The speaker was persuasive and moving. He asked us to hug a friend, stomp on the floor, and even pinch our own forearms. It didn’t hurt that he could have been a GQ model: six foot three, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and funny. When he looked each of us in the eye, we felt his personal care.
The conference theme was Knowing God. Its most popular presenter was this man with passion for feeling God’s love:
- He asked, “How can we know God’s love?”
- He answered, “We feel love in the hug, we sense the solid floor in the stomp, and we experience pain in the pinch.”
- He argued, “God knows our frame, our need for hugs; he longs for us to detect his touch. And that is how we’ll know his love. When we feel it.”
He scorned the old evangelical formula, “Fact–Faith–Feeling” with its mundane illustration of a train: the locomotive represents “fact,” the coal-car “faith,” and the caboose “feelings.”
If we put our faith (fuel) in the facts (locomotive), our feelings will follow. He snickered at its antiquated answer.
“That perversion,” he laughed, “is completely contrary to the God-man of the gospels. Jesus was a man of compassion. We know his love only when we feel it. Feelings teach us facts.”
Well, I feel a bit unsure about his answer; and that’s a fact
The truth is, our feelings are always little helpless cabooses, pulled about by greater powers. They always follow whatever we believe to be reality:
- We feel unimportant when we believe we are unimportant to others, so we’re sad;
- We feel rejected when believe that everyone will reject us, thus we’re angry;
- We feel we will fail at our next job application because we believe we will screw up the interview, the result is we feel scared.
Our thoughts about reality inflame our emotions. Always. Emotions, however, take milliseconds to react to our beliefs, so our emotions feel like they reveal reality. But they don’t.
Our emotions are signposts to hidden beliefs, they are not revealers of truth.
Our emotional-perceptions are terrible observers of reality
A few years ago I wrote a blog that few people read, fewer people shared, and almost no one commented on. Thoughts race through my mind: my season of writing is over, no one resonates with what I say, and I better return to the world of business. I was dismayed.
I’m sure you recognize what happened: I experienced a single bad blog, and I overgeneralized it to paint my entire life in black and white; I used one event as a crystal ball to forecast all my future plans; I jumped to the conclusion that this single rejection represented all of reality.
Our emotions are real, of course: we really do experience sadness, anger, and isolation. But as graphic artists, emotions only know how to draw distorted caricatures.
Which path will we take?
Julius Caesar claimed that “All men willingly believe what they want to believe.”
We choose which reality we will trust. Emotions argue that feelings paint the world as it really is, and we should put our trust in them. Wisdom argues the opposite.
Christianity is the only religion in which the facts of history are central. If you doubt the miracles of Buddha or Mohammed, you can still live a good religious life by following their teachings. But Christianity rests on historical facts: that God became human, he died out of great love for us, he rose from the dead, and he sent his Spirit to live inside of us.
What emotional “truth” will solve our despair when our feelings tell us we will never be loved, or we will always be rejected, or we will never find satisfying work? Looking for emotional answers to resolve emotional dismay is like trying to extinguish fire with a gallon of gas.
Our only hope is the fact that God loves us without us lifting a finger. Choose to believe that and your caboose will follow: “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts.”
We always choose: either to believe our feelings even though God’s truth screams otherwise, or to believe God’s promises even when every feeling in our being mutinies.
A week after my ignored blog, my next article received twice as many reads, twice as many shares, and three times as many comments as any blog I had ever written before.
As revealers of reality, our feelings have the truth bearing capacity of a gnat. But as revealers of our unconsciously chosen beliefs (which are dragging us down), our feelings are more powerful than a locomotive.
Robin L. Lewis
Right on target, Sam! This post will be helpful for many struggling with what to believe and/or feel! Jesus, be Lord of my emotions!
Of course, our confusion lies in the word, “Feeling.” It means so many things:
Many words have multiple meanings. When we
accidentally mix those meanings, our understanding gets hijacked. “Feeling” is
one of those tricky words. We usually equate feeling with emotions, but it has
multiple other meanings as well:
– When I feel a toothache, I refer to physical pain.
– When I feel I took a wrong turn, I mean a mental impression.
– When I feel for the light switch, I describe my sense of touch.
– When I feel like a Coke, I voice a desire.
– And when I feel sad, I express an emotion.
There’s one more important meaning for feeling: belief. If a friends says
she “feels unimportant,” she means she believes she is unimportant (or that others consider her to be unimportant).
Beliefs always and simultaneously determine emotions. That’s why we confuse the two. If
your friend “feels” unimportant, she will immediately “feel” sad as well. Her belief of insignificance triggers her emotion of sadness.
Agree, I think feeling are preached as something that has to come first, cause somehow some of us have gone a bit offrail. I have noticed that the “new” congregations criticize “older” ones for being too traditional. Ok, I agree, we should not follow man-made traditions and we should not make it all about tradition, but a little bit tradition keeps us “on the ground”. New christian groups are very emotional, fiery, and thats good! We all should be. But if you go only by feelings, you get lost in the euphory. Even scholars say: do not make any decisions during the time you feel very strong feelings. The thing is, we cant make good and right decisions without baseing them on facts.
Excellent! I forgot that great advice, our decisions in emotional whirlwinds always backfire.
One of the Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis talks about how easy it is to deceive a human if you can get them to focus on feelings. Never mind that they are already forgiven; just make sure they don’t FEEL forgiven. Never let it occur to them that their feelings are often a function of how much sleep they had or the state of their digestion.
We so easily confuse “feeling” with reality.
It’s healthy to acknowledge our feelings, but unhealthy to think they tell us the truth.
Hello Sam! Long time no comment! I was on furlough and super busy. Such a good point, emotions are always the helpless little caboose being dragged everwhere. I’m reminded of the one philosophy class I ever took where we learned about the philosopher king of Aristotle. His point was not that the philosopher in the society should be king, but that the society was actually code for the inner nature of a man. Logic should lead, then the emotions, then the desires. Easy to remember when you think in order: head, heart, stomach. Our emotions are so easily manipulated by our situation, by others and by Satan. We have to constantly be asking God to show us the truth. When I council others, or need council myself, I try to remember that although our emotions are always valid, they’re not always right. Be blessed!
I think we often need friends to help us see when we are in the fog of feelings. They aren’t caught up in our storms, and they can see the truth.
Alas for us, we often mistrust our friends.
I feel you are right, Sam. 😉 Feelings are a great thermometer but a rotten diagnostician. They let me know something’s up and I need to pay attention, but that’s as far as it goes; I’d be foolish to trust them for accurate information and guidance.
In my own development as a Christian, feelings seemed to get demeaned, downplayed. “Ignore them” was the conventional wisdom. That wasn’t right. But to be ruled by them is worse. Feelings are an important part of the picture; they’re just not most important part, and they’re certainly not the whole picture.
This is an excellent post for a couple of reasons. One is the priority you argue for, helping people put the engine, the coal car, and the caboose in their proper order, so as to neither minimize feelings nor to be dominated by them, but rather, to recognize how they arise and put them in a sane perspective. The other reason is your insistence on not throwing out the baby in the postmodern haste to get rid of the bathwater. That’s something I’ve appreciated about you as I’ve gotten to know you, Sam: you recognize that not all religious traditions are bad just because they’re traditions. Many have persisted because they express truth.
Thanks for your gracious comments. I love your line, “Feelings are a great thermometer but a rotten diagnostician.”
I wish I had written that!
Sam, I appreciate your thoughts especially this week. Our church lost 3 men last week in an auto accident. This week we have 3 funerals, one today, one tomorrow and the last on Thursday. I’m glad that our feelings are not directing our Pastors as they lead us through this time. The fact that God is Sovereign and He knows the beginning and the end is what is caring us through this.
I am so sorry to hear that story. And you are so right.
The truth is, our sadness can cajole us to believe God is absent or harsh. But that just isn’t the fact. The fact is, we don’t know answers to all the “why’s?” of this world. But we know what the answers can’t be. They can’t be a distant God who doesn’t care.
Because our hearts are more inclined to believe what we perceive with our ears and our eyes, our feelings are directed by the same. The most common struggle all who claim to be loved by God is knowing and believing that we are loved by God regardless if we ever respond. However, our world is not fashioned so. We love based on how others make us feel by their words or actions. We base our identities on those things that are valued by the world, which is always based on the perception of having it together, or having something others desire or having something others deem as significant, important or special. If we have arrived in such a category, then our own significance, respect, adequacy, self-worth and value is determined by such. So, half the time our self-relaince, independence, salvation is based on feelings and perceived fact based on what others have deemed as important or as perceived fact. In reality often our feelings become fact or a recognized sense of reality.
The gospel breaks this sense of reality apart, blows it up, destroys our perceptions of felt reality in exchange for a new truth based on the authority of God’s Word. This is the number one issue of not basing all things on the inerrant, authoritative Word of God, including what we think God said. Our quick nature to relay on feelings places things that are not based on that authority, in potential of coming from the other realm of perceived reality, which is supported by how we feel about things. However, it is only as the facts of that gospel of that authoritative word grabs our affections, changes the way we feel about things, changes what we believe about our significance, adequacy, worth, respect, in order words our identities that we actually begin to see life transforming change. This is the living out of 1 John 1:16-19. So it is not a thing of are feelings bad, but what are they based on. For, without affection for the things of God, no lasting change occurs, which is actually why we keep repeating the same sins.
Too long, I know, but good article and good thoughts Thanks Sam great post.
You were barely over my 300 word comment “limitation” (which I’m allowed to break when I “feel” like it).
And you hit a bunch of great points. the truth is, we are always offered choices of what we believe, there are many contenders. Peter “chose” to trust God and walk on the water (for a bit) even though many other voices said, “This is nuts!”
The real questions boils down to: will we choose to believe what God promises, declares, and commands? The world objects, our flesh rebels, and our feelings mutiny. But I’ve had SO many times where the world, my flesh, and my feelings ABSOLUTELY LIED TO ME. Why do I choose to believe them?
Cuz I’m nuts.
But in moments of clarity, I remember: God don’t lie.
There are no more “facts” supporting the historicity of Christ than there are for Buddha or Mohammed, stop with the misinformation. Have your faith if you want, but don’t legitimize it with nonsense.
Hey, you’re back.
There is excellent historical evidence for the existence of Christ, Buddha, and Mohammed.
There is also excellent historical evidence for the crucifixion, death, and (yes) the resurrection. Many would argue, there is more evidence for the resurrection than supports catastrophic fears of global warming.
We–both you and I–CHOOSE what we believe in.
There certainly is no scientific, cultural, or historical evidence for atheism.
Chiwueze J O Ihebuzor
Is there a place for gut feeling.. Before I became born again I always had a gut feeling that my lifestyle wasn’t the best for me from a eternity point of view.. And even though I had short term satisfaction I would always wake up the next day feeling un happy about the same things that I got short term satisfaction from.. Cab feelings and emotions be only constructive when they lead us to Christ ?
You ask a fabulous question. Thanks!
First, I don’t dislike emotions or think they are bad. In fact, I think they are wonderful signposts to understanding things that are hidden to us.
Second, I think many of our “gut feelings” are a mixture of emotions (like a dissatisfaction with our lives) and often actually a sense on our heart implanted there by God.
I bet that in you there was some sense that your lifestyle wasn’t working, it didn’t satisfy, maybe it was going nowhere; and I bet the Holy Spirit was right there with you, stirring up a desire to live for God and eternity.
That’s why I do not want any of us to ignore our emotions; they ARE saying something important to us.
And then you ask, “Can feelings and emotions be only constructive when they lead us to Christ ?”
I would say they are INCREDIBLY helpful. For example, when I watch a movie and I tear up, I can ask myself what is happening inside. Perhaps I’m longing for something more significant in my life, or it says I’m sad at the horrors of life (and I want to do something about it), or … well they can mean lots of things.
I don’t want us to “stuff” our feelings; that is the Stoic Philosophy. I also do want us to “obey” our feelings; the is the Epicurian Philosophy. Instead, I want us to “examine” our feelings in prayer with God.
Chiwueze J O Ihebuzor
I need to share, tweet and digest this post. I found I have to believe God’s truth by faith before I can feel the joy. I need to believe God’s grace is sufficient before I feel forgiven.