Fighting Feelings

In The Spirit, the Affections, and the Christian Tradition (Coulter & Yong, eds.) E. A. Dreyer cites Classical Greek thinkers who demeaned human feelings. Plato, for one, compared human reason to a charioteer who must whip his horses—the emotions—to rule them.

This distrust of feelings is still in vogue among many. But so, too, is an opposite and growing devotion to each person’s inviolable right to love whatever that person choses. No matter what others think, God included.

In the first case feelings are like frayed moral fabric that need repairs. In Christian circles this sets up a classic paradigm: combine sound doctrine with clear duty and strong efforts to reach higher Christian status. Learn well, live well, and God is sure to be pleased. Feelings are, at best, decorative frills and never the main cloth.

Yet this applies a half-truth that is, in the end, spiritual nonsense. Augustine dismissed this view in opposing Pelagius. So did Martin Luther when he confronted Erasmus. Both identified love as the Spirit’s transforming work in a soul. And not as a human choice as Pelagius and Erasmus both presumed it to be. In the Bible love is regularly portrayed as a divine affection. In John 3 and 13-17; in 1 John 4; and in 1 Cor. 13, love is God’s prime gift. Faith, in turn, is stirred by love.

The half-truth is that self-controlled souls are godly if they achieve good behaviors. This formula confuses cause and effect. Love includes self-control as a fruit of the Spirit. But self-control can also prosper in people who don’t have the Spirit and aren’t moved by God’s love.

Any good athlete, after all, needs serious self-control in competitive sports. With the motivation of personal advancement. Lovers of God, on the other hand, have self-control as the fruit of spiritually transformed hearts. And, with that, godly faith always exhibits self-control. But self-control isn’t a basis for faith.

The truth Paul offered in Romans 13:8-10 is that godly love will always birth the fulfillment of God’s commandments by caring for others; and not by focusing on laws. We love God because he first loved us, and not the other way around. Love is a response, not a discipline.

This distinction explains why Jesus condemned many of the religious leaders of his day. Self-love may account for religious activities that seem to exhibit righteousness. And Jesus, in John 5:42, confronted this sort of irreligious religion among the temple leaders of his day with an affective insight that explained their rejection of his displayed oneness with the Father: “I know that you do not have the love of God within you.”

Another consideration is implied in all this. The object of love always defines love. We need to ask, what stirs a given feeling? A flawed focus—as in self-love—creates flawed feelings, with deadly results. Think, for instance, of someone who loves the thrill of theft. Or lying. Or sexual immorality. Scriptures—as illustrated in Psalm 2 and John 3—insist that sound love always begins with a devotion to the Son.

Now about the second option. What if we are not biased against feelings? What if we’re devoted to every person’s freedom to have personal feelings? So that a new value—authenticity—calls for us to stop being judgmental. And, therefore, to be open to whatever another person loves.

This value has lots of momentum today. Yet it, too, misses the Bible call to love the Son. He, alone, is both the source and the greatest prize of love. So that loving God is placed above every other love. And, in turn, measures every love.

The convention of “authentic love” actually recalls an era when “Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:26). And it results in moral and social chaos, as in blithe dismissals of God’s gift of ultimate human love in monogamous, heterosexual, and enduring marriages. To name just one key application.

In the end we see that the greatest danger in feelings is to have misplaced affections. And it’s crucial to remember that “God is love,” but love isn’t God. And the critical question every soul will face in the end is this: “Do you love my Son?”

Here, then, is a key axiom for life: a greater love always swallows lesser loves. And in Jesus God invites us into the greatest of all loves. So turn to him, and enjoy the feelings that follow. Or, as Psalm 34:8 puts it, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”

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