NOTE: To launch our new electronic newsletter, we updated an old "classic" that was originally published in the Winter of 2003. This is Part 1 of 2
By Gordon Bals
It seems almost funny to me that we ask questions like, “Can we trust our feelings?” Since feelings are part of our fallen human nature we cannot trust them with any kind of certainty just like any other part of our nature. But why don’t we ask questions like, “Feet – can we trust them?” I mean after all we trip. Our feet are also part of our fallen human nature. We are more apt to “trust” our feet because falling seems less scary than a broken heart. The difference between trusting our feet and trusting our feelings is that learning how to trust our feelings calls us to a deeper level of faith and engagement with God.
We worship God from our ‘inner man’ that is comprised of our thoughts, choices and feelings. Our feelings are comprised both of our longing and our emotions. Longing happens when we feel a deep desire to experience something, make something happen or obtain something we don’t yet possess. We experience emotions as we are impacted by what happens in this world whether that is sadness, joy, anger, hope, jealousy or other possible emotions.
The Head vs. The Heart
Originally, our inner man was created to work together but because of the fall our faculties are now divided and can work against each other. For instance, a young boy who looses his father to death begins to push down and deny his longing for good because he can’t make his father come back. The same boy begins to run from his emotions because it hurts so bad to miss his father. Dealing with life this way grows into a pattern for this boy and as a result decades later he develops a substance abuse problem to help him numb his longings and emotions (feelings). He knows in his mind that drinking excessively 4-5 times a week is not good but he feels no sorrow about the damage this is doing to himself and others and he cannot long for a better future. In his mind his thinking is good (he knows better than to regularly get drunk) but it hurts too much to desire better for himself or to feel the sadness of it all. In his longing and his emotions he cannot embrace what is true. With the feeling part of his inner man working against the truth he cannot choose what is good even though his thinking is in line with the truth. His denial of longings and emotions shuts down his inner man so he does not have the strength to say no to what is harming him. For this man to grow inner strength he must experience redemption in his longing and his emotions. He cannot change by simply trying to think the right thoughts or make good choices because only as he begins to ‘feel’ what is true will he gain the inner strength to choose what is good. When he feels the sadness he has avoided for decades and begins to long for something better his inner man will experience restoration and his thinking, feeling and choosing will begin to work together to say no to what is harming him.
It seems often in my counseling or teaching when I begin to address the issue of feelings people get nervous to consider how feelings are central to growing as a Christian. We tend to think that our mind (rationality) or our ability to choose (volitionality) is more important than our feelings. In fact, Christian groups tend to splinter along these lines. There are the rationalists (we just need to think better thoughts), the legalists (we just need to choose the right things) and the feelers (we just need more passion for God) all of who depend on one part of the inner man over another part. However, our creator designed us with the capacity to think, choose and feel for a reason. Each faculty is a good part of our design just like our ears, feet or hands. If we foolishly rely on our mind as the only part of our humanity given by God to direct us we will fall short of genuinely reflecting the character of Christ. However, as we walk with God and humbly rely on Him to join together our thinking, choosing and feeling we will be living in redemptive fullness. To live well we cannot run from our feelings but instead we must learn how integrate them into our life and let them guide us. Perhaps a better question might be, “Feelings – how do we accept them and let God redeem them?”
How Can Feelings Be Redeemed?
When I think about how afraid we are of feelings in general and the darker emotions or longings in particular I simply think of Jesus. We would have been very afraid of him because he felt and expressed his emotions. Listen to the words of G. Walter Hansen as he records all the emotions of Jesus in the Gospels and comments on them, “Jesus felt compassion; he was angry, indignant, and consumed with zeal; he was troubled, greatly distressed, very sorrowful, depressed, deeply moved, and grieved; he sighed; he wept and sobbed; he groaned; he was in agony; he was surprised and amazed; he rejoiced very greatly and was full of joy; he greatly desired, and he loved. I am spellbound by the intensity of Jesus’ emotions: not a twinge of pity, but heartbroken compassion; not a passing irritation, but terrifying anger, not a silent tear, but groans of anguish; not a weak smile, but ecstatic celebration” (Christianity Today February 3, 1997).
If we knew someone who had such a variety of feelings we would call them unstable. Yet, I don’t think any of us is prepared to call Jesus unstable. Over twenty years ago when I felt I had dealt with anger (because I had suppressed it so much and had fooled myself into thinking I was too noble to feel it) I was not at all convicted that I thought I was more spiritual than Jesus. I passed over the Scriptures that described his anger and the strong way he related to the religious leaders. If we are aiming to do what Jesus did why are we not trying to be moved by our joy, sadness, or anger? His passion exposes our lifelessness. In fact, when John quotes Jesus in his Gospel as saying “He came to give us life and give it more abundantly” in part it means that being set free from sin means we will be restored to a life of feeling here and now. This is part of the ‘life’ that was robbed from us through sin and the fall.
To make any movement in the direction of a fuller life of feeling we have to stop being afraid of the emotions and longings in us or around us. In fact, as long as we are afraid of feelings like jealousy, anger or sadness; or desires like justice, victory or restoration we will never learn to handle them well. Instead of helping us move toward redemption those suppressed feelings will hinder it. When we are angry we need not quell it and pretend it will go away. If our friend is feeling jealousy we ought to give them permission to feel it and put words to it and help him or her learn how to use it. When a friend deeply desires success or justice in an area we can come alongside them and hope or participate with them instead of letting our fear keep us from joining with them. Years ago when I finally began to accept that I was angry I thought all my anger was bad. Yet, as I began to be less afraid of my anger and the anger of others I saw how redemptive anger can be. Sometimes, I was angry because there was injustice around me. As I felt that anger and yearned for justice, God began restore in me the strength to be part of ‘doing justice.’ In the years since, my anger and longing for justice has helped me become a stronger man and move toward others in a way that can help.
In accepting that anger is good I don’t mean to make light of the fact that we can sin in our anger. I have and will unfortunately continue to do so. However, trying to be angry and not sin is a much better path then denying anger and pretending that I am “supra-human” or above anger. Letting anger be a part of my life has humbled me and challenged me to trust more in the Lord’s ability to redeem my character. It is the same for all the other feelings we are afraid of and suppress. If we are aiming to have the character of Christ we must see passion as a large part of his make up. As we accept our passion the Lord can began redeeming it and helping us to reflect it better and better.
Check back next month for Part 2 of Emotions: Let God Redeem Them.
June 25, 2012
by Gordon Bals filed under