Martha, Martha, Change Your Emotion Concept

Verses about worry and anxiousness in the New Testament have been used to condemn and shame those struggling with anxiety disorders. Often people consumed with concerns are told to pray more, to stop worrying, to have faith. This misuse of Biblical texts stems in part from an improper mapping of current understandings of emotion concepts Worry and Anxiety onto the Greek μεριμνάω.

The theory of constructed emotion that Lisa Feldman Barrett recently popularized defines emotion as the meaning our minds make from our feelings and predictions, both external inputs and internal sensations, to balance our bodies and prepare them for action. Each emotion is a concept we have learned over time and stored, ready to pull up and construct in a moment. We can learn new emotion concepts and later implement them.

This paper uses constructed emotion theory to examine instances in Luke’s Gospel of μεριμνάω (to worry, to be anxious, to be concerned, to be preoccupied). Jesus uses the word in speaking to his followers in three conversations:
• Luke 10:41, talking with Martha about being worried and troubled
• Luke 12:11, instructing disciples not to worry about what to say when brought before authorities
• Luke 12:22-26, teaching disciples not to worry about the cares of life

Taking cues from biblical translation philosophies and a constructed view of emotion, this paper considers LXX and extrabiblical literature uses of the word to flesh out a culture-bound emotion concept for “μεριμνάω.” Then it considers Jesus’ method for replacing an old emotion concept with a new one, drawing on Batja Mesquita’s work on the cultural construction of emotion and the ways caregivers teach new emotion concepts to their charges.

Biblical scholars have started citing Barrett and Mesquita’s work, but to my knowledge, no one has yet used their theories explicitly as the framework for understanding Gospel texts. Using Barrett and Mesquita’s work as lenses on the texts shows that Jesus is not criticizing nor censuring. Rather he seeks to move his followers from constructing an existing cultural emotion concept to learning and then constructing different emotions including faith in God’s care for them rather than concern over having to care for themselves.

This study concludes that Luke’s verses about worry are not a condemnation of anxiety but a hopeful offering of a new emotion Jesus’ followers could learn to construct that would reconceptualize their fear into faith.

Leave a Comment