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.