There’s no doubt that mainstream Christian culture today places too much emphasis on emotion.
We’re encouraged to use our feelings, rather than the facts of Scripture, as a gauge to see where we’re at spiritually. Strong faith is equated to a crazed, emotional high, to being “on fire for God”… but anything less is labeled as weak faith (or even, no faith). Youth especially are wrongly taught to evaluate their standing with the Lord by their emotions.
And even though the Christian faith is based on objective truth and historical realities–in particular, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–we are still tempted to look inward and fix our eyes on our fickle feelings and momentary moods instead of the unchanging Lord of glory.
Yet, it’s also possible to commit the opposite error and underemphasize our emotions.
If we’re not careful, we can become so afraid of relying on our feelings that we can end up with a cold, detached, matter-of-fact relationship with God, even though we are told to love Him with “all our heart.”
But that’s not the kind of faith we’re called to, either. We’re not meant to be Stoics.
We need a balanced view.
WE’RE NOT ROBOTS
God made us emotional beings. No one can deny that. Our capacity to feel is part of His good design.
Just take a glance at the Psalms to see the full range of human emotion and experience recorded there: gladness, fear, joy, anger, grief…
It’s not a matter of whether emotions as a whole are good or bad. What really matters most is how we respond to our feelings–do we let them run rampant and take control, or do we direct them to be used for God’s glory?
THE LIES OF EMOTIONALISM
Emotionalism is a false teaching within Christianity that glorifies our emotions and makes them, rather than Christ and His truth, central to our identities and relationship with Him. Here are a few of the lies that this ideology (and those who promote it) tell us:
1. Your spiritual life = your emotions.
This is the root problem of emotionalism: the belief that the way we understand truth and worship God is primarily through our feelings.
If we feel like we love God, then it doesn’t matter what we believe–our hearts couldn’t possibly lie to us, right? So we evaluate our relationship with God, not by the truth we confess or the fruit we produce in our lives, but by how we feel (something that changes all the time).
Or, if someone we know talks about Jesus with lots of passion, or worships with tears standing in her eyes, we think she must be a really strong Christian, whereas that “Frozen Chosen” theologian over there who never raises his hands must not love God very much.
Now, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with passion or tears or feelings of warmth for the Lord. Quite the contrary! Those can be very good things.
But when used as definitive “signs” of the status of our souls, they can also be deceiving. If they become central, they could supplant true love for the Lord that is based on objective truth, rather than fleeting emotions.
2. You can’t help how you feel.
Another false view within emotionalism is the concept that we can never act against our feelings without our behavior somehow becoming counterfeit and artificial.
There is some truth to this–if we attempt to obey God outwardly, but our hearts are filled with hatred and resentment, we are being hypocrites. After all, the Pharisees looked like great spiritual masters on the outside, but like Jesus said, they were white-washed tombs.
And yet, don’t we all go through seasons when our out-of-control feelings need to be constrained by God’s truth? When we can’t allow them to keep us from pursuing after Christ?
For instance, if we’re depressed, it doesn’t help to just wait for happy feelings before we decide to seek God. Instead, we ought to go to Him as the only one who can transform us, and we should continue to remind ourselves of the undeniable, unshifting gospel that gives us lasting joy.
Likewise, if there’s someone we struggle to love, sitting around until we “feel” perfectly loving toward them isn’t what we are called to do. We must love them the way God calls us to, even if it takes a little while for our hearts to catch up.
The great news is that our salvation in Christ does not depend on our emotional state, which changes every day (sometimes, every hour!). Nor does the safety of our souls. We don’t need to listen to the bad news of emotionalism that tells us otherwise.
3. Let your emotions be your guide.
How many times have you been tempted to respond to something in Scripture purely with your feelings? You know what the Word says… but you just don’t want to believe it!
Sadly, emotionalism has deceived many to use their inner feelings and desires as their guide on whether to accept or reject a teaching from the Word:
“I know it says that in the Bible, but it just doesn’t seem right to me.”
“I don’t feel like that’s what a loving God would do.”
“In my heart I know that Jesus would never do that to an unbeliever.”
This often happens when people reject the doctrines of grace, or Calvinism, because they just can’t accept–emotionally–that God would predestine only the elect, and not everyone.
Beyond just theological issues, we can be tempted to follow our emotions in the everyday decisions that we make. It’s easy to be satisfied with our “quiet times” and Sunday morning services, but then spend the rest of our waking hours on auto-pilot, following every whim of our desires, without giving second thought to what the Lord would have us to do. We live contrary to the prayer, “Thy will be done,” and instead say, “My will be done.”
Yet we know that “following our hearts” is dangerous advice. Our hearts are unworthy guides. They are “deceitful above all things and desperately wicked,” and we can’t even completely understand them (Jer. 17:9).
Without God’s Word as the light to our paths, our default is to live according to our own desires and thoughts. But those are the very things that lead us astray. Like sheep without a shepherd, we meander away from the pastures and toward dangerous cliffs. We can’t govern ourselves by our own “wisdom.” Our so-called wisdom is, in truth, foolishness.
One of our goals as Christians is to cultivate self-control–a fruit of the Spirit, and one of the hardest to achieve. We want to make sure our whole selves, including our hearts, are submitting to God. We need our emotions to bow to His truth and Kingship over us.
But if we hand over the steering wheel to our fleeting feelings, if we let them control our decisions, we will become enslaved to them–obeying our passions, fears, and desires rather than God’s will.
4. You don’t love God if you don’t “feel” it all the time.
We all struggle with this one, don’t we?
On the one hand, we should feel affection toward the Lord. When we feel distant or far from Him, it could very well be an indicator that we need to seek Him more and repent of sin in our lives.
But the affection we have for Him runs deeper than our temporary emotions. Love is not merely something we feel on the surface. That’s why it’s possible to rejoice in our souls, even when we are crying out in grief and anguish.
Take a look at the Psalms, for example. See how many different feelings the psalmists experienced–sometimes over the course of just one song! But we know they did love God. They loved Him no matter how they felt. They chose to worship Him in the midst of their trials, rather than giving up hope because of their sin and despair.
Many other faithful saints in the Bible, and throughout history, endured temporary seasons of doubt, fear, despair, and spiritual dryness, yet still loved the Lord. Isn’t that true of you and me?
We love Him because He first loved us. Our love for Christ is a gift from Him, and it’s proof He put it there when it doesn’t go away in spite of the ebbing and flowing of our emotions.
5. Theology might make you “lose your first love.”
As I addressed in a recent article, those of us who care about theology–the study of God–sometimes get stereotyped as being “all head, no heart.” Yet that’s far from the truth.
Is it possible to idolize knowledge and use it wrongly? Yes–that’s why we are warned that “knowledge puffs up.” We certainly shouldn’t allow our relationship with God to become a heartless, merely scholastic pursuit.
But the fact is, if our learning about the Lord proceeds from the life-giving Word, directed by the Holy Spirit, it actually leads us to grow in our love for God and obedience to Him.
It’s really emotionalism, which takes our gaze away from Christ and toward ourselves and our hearts, that threatens to make us “lose our first love.” We exchange truth-driven, Spirit-filled love for God with a flimsy counterfeit–an emotional high that can never last.
WHAT TO DO WITH OUR EMOTIONS
How, then, do we handle our feelings without falling into the trap of emotionalism?
First of all, we don’t throw them out. We’re not robots, and we shouldn’t try to be. Repressing and avoiding feelings to pursue a kind of apathetic numbness is both futile and dishonoring to the Lord who made us. God gave them to us to glorify Him.
Second, we try to understand them and their source. Even though we know our feelings are often deceptive, they do shed light, to a certain extent, on the state of our hearts. What do our emotions say about us and any idols we may be treasuring? Any sins we may be committing? Our fears and worries, for example, can say a lot about what we might be valuing more than Christ.
Here are some questions we can ask about our emotions:
- Are they lasting or fleeting? Lasting feelings should be taken a lot more seriously.
- Are they fruit-bearing or destructive? We can determine whether or not our emotions are glorifying to God by what they produce in our lives.
- Are they controlling us? If they are taking over, we must hand the Lord the reins.
- Are they inappropriate for the situation we’re in? Recognizing irrational or deceptive feelings helps us redirect them to reality.
- Are they replacing God’s Word as our source of truth? We must be careful not to let how we feel dictate what we believe and how we act.
Third, when all’s said and done, we submit our emotions to God’s Word. We take them captive to Christ.
That doesn’t mean we should just try to become happy if we’re sad. That rarely works, and besides, it’s not always God’s will for us to be happy, anyway! There are times when it’s appropriate to cry, or be angry.
Rather, we approach God with our sadness, or our anger, or our fear, and address it with His Word. We recognize that our emotions are not the infallible truth. We refuse to accept whatever they tell us at face value. We say, “My heart may be telling me this, but God tells me this. And it’s in the Lord that I put my trust!”
This is true, not only of “bad” emotions, but of “good” ones too.
We can get addicted to happiness and emotional highs, to the point where we’ll do anything to avoid crashing down. But sometimes it is God’s will for us to grieve. Sometimes, the temporary bliss we experience in worldly things prevents us from enjoying deeper, spiritual pleasures. We need to keep our emotions under control and not allow them to drive us, but rather, to serve the Lord.
Ultimately, our feelings are not nearly as important as they make themselves out to be. That should be a great comfort to us. The Lord knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. He isn’t surprised by the fickleness of our hearts.
There is coming a time when we will be glorified, and no longer be tossed to and fro by our feelings. Until then, we cling to Christ–the one who died for our sins, rose for our justification, and intercedes for us in heaven. How we feel can’t change that truth. Our hope is not in our own hearts, but in Him.
My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever. (Psalm 73:26)