There’s an illustration that runs around Sunday School classrooms now and then. It shows a train with an engine and two cars. The engine is labelled “Facts,” the car “Faith,” and the caboose, “Feelings.” Feelings, goes the argument, are not a solid foundation on which to know the truth.
You could trace the origins of this kind of thinking through Platonic philosophy, 18th and 19th century rationalism, and the historical Protestant concern about assurance of salvation. The simple contemporary reality, regardless of its origins, is that Christians can often discount emotion as untrustworthy or unimportant and therefore not particularly worth concerning themselves about. Many Christians conclude: the truth doesn’t depend on how you’re feeling, and feelings just get you into trouble anyway.
As with every misconception, there is certainly some truth to this idea. Feelings aren’t a trustworthy way to test the validity of propositional truth. However, propositional truth is not the only relevant matter in the Christian life. The Christian life is also largely about character and relationships, which go beyond this particular kind of truth. Paul noted that the possession of all knowledge and ability to fathom any mystery is irrelevant without love (1 Cor. 13:2). Jesus calls us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:44), but how to do so in any given situation is not spelled out, nor could it be. A portion of the Sermon on the Mount is given to considering the role of emotion in life. Anger, lust, desire, fear, and grief are all matters that Scripture has much to say about, which implies that God apparently concerns Himself with emotion, and we should do no less.
The Nature and Character of Emotion
The word, feelings, is used for both the sense of touch and for emotions, which shouldn’t be surprising. Emotions are, in a way, a step up from our five senses. They provide a means of both gathering and processing information, much like touch or sight, and motivating us to move toward or away from something, similar to physical reflexes.
What this means is that emotions tell us something. They may not be able to tell us the population of Thailand or whether God exists, but they are still there to provide information. They are signs that tell us the character of our souls and what is happening in them.
Because the soul can be amazingly complex, the messages our feelings are sending can at times be confusing and counter-intuitive, but they are not random. They merely speak their own language and point to realities within a person that may not otherwise be visible or familiar. If the Holy Spirit is transforming our souls into the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18), then understanding what is happening in them can allow us to cooperate with His work, or, at the very least, try to keep from accidentally fighting against what He’s doing.
“Emotions tell us something. They may not be able to tell us the population of Thailand or whether God exists, but they are still there to provide information. They tell us of the character of our souls and what is happening in them.”
Emotions also move us. When we grow angry, we are motivated to take action or lash out. When we are frightened, we freeze or shrink back. When we love, we naturally embrace. Much like hunger and thirst move us to act, so our feelings move us to behave in particular ways. Research is even showing that, in most kinds of circumstances, the decisions we make, no matter how rational we believe them to be, are always based off of feelings – what feels right rather than what is logically appropriate. Individuals with damage to certain parts of the brain that process emotion either end up making erratic choices that do not make sense even to themselves or are unable to choose at all, weighing options endlessly until something stops them. We rarely act apart from feeling, even if our feelings are so subtle that we never notice them.
The integration of our feelings with our daily actions demonstrates the reality that God created emotions, at their most fundamental level, to be natural and a basic necessity to being alive. There is a tendency in some circles to label certain emotions as sinful or to view emotions generally in a negative light (the rationalist perspective) while other circles tend to elevate emotions as if they were an inherent goal of life (the romanticist perspective). Neither is an accurate understanding of how human beings are created nor do these perspectives reflect God’s purpose for feelings. While what we do with emotions, whether holding onto anger as bitterness or compassionately reaching out to the needy, can be morally good or bad, the initial emotions themselves are not. At their roots, they are neither good, nor bad. They just are.
It is unreasonable to believe that emotions inherently have a moral quality, given their largely uncontrollable character. Like physical reflexes, emotions are triggered by stimuli in the lower brain before conscious awareness can register what’s happening. We feel before we know that we are feeling or what we’re feeling about. Additionally, there are more neural pathways travelling from the lower brain, where feelings are primarily processed, to the upper brain, where rational analysis and decision-making occurs. This implies that emotions have more influence over thought and the will than vice-versa. The will has an exceedingly difficult time controlling emotions directly, and most seeming successes at controlling, eliminating, or generating emotions by choice are either only partial or ways the brain fools itself. You cannot completely control your emotions through direct effort. Emotions move us far more capably than we move our emotions.
Two Errors and Two Transformations
As already noted, there are two frequent errors in the church when it comes to emotions which fall on either end of a spectrum. The first is to dismiss them or deny them. Our minds are able to disavow our feelings, especially if we build up life habits of doing so. We may experience at an early age that certain feelings or emotions in general are not safe or appropriate, and spend years building up patterns of denying or ignoring those feelings in order to keep ourselves from harm. Some churches have unwritten rules that anger, sexual desire, grief, or even happiness are inappropriate or downright sinful. These rules encourage people to push such feelings away, but denial or lack of awareness of emotion does not negate its presence. In fact, denial of emotion can lead to physical ailments such as facial tics, muscle tension and ache, and digestive disorders. Even our bodies cry out for us to be honest about how we feel.
The second error is to make emotion an end unto itself. C. S. Lewis gradually found that if you aim at joy, you never truly capture it. Yet this is a tendency in our contemporary world. We chase after feeling good, even in church. Most modern praise music is about desiring to feel loved or designed to elicit positive feelings. While there’s nothing wrong with positivity, exclusively seeking positive emotions can cause us to miss out on other aspects of human experience and get in the way of goals that are of greater importance to God. Like the drug abuser constantly seeking his next high, we can become addicted to positive feelings or even familiar feelings that aren’t positive but are known and therefore strangely safe. Addiction, however, always comes with a price as the more meaningful aspects of life become neglected, which, ironically, slowly eats away at the positive feelings we are aiming for.
“You cannot completely control your emotions through direct effort. Emotions move us far more capably than we move our emotions. God’s intention for our feelings is for them to serve as windows into our souls and character and to move us toward righteousness and love.”
Both feeling as an end in and of itself and avoiding our feelings are mistaken means of dealing with our hearts. God’s intention for our feelings is for them to serve as windows into our souls and character and to move us toward righteousness and love. Learning to use them in this way follows two paths. The first path is that of virtue training. In this method, we gradually train ourselves to become less impulsive in our actions and responses to surface emotions that are short-lived. The purpose, it must be understood, is not to repress those surface emotions, but to be able to choose whether or not to let them guide us.
Andrew Newberg is one of many who have demonstrated the powerful effects of meditation on strengthening the anterior cingulate cortex, part of the brain that regulates emotions, so that we are more capable of choosing whether or not to act in response to them. Dallas Willard advocates a particular kind of solitude where we set aside distractions and intentionally avoid taking action despite whatever our feelings say, which can similarly strengthen our capacity to resist impulsiveness. More directly, awareness of an unhelpful emotion and the decision to slowly choose differently can help train our hearts to respond to life in more desirable ways. Klaus Issler described this in his own life when discovering his tendency to become angry while driving. His awareness of it and decision to try to be calm and love even the unlovely helped over time to retrain himself to respond differently to obnoxious drivers.
Virtue training, however, is not always enough and can sometimes lead to denial, which is counter-productive. Therefore, a second pathway is necessary, one that seeks to understand how desires and emotions emerge in us and how we tend to satisfy them. This path begins with the recognition that emotions are not, in their initial sparks, evil. Desires and emotions are intended to satisfy natural, God-given needs, but our habituated way of dealing with them and ways of meeting those needs can become twisted in unrighteous ways. Sexual desires, for example, become ways of satisfying a need to be loved or even simple boredom while anger can become a means of defending yourself against fears of not having control in your life or feeling small or unloved.
This process of self-understanding is one that explores with God and wise counsel the ways that our feelings and desires have become distorted. This is a long process because of the amazing complexity of the human heart, but as you begin to uncover deeper emotions and needs that are being unmet or met in unsatisfying ways, you can begin working with God and others to learn to satisfy the deeper needs so that the less helpful feelings and behaviors become increasingly unnecessary. There is no longer so much need for anger, say, because the aspect of the soul that felt unloved is beginning to trust in God’s and others’ care.
“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of,” wrote mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. Denying those heart-reasons denies how God created the human person, but elevating those heart-reasons too far wrongly makes humanity the center of the universe. Seeing those reasons as ways of understanding a broken but beloved heart is part of God’s process for restoring us and bringing us into right and healthy relationship with Him. That relational process requires self-awareness, retraining over time, and the satisfaction of the soul in God-intended ways. To be spiritually formed requires that we be emotionally formed and transformed. May we be attentive to God as He works this out in us.
References and Suggested Reading
Cloud, Henry. Changes That Heal: How to Understand Your Past to Ensure a Healthier Future. Zondervan, 1992.
Damasio, Antonio R. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Putnam, 2005.
Issler, Klaus Dieter. Wasting Time with God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship with God. InterVarsity Press, 2001.
Jordan, Merle R. Reclaiming Your Story: Family History and Spiritual Growth. Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Harcourt, Brace, 1955.
Newberg, Andrew. How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist. Ballantine Books, 2009.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. Various publications.
Scazzero, Peter. The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives. Zondervan, 2003.
Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life with Christ. Integrity, 2006.
Swindoll, Debbie and Monica Romig Green. Do You Love Me?: An Exploration of Our Relationship with God and Others. ECSW, 2013.
Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Harper & Row, 1988.