Learning our values through emotions

Relationships are based on values that we share in common with other people. In this way, our values directly affect all our relationships. Unfortunately, sometimes it is not easy to know the real values that we hold.

Relationship Basics

Your values are the most important thing about you. In a very real sense, once someone gets past your physical characteristics, the sum of your values is who you are. They are your morality, and what you hold to be important on everything in life. Your values guide your decisions which drive your behaviors, your associations and your relationships.

All relationships are based on common value systems. You get to know someone as you come to understand their value system. If we have nothing in common, no relationship will develop. But when we find things that we value together, we develop relationship around that common ground. We can be motivated to a common purpose around that value even if we only share values in that one area. However, the breadth of our shared values will determine the breadth of our relationship. And, the degree to which our common values are deeply held values is the degree to which we can have deep relationships. This is true for non-moral values, but is especially true for moral values.

In our relationships, we have varying degrees of conflict. In every case, these conflicts can be traced back to a conflict of values. How the toothpaste tube is to be squeezed should not be a big issue, but if we hold certain values of neatness, we might then have conflict over them. How money is to be spent does not need to be a big issue, but we might want to accomplish something with our money because of our values and we may have conflict with others because of that.

Our Real Values

The values that we say we have and the values that we demonstrate in practice are often not the same. We might think of that first category of values as our ideals, but it is the second category of values that actually drive us. Those latter values are our real values as validated by our behaviors and actions. Often it isn't easy for us to see what these are. How can we determine our real values?

In addition, not everybody finds interest in introspection. Plenty of people have difficulty trying to figure themselves out, especially if they feel they aren’t very good at doing it. This can present real challenges in relationships, especially when we try to improve them.

There is a way, however, to usefully discern our values. Our desires come from our actual values, and our emotions indicate whether we are getting our desires.

Our Desires

The desires that we have flow out of the values we hold. These desires generally fall into three categories: our bodily appetites, our reputation and our personal domain. These correspond to the three areas about which Jesus was tested in the wilderness (Matthew 4). From Jesus we see that it is better to be good than to satisfy our appetites, it is better to be good than to to be adored, and it is better to be good than to have an earthly kingdom.

It is not wrong for us to tend to the needs of our bodies, for people to like us, or for us to have power and control. These desires are normal. God also has provided ways for these desires to be satisfied - in ways that are compatible with His value system. However, we must remain aware of our desires in these three key areas and the values that underly the desires.

Emotions are a Tool

Our emotions are a very useful tool in this process of self-examination. This is because our emotions simply reveal whether we are getting our desires. We experience positive emotions when our values are being done to us (we are getting what we desire), and negative emotions when our values aren't being done to us (when we are not getting our desires).

It is critical to realize first, that positive emotions do not indicate whether a desire (and the value underneath it) is good, and negative emotions do not indicate whether a desire is wrong. They simply indicate whether we are receiving our desires. The strength of the emotion indicates to us the level of importance of the desire. Emotions are just indicators.

Emotions and Change

We may want to change our emotions; however, direct control of emotions is usually counterproductive. Use the emotions instead to discover your desires and therefore, your values. Then, change your values to change your emotions. Change by adopting God's value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others.

Note that we will experience some negative emotions as we change our values to be like God's values. Jesus experienced some strong negative emotions (e.g. sadness, anger) because he lived God's unselfish value system. But the emotions we will experience will be emotions more like God's.

The process of change to God's values is difficult. Even if we experience strong negative emotions, God calls us to act in love. However, we will also experience more of positive emotions as we become transformed to have and live God's values (because our relationships will be improved). Additionally, understanding the principles of why we experience the negative emotions makes it less difficult to go through the experience.

Learning from Emotions

So, from values come desires, which give us emotions as we go through life. God gave us these emotions to be a tool for understanding ourselves so we can become more like God in values.

We can look at the context of where we experience an emotion to notice what the trigger was for it. We can then see what it tells us about our desires in that context. When we know our desires we can figure out what our true values are. Then we can work to change that value if it is not one that want to keep. Or, we can confirm that value if it is one that we want to retain.

Each type of emotion tells us something about ourselves. Some examples:

  • Anger is the emotion we feel when we think there is a wrong that needs to be corrected. From this we can determine what we think are wrongs, and then what we think are rights. Our true values and what we believe as rights will be closely related.
  • Envy is the negative emotion we feel when someone else has done something better than us. (This might be because we value always being the winner.)
  • Happiness is what we experience when we are achieving the things that we value.

For a full explanation of this topic with much more practical detail, see the book Emotions: Revealing our Values. This page is essentially a plug for the utility of this book and largely comes from the book.


Growth and Living

The perspective of value system on living enables us to work on relationships in better ways. Because we see that values underlie both behaviors and emotions, we can also see that trying to work just at the level of behavior and emotion can bring only limited success.

The values perspective enables new ways of discussion about relationships. Sometimes talking about behaviors is unproductive because people quickly become defensive. However, talking about values that lead to behaviors can be more thoughtful. This is especially so when we can compare values against a shared good standard of values (sacrificial love).

When we can discover the true values we hold, then we can have clarity about what we are doing right and what we might change.

  • For our relationship with God, we can compare our values to God's value (of sacrificial love for the benefit of others) and see what parts of our values we need to work on.
  • For our relationships with people, we can see how our interpersonal values agree or conflict, and we can work together to align them.

When our real active values are right, then the emotions and behaviors will follow rightly.


The value system concepts and perspective on the gospel that are on this page are based on ideas from the work of Darren Twa, pastor at Life Fellowship and author of several books including God's Value System.

2021-05-13 updated 2021-05-23   © 2022 Larry Grove