Never trust your feelings!

An email came last week that reported a conversation between a friend—call him Tom—and his unnamed colleague who told him, with emotion, that “the feelings are not to be trusted!” This confrontation of Tom’s “heresy” (his friend’s term) came because of Tom’s claim that underlying affections define all our thinking and choosing: we always do what we most desire.

Because his friend’s dismissive sentiment is so common I think the question of how we process things—call it our spiritual anthropology—needs to be raised here with the persistence of a drumbeat! At the risk of a wince from long-time readers let me take it up again.

First let me acknowledge what certainly frightens Tom’s friend: a widespread reliance on selfish emotions that people use to justify ungodly choices. Even Christians. I’ve seen it myself many, many times over the years. A seemingly devoted believer—a married person—gets entangled in an emotional and eventually a sexual affair and refuses to give it up. The person’s reason: “I love him/her.” In return we ask, “But what about your wedding vows?” The premise is that by recalling a past promise the unfaithful person’s mind and will should be able to override their illicit feelings. A nice premise but it just doesn’t work that way in real life: if the heart is captured, logic fails.

Which is just the point. A dose of biblical assertions and proof texts will not work if the mind and will are simply instruments of the heart and never its director. To overcome a false affection only a stronger true affection will work: with a love for God as ultimate.

The problem with a Stoic view of the soul—with Stoicism as the label for a tradition that presumes the mind and will are the motivational hubs of the soul—is that it presumes our autonomy as persons. That in this view we are “free will” agents who can be convinced by the logic of a proclaimed truth: we then act accordingly. But this presumes human autonomy—as in “you can be like God”—and the enemy of God uses this deceit to rule human passions. Paul writes of this in Ephesians 2:1-3, that Satan stirs “the lusts of the body and the mind” to rule his followers.

Does the Bible teach that we have a “free” mind and will? No. We might take a few texts out of context as a basis for insisting that it does—I think of Romans 12:1-2 as the primary example—but that would be to miss what Paul wrote in Romans 5-8 about the soul as enslaved by sin until the life of Christ, by the Spirit, pours out God’s love in our hearts and then “enslaves” us to righteousness. Only then does our “inner person” have any inclination to follow God. When we “set our minds” on the Spirit, what we find is the Spirit still speaking to our hearts, wooing us by God’s love to live with a new devotion.

Here’s the point: we are always captured and guided by our highest desires. The word “heart” is the term for this motivational center—with the mind and will simply reflecting and following what the heart desires. Read Mark 7:8 & 21 or Ephesians 4:17-19 if a reminder is needed. Or the Old Testament texts about our need to have hearts of stone replaced by living hearts in order to follow God (e.g. Ezekiel 11 & 36).

Let me end now by agreeing with the sentiment of Tom’s friend that the feelings are not to be trusted. True—if we mean “feelings for the sake of feelings”. But the fact is that we do everything on the basis of our affections or feelings since we were made to be responders. So the real question is this: who or what stirs our feelings? If Christ does, we’re fine. If not, we’re in trouble.

As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls us”—which is a proper motive for all who know him as the attractive person he is. Such love is a feeling and it’s one I’m always ready to trust because of who he is: God’s holy one, our beloved Lord.

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5 Comments

  1. Kinga

    This is a very interesting subject. A few weeks ago I spoke with a friend about the fact that we do we what we most desire but then she told me her point of view. ‘We can desire things but we are still restricted. I can desire to get married but I can’t make it happen by my own.’ I gave her right. The deepest desire of my heart can be to have 3 kids and still not having it. Or going to Australia, but not be able to afford it. Or going to mission but not having the money. So, I think we can be restricted in our strongest desires.

    I try to think to my relationship with God. It happened not few times that under the pressure of life, dissapointments, grieve, etc. I was ready to give up everything. But then for some reason I never gave up. I am not sure if this happened because of my strong desires. I think it was God’s grace and love towards me which helped me to go forward. He promised that will accomplish His work in my life and He never gives up. He made a covenant with me and He is faithful even when I am not faithful. And then we live in a world where we can be tempted and we are surround by evil which can affect our lifes. That strong desire which will keep us close to God in midst of difficulties, problems, temptations needs to come from above. He can draw us to Himself again and again, pouring out His love in our hearts. Being in a relationship with God is definitely a heart issue but it will not happen with human effort.

  2. R N Frost

    Thanks, Kinga, for pointing to the main point: “He is faithful even when I am not faithful”. Our desire for God is birthed by our realization that he desires us, our hearts, so that we begin to move out of our selfish desires (as in the case of wanting marriage, three children, and so on) and begin to seek him as our greatest desire.

    If we can get the distinction between a greater and lesser desire it might help. I may desire, for instance, to stay in bed on a cold, rainy morning; but my greater desire is to retain my job so I override my sleep-in desire and get up to go to work. Or, to say it differently, I ask what’s most important to me. It’s NOT a matter of asking myself, “what impulses are grabbing me most strongly right now so I’ll know which impulse to follow!” Rather it’s a question of my hierarchy of ambitions: only one ambition is ultimate. Either God or self.

    Why just one ultimate desire? Because it’s the way God made us: to love him with every dimension of our being. Then within that bond we trust him to add anything he desires for us.

    So my point is not to focus on our desires in themselves. If we do that then any failure to have those desires met by God becomes a source of complaint against him. Instead once we are converted (from our prior love) we find Christ to be more desirable than any other ambitions. That reshapes everything and reveals that our heart has been changed from stone to a supernatural responsiveness.

  3. Kinga

    Thank you, Ron. I agree with you. If the strongest desire of a heart is to be in a love relationship with God, then all the other desires lose their power or at least move to the second position. But sometimes doing this seems almost silly because of the pressure from the society in many areas of the life. You constantly need to perform, achieve to be accepted. It is not easy to go against the crowd and the wind, to be different and paying the price for this. But then, like David wrote about this in the Psalms, in the moment when we enter in God’s presence, we realise that nothing can be compared with His love towards us and everything else is just temporary.

    Thank you for your answer. I found very encouraging.

  4. Angela Nelson

    Hi Ron! Phil sent me the link to your blog 🙂

    So true about trusting–or at least listening to, one’s emotions. Without them–even the negative ones–you are missing vital information to make good decisions with, and cannot have a true view of life or yourself. Stuff I learned the long, hard way!!

    Hope you’re doing well! Angela

  5. R N Frost

    I am, Angela! It’s good to hear your voice here and to have your affirmation on this key issue.

    Warm greetings to Phil for me.

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