Emotional intelligence: A biblical understanding

Those who are ultimately successful will not only tell each other the truth, but they will also be telling themselves the truth.

When a group of volunteers was subjected to two sleepless nights, army researchers found that lack of sleep hindered participants’ ability to make decisions in the face of emotionally-charged moral dilemmas.1 Perhaps even more significant was the finding that some volunteers changed their views of what was morally acceptable in a state of sleep deprivation, although this was not universally the case. Volunteers who, at the beginning of the study, scored highly on a measure known as “emotional intelligence” did not waver on what they found morally appropriate.

Do you think you might face an emotionally-charged moral dilemma in your life? Actually, it is quite clear from Scripture and as we look at the world around us, that we will all face such dilemmas in the near future (see Revelation 13:12-17).

The role of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is not related merely to decision-making. Studies show that while the job you get after college is related to your IQ, how far you advance in that job bears little relationship to IQ.2 It is not even related to your grades in school.3 Rather, it is related to your EQ.4 Furthermore, your success and happiness in life are more closely associated with EQ than with any other form of intelligence.5

In a variety of scientific studies, increasing EQ has been shown to prevent or treat depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and addictions such as alcoholism.6,7,8 The 12-step program used by Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, has led to remarkable success, but it is four times more successful if combined with a program to enhance emotional intelligence.

What about persons who don’t necessarily have an addiction or specific disease? Enhancing EQ has been shown to help these individuals think more clearly and communicate more effectively.9 It fosters unity in group settings, reduces polarizing statements, and promotes a happier life.10

Influences on emotional intelligence

Influences on EQ have been well studied in the last 10 years. Our genetic makeup has a small role to play. Our childhood experiences – how we were raised and what types of things happened to us – exert some influence.11 Our current level of emotional support also plays a role.12 However, these are not the most influential factors.

The most important influence on EQ is what we believe.13 This is because our emotions are largely framed by our beliefs – our evaluations of events, the way we think about problems, our silent (or sometimes, not-so-silent!) self-talk. It turns out that your beliefs have much more to do with how you feel than what is actually happening in your life.

Consider an example from the Bible. Paul and Silas were jailed without a fair trial, cruelly beaten, and tossed on a rough dirt floor, with their wrists and feet fastened in stocks (Acts 16:22-24). Do we find them weeping and crying? No, they were singing praises to God. Why? Because their thoughts were more powerful than what was actually happening in their lives.

Popular “psychology” would tell us that if we are in a circumstance like Paul and Silas, we just need to create a fantasy world in our mind. Imagine being on a beach in Hawaii, instead of on that prison floor. If we tried that technique, it would work for about 1.2 seconds! An acute reminder of our circumstances would implode our Hawaiian fantasy. What did have lasting value for Paul and Silas were beliefs that went beyond their present circumstance to their priorities. And those true and accurate thoughts were so powerful that they could praise God.

The bottom line is that emotional intelligence can be learned. And since emotional intelligence is learned rather than merely inherited, it can be developed. How then can we not only safeguard but also effectively develop emotional intelligence? While there are many principles we might explore,14 let’s illustrate three of these, each through a biblical example.

The case of Saul

The first case of cognitive distortion is well illustrated by the life of Israel’s first king. Saul was tall and stunningly handsome (1 Samuel 9:1, 2). He was also wealthy. Although he had these apparent advantages, negative thoughts began to develop in Saul’s mind, thoughts that were gross distortions of reality. On the surface, these thoughts appeared valid, but underneath they represented irrational, twisted thinking.

We know of at least three causes of Saul’s mental turmoil. The first cause, and the root of the others, was the cognitive distortion of magnification and minimization. In other words, Saul magnified things that were not important and minimized things that were truly significant.

How did Saul minimize? When confronted with his guilt, he blamed others and justified himself. Corrected by God’s prophet and asked why he didn’t follow divine instruction, Saul began to point out ways that he had followed the Lord’s instructions (1 Samuel 5:20, 21). In essence, Saul complained to Samuel, “Why don’t you just talk about what I did right? You are focusing on things I didn’t do right, which, by the way, aren’t such a big deal.” His problem was the minimization of his guilt. Ellen White notes, “If you have made mistakes, you certainly gain a victory if you see these mistakes and regard them as beacons of warning. Thus you turn defeat into victory, disappointing the enemy and honoring your Redeemer.”15

In Saul’s case, we find a second problem: dwelling on the unfairness of his life. As a result of his guilt, Saul received a sentence, and he thought that the punishment outweighed the crime. Did it? While Samuel was the messenger, the verdict was actually issued by God Himself. So was it unfair? In reality, many people who describe their lives as unfair have actually been treated quite fairly.

Having said that, we should acknowledge that no one is treated fairly 100 percent of the time. But when we dwell upon that unfairness and rehearse it, it will inevitably cause significant emotional problems. Speaking of frustration tolerance, Ellen White says, “We should not allow our peace to be spoiled. However unjustly we may be treated, let not passion arise. By indulging a spirit of retaliation, we injure ourselves. We destroy our own confidence in God, and grieve the Holy Spirit.”16

The third aspect of Saul’s distorted thinking, connected to magnification, was an inordinate self-esteem (1 Samuel 15:16-19). This inflated self-esteem was also the cause of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity – “Is not this great Babylon, that I have built?” (Daniel 4:30) – and of Lucifer’s downfall – “I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” (Isaiah 14:13, 14). We can also call it pride, an inflated self-esteem that was easily wounded, in Saul’s case, by the people’s – and especially the women’s – obvious preference for another leader (1 Samuel 18:6-9).

Contrast Saul’s attitude with Christ’s: “Christ was never elated by applause, nor dejected by censure or disappointment.”17 The first clause is key to the second. If we are not elated by applause, if we have humility and not a distorted magnification of self, we will never be depressed by censure or disappointment.

The Bible reminds us, “Let nothing be done through strife or vain glory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3). “Lowliness of mind” doesn’t mean that you have a low sense of self-worth. We recognize that Christ would have died for just one soul, and that means we are of infinite value. But infinity is not greater than infinity. When we suddenly think that we are more valuable than the one sitting next to us, for whom Christ also died, we have crossed the line into arrogance and pride.

Saul underwent a recommended therapy for depression, and he felt better again for a while (1 Samuel 16:23). However, in time, with the three causes still active, and the third cause, wounded pride, becoming even more prominent, Saul slipped back into deeper anxiety and darker depression. Although a man with wonderful potential, he continued to live a selfish life, never completely trusting and obeying God, and never giving up his pride for more than a few days. Finally, under tremendous stress and with his enemies closing in, Saul’s sad life ended in suicide.

The case of Solomon

CNN recently carried a report that said, in essence: The next time you are deciding between ice cream and cake, buying a car or taking a trip to Europe, accepting a new job or keeping your old one, you should remember two things. First, your decision is rooted in the desire to become happy, or at least happier than you are now. Second, there’s a good chance the decision you make will be wrong.18

This takes us to the second cognitive distortion: emotional reasoning. Emotional reasoning goes like this: “I feel like a failure, therefore, I am a failure. I feel overwhelmed and helpless, thus my problems are impossible to solve. I feel like I’m on top of the world, therefore I am invincible. I am angry at you, and that proves that you’ve been cruel and insensitive to me.” One of the reasons why people get into the cycle of addiction is due to this type of emotional reasoning.

Depression is an epidemic in our society.19,20 Like Solomon, we tend to think that the more fun things we have and do, the less depression we may feel. The wise man wrote: “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure… And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10). If pleasurable things could prevent or treat depression, we should see the lowest levels of depression. But that’s not the case.

Most of the “fun things” in which people participate may spike the dopamine levels in our brains, creating a sense of pleasure. They also result in a subsequent dramatic drop, far below neutral. Furthermore, the more we do these things, the less they spike. Pretty soon, when we engage in our addiction of choice, it barely takes us up to neutral. In the in-between times, we feel a deep, overwhelming sense of sadness.

Solomon, for example, became involved in a life of extreme pleasure. It initially spiked his dopamine levels, but as this cycle was repeated, he says, “Therefore I hated life… for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair” (Ecclesiastes 2:17, 20). Randomized controlled studies show that after exposure to pornography for six weeks, both men and women were less attracted to their partner if they had one, were more self-absorbed, and evidenced less empathy for others around them.21 In essence, they began to live in a very self-centered world and began to shut down emotionally.

Ellen White states, “Many envied the popularity and abundant glory of Solomon, thinking that of all men he must be the most happy.”22 He had the most power, wealth, women, fame, and possessions. His contemporaries perhaps thought he was the happiest man. But Ellen White has this to say: “All the splendor about him is but to him mockery of the distress and anguish of his thoughts as he reviews his misspent life in seeking for happiness through indulgence and selfish gratification of every desire. By his own bitter experience, Solomon learned the emptiness of a life that seeks in earthly things its highest good. Gloomy and soul-harassing thoughts troubled him night and day. For him there was no longer any joy of life or peace of mind, and the future was dark with despair.”23

One of the salient characteristics of virtually all depressed individuals, no matter what the underlying cause, is a significant decrease in the blood flow and activity of the frontal lobe of the brain.24,25 As we go against our conscience, frontal lobe function decreases. And when we repeatedly do so, the decline becomes dramatic. That is where Solomon was.

The wisest man on earth became the most depressed. He felt that he had nothing to look forward to, that all was vanity and vexation. But in his deep depression, as a result of a prophet coming to him and giving him counsel, Solomon turned his life around. And if Solomon’s dissipated life could be redirected, there’s hope for every one of us. We can each get on the pathway of Solomon’s recovery – listening to the words of the prophet, changing our lifestyle, and altering the way we feel in authentic, effective ways.

James wrote, “No one should say God tempts, because God doesn’t tempt anyone. Each one is tempted when he is dragged away and enticed by his own desires” (James 1:13, 14). The problem is, feelings can lie! When we experience feelings, we need to elevate them to our level of consciousness and evaluate whether they are based on truth or on distortions.

The world offers a false way of altering the way we feel – whether it is gambling, pornography, alcohol, drugs, or even a chocolate binge. The problem is that we can never get enough of what we don’t need. There are things we do need, and that we can have enough of – we can get enough vitamin D, we can get enough broccoli, we can get enough sleep, we can get enough exercise. But we can never get enough of what we don’t need, because what we don’t need will never satisfy us! Our life choices must be made on the basis of what is true and in harmony with God’s plan for our lives.

The case of Elijah

The last example is a short one. “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4). Did Elijah have a sense of inflated pride, like Saul? No, Elijah was a humble man. Was Elijah, like Solomon, engaging in a self-indulgent lifestyle to try to gain happiness? No, Elijah lived a simple life. Yet Elijah suffered from significant depression.

This highlights the fact that when we are having emotional problems, we need to find the precise cause, as it’s not the same for everyone. Here is Elijah, a man who had always followed God’s will. He had just experienced God’s miraculous intervention on Mount Carmel. Yet within a day, someone informed him that he was about to lose his life, and Elijah panicked. Did Elijah have reason to fear Jezebel? He did, because she had killed all of the other prophets of the Lord! But instead of waiting upon God, Elijah turned and ran. Thirty days later, Elijah was so depressed that he wanted to die.

God had to put Elijah on a depression-recovery program. Like many depressed people, Elijah wanted to be in the dark, in the cave. God had to send an earthquake and a whirlwind to get him out of the cave and into the light. After all of those things, however, God turned to what was most important to Elijah’s recovery. God spoke and provided cognitive behavioral therapy to correct Elijah’s distorted thoughts.

Elijah’s distortion was overgeneralization – generalizing from too few instances. It is holding the hypothesis as a fact, rather than merely a hypothesis. High IQ people have a tendency to do that. Because they are able to readily generalize, they have a tendency to overgeneralize. What was Elijah’s overgeneralization? “I am the only one who has not bowed down to Baal.” The Lord let him get by with it the first time. But then Elijah repeated it, and the Lord couldn’t let him continue any longer in his self-destructive overgeneralization. “Elijah,” God said, “there are 7,000 others who haven’t bowed to Baal.” What Elijah should have said is, “Lord, I’m the only one I know of,” but instead he just knew he was the only one.

To help Elijah overcome his depression, God gave him a set of specific tasks to do – none of which, by the way, were activities that Elijah really wanted to do (1 Kings 19:15, 16). But Elijah did follow through on what the Lord asked him to do. Did Elijah recover? Not only did he recover, but also he was translated to heaven without seeing death (2 Kings 2:11).

Set free

The Psalmist says, “Lord, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in Your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). In essence, David is asking the question, “Who is going to be ultimately successful in life?” The answer is given, “He who walks uprightly, and works righteousness, and speaks the truth in his heart” (Psalm 15:2). It is this third phrase that is of particular interest.

The Ten Commandments talk about telling each other the truth. Those who are ultimately successful, however, will not only tell each other the truth, but they will be telling themselves the truth. And isn’t that really what we have to do in order to be accurate in telling others the truth? To speak the truth to others, we must first have thoughts of ourselves that are accurate and true.

Ellen White observes, “Even the thoughts must be brought into subjection to the will of God, and the feelings under the control of reason and religion. Our imagination was not given us to be allowed to run riot and have its own way, without any effort at restraint and discipline. If the thoughts are wrong, the feelings will be wrong; and the thoughts and feelings combined make up the moral character.”26

Whenever there is a moral failure, it starts with a distorted thought. David, in his psalm of repentance, writes, “Behold, thou desirest truth in the inward parts: and in the hidden part thou shalt make me to know wisdom” (Psalm 51:6).

When David committed that disastrous act with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2), instead of reminding himself of what was true and right and turning away from sin, he continued to focus on the stimulating event. He became involved in emotion-based reasoning, magnification, overgeneralization, and perhaps even inflated self-esteem, believing that he, as king, was above the law. Then he acted upon those distortions. Every sin that is committed begins with a distorted thought.

But the good news is that we are positively transformed by reconstructing our thinking. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). We not only have to recognize distorted thoughts, but we must correct them and replace them with true and accurate thoughts – thoughts that find their source in God.

How, then, can emotional intelligence be safeguarded and improved? By avoiding cognitive distortions – self-magnification, emotion-based reasoning, overgeneralization, and others.27 By filling our minds with accurate and true thoughts, thoughts derived from an understanding of God’s plan for our lives. Then, as Christ said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

Neil Nedley, M.D., is president of Weimar Center of Health and Education near Sacramento, California. He is the author of a number of books, including Depression – The Way Out, Proof Positive: How to Reliably Combat Disease and Achieve Optimal Health through Nutrition and Lifestyle, and his latest book, The Lost Art of Thinking. His website: drnedley.com.


  1. W.D.S. Killgore, D.B. Killgore, L.M. Day, et al. “The effects of 53 hours of sleep deprivation on moral judgment,” Sleep 30 (207) 3:345-352.
  2. Aydin, Mehmet Devrim, Dogan Nadi Leblebici, Mahmut Arsian, Mustafa Kilic, and Mustafa Kemal Oktem, “The Impact of IQ and EQ on Pre-eminent Achievement in Organizations: Implications for the Hiring Decisions of HRM Specialists,” The International Journal of Human Resource Management 16.5 (May 2005): 701-719.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. D. Goleman, Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ (New York: Bantam Books, 1995), p. 80.
  6. L.M. Ito, M.C. Roso, S. Tiwari, P.C. Kendall and F.R. Asbahr, “Cognitive-behavioral therapy in social phobia,” Revista brasileira de psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil: 1999).
  7. T.D. Borkovec and E. Costello, “Efficacy of applied relaxation and cognitive-behavioral therapy in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 61 (1993): 611-619.
  8. G.A. Fava, C. Ruini, C. Rafanelli, L. Finos, S. Conti, and S. Grandi, “Six-year outcome of cognitive behavior therapy for prevention of recurrent depression,” American Journal of Psychiatry 161 (2004): 1872–1876.
  9. Goleman, pp. 161-163.
  10. Ibid.
  11. C. Hooven, L. Katz, and J. Gottman, “The Family as a Meta-emotion Culture,” Cognition and Emotion (Spring 1994).
  12. P. Freeman and T. Rees, “How does perceived support lead to better performance? An examination of potential mechanisms,” Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, April 2009.
  13. D.D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. rev. and updated (New York: Avon, 1999), xix., 12.
  14. Neil Nedley, The Lost Art of Thinking: How to Improve Emotional Intelligence and Achieve Peak Mental Performance (Ardmore, Oklahoma: Nedley, 2011).
  15. Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), p. 332.
  16. Ibid., p. 172.
  17. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), p. 330.
  18. CNN, David Martin, “The Truth about Happiness May Surprise You – CNN.” Featured Articles from CNN. 10 Nov. 2006. http://edition.cnn.com/2006/HEALTH/conditions/11/10/happiness.overview/index.html.
  19. Cross-National Collaborative Group, “The changing rate of major depression: Cross-national comparisons,” Journal of American Medical Association 268 (1992): 3098-3105.
  20. Mark Olfson and Steven C. Marcus, “National Patterns in Antidepressant Medication Treatment,” Archives of General Psychiatry 66 (2009) 8:848-856.
  21. D. Zillmann and J. Bryant, “Pornography and sexual callousness, and the trivialization of rape,” Journal of Communication 32 (1982): 10-21.
  22. Ellen G. White, Conflict and Courage (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1970), p. 194.
  23. Ibid., p. 195.
  24. I. Galynker, J. Cai, et al, “Hypofrontality and negative symptoms in major depressive disorder,” Journal of Nuclear Medicine 39 (1998) 4:608-612.
  25. P. Videbech, “PET measurements of brain glucose metabolism and blood flow in major depressive disorder: A critical review,” Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 101 (2000) 1:11-20.
  26. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), 5:310.
  27. Nedley.