In Christian theology, the passions are the desires of the mind and body that often tempt people to sin. One of the big debates among ancient theologians and writers was over the passions: are they created by God or are they a deformation of character as the result of having sinned? I’m simplifying what follows by a lot, but not in a way that damages that debate.
The Bible weighs in on this indirectly in James and Hebrews:
- In James 1:13-15 and James 4:1-3 we find that temptation is not the result of God trying to entice us to sin (this helps make sense of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil). Instead, temptation is the result of our desires [passions], reasoning, and choices.
- In Hebrews 4:15, we find that Christ was tempted in every way that we are.
If temptations came upon Jesus, he must have had the sorts of desires that could lead one to sin if managed with impropriety. And if Jesus is the “new Adam,” presumably his capacity to be tempted in analogous to our own.
The Passions: Crucified and Resurrected
This doesn’t end that debate, but it’s the summary of an argument that is convincing to me. One other way to put it is that for Paul the apostle, disciples are those who crucify the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24), but for Paul crucifixion is always conceptually connected to resurrection. In other words, the flesh and it’s passions and desires are resurrected and reformed by the action of the Spirit. For instance, joy can be a sort of spiritual fruit (even though positive emotions could easily lead one to sin). Paul can also say to “put off all anger (Eph 4:31)” and “be angry, yet sin not (Eph 4:26.)”
On the other hand, Paul never once uses “passions” in a positive way. But he rarely uses the word flesh positively either, but that doesn’t mean that the basic principle of bodily existence is evil in his mind.
Now, the church fathers were split on this issue, some saw the passions as an unmitigated evil. I don’t accept that, but I’m open to the possibility. I think that the passions are like the will. They are a source of evil when estranged from God, but in themselves they are a good (like the mind, the will, or the body). Anger tells you that something seems off about the world, lust (which in the Bible is always the word for sexual desire) is a driving force behind entrance into holy marriage, pleasure is a motivation for seeking God (Psalm 16:11), and greed is just an exaggerated desire for prestige and material security. All of these desires are commended in Scripture.