a fellowship that comes from walking in the light and living by truth.

A third component of emotional health is maintaining positive relationships. The ability to consider the needs of others alongside your own is an important characteristic of emotional intelligence. Because we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), sooner or later a need to forgive will arise in nearly every relationship. Pastors can teach young adults the biblical concept of forgiveness. Some young adults in your ministry may have grown up in homes divided by divorce or tainted by abuse. As these young adults prepare to find marriage partners and start homes of their own, they begin to work through their feelings about their childhood. Part of maturing in Christ is forgiving their parents and others who may have hurt them.

Forgiveness does not mean we do not set boundaries with people who have harmed us in the past and who may still be emotionally abusive. Extending forgiveness does mean setting that person free from any debt he owes for the wrongs committed. Forgiveness does mean releasing any resentment or bitterness toward that person. Forgiveness means not repaying evil for evil, living at peace with people the best you can, and relinquishing any right for revenge, leaving room for God’s wrath and judgment instead (Romans 12:17–19).

In forgiving, the person that is set free is really the one who forgives. Negative emotions a person has buried can be set free by forgiveness. Letting go of bitterness can improve a person’s health. Ideally, forgiveness can set the stage for restoration of a healthy relationship between two people, although forgiveness does not always lead to a restored relationship. One person is needed for forgiveness to flow, but two people are needed for reconciliation to happen.

What Is the Relationship Between Emotional Health and Ethics?

When I consider the role of emotions in the lives of young adults, I think about the place for emotions in the search for truth and in determining right from wrong. Emotions do not authenticate objective truth. The resurrection of Christ cannot be verified through emotions. Whether or not life begins at conception is not open to emotional interpretation. Yet, emotions do authenticate our discovery of truth. Our understanding of the plan of salvation, made known by Christ’s resurrection, fills our hearts with joy.

Emotions make us care about defending truth. Emotions make us care about making ethical choices, about avoiding overstepping boundaries. Our compassion for the unborn, disabled, and elderly makes us care about the sanctity of human life. Therefore, when we teach young adults the biblical basis for medical ethics regarding end-of-life decisions, embryonic stem cell research, use of alternative medicine, reproductive health treatments, genetic enhancement, and psychoactive medications, we must first teach that truth is objective and not the result of subjective emotional experience. In science and medicine, keeping emotions in check and removed from the process of acquiring data and formulating hypotheses is appropriate. In ministry, the basis of apologetic arguments that defend the faith is truth and reason. Yet, when we teach ethics, we must also allow young adults to feel our passion for upholding righteousness, for protecting the vulnerable, and for promoting fairness. Without emotions, learning medical ethics quickly becomes dull and burdensome. Furthermore, history painfully illustrates that emotionally unhealthy individuals, such as Adolf Hitler, turn out to be the most ethically challenged.

What makes preaching such a powerful tool for touching lives — young adults included — is that preaching appeals to both the heart and the mind. Pastors can make the truth come alive with illustrations that touch on the emotions. Sometimes that which is difficult for the mind to grasp, the heart can know. In promoting emotional health for young adults, ministers are laying the foundation for spiritual maturity.

A saying in ministry is “hurting people hurt people.” When we help young adults move beyond their emotional pain and into new levels of spiritual maturity, we are preventing the cycle of emotional hurt from extending to another generation.

I have noticed a pattern where young ministers who have experienced pain from conflict and rejection by senior ministers often become the senior ministers who create conflict and pass the pain of rejection onto another generation of younger ministers. Jesus told His disciples as the time for His crucifixion was drawing near: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34,35). Emotionally healthy Christians are powerful witnesses. In a world where people take commitments lightly and break relationships too easily, Christians who learn to forgive one another as Christ has forgiven them will indeed be the salt of the earth and light of the world (Matthew 5:13,14). In a world filled with adversity, young leaders who have learned to move beyond victimhood to becoming overcomers will be the leaders worth following.

Pastors can go beyond the work of business supervisors and college professors, who merely promote emotional intelligence, by encouraging spiritual maturity in the young adults they mentor. In doing so, pastors will be discipling a generation more than ready to meet the ethical challenges of their day.