The Drunken Joy Ride of Emotion
I recently posted the following on facebook after reading an article by Joyce Meyer that advises Christian readers to read the bible, pray, and then, “follow your heart.” I wrote (with perhaps a bit of hyperbole):
“Yes, check the bible. Yes. Pray. But No No No…do not let your heart be the arbiter. This is the path of foolishness. Our emotions are whacked out. Foolish. Deceitful. Frivolous. They want to take your mind and body on a drunken joyride. It’s like letting your 13 year old drive or giving your credit card to your 17 year old. Think. Employ Wisdom. Make a rational decision designed to display the gospel and build up the church…even if, ESPECIALLY if, it makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s usually a sign you’re headed in the right direction…”
Some people were upset. I can understand why. We have been trained and taught since childhood to follow our emotions and, as Christians, we have been given to believe that one way God speaks to us is through our emotions. So we wait to feel right about something before doing it. We look for feelings of peace. We lay fleeces. We wait for feelings and intuitions we often assume to be the leading of the Holy Spirit, assuming that because we are Christians and the Spirit lives in us that we will feel good when we are following God’s will and feel bad when we are not. There is simply nothing in the scriptures to substantiate that idea.
The primary objection to my facebook post was that our emotions are created by God and are good. The first part is certainly true. Our emotions were created by God. The second part was once, before the Fall, completely true but now it is rarely so. Now, the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9). But even if this were not true, our emotions were given to us so that we might truly enjoy what is truly good. They were not given to help us choose or determine what is good. Choosing the good is the function of the mind. This is why God, from the very beginning, gives verbal commands rather than non-verbal emotives: “Be fruitful and multiply.” “You are free to eat from every tree in the garden but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you must not eat…” Obedience to these requires comprehension, knowledge, and the the ability to reason from that knowledge to make the right decision. It is true that our reason has also been corrupted by the Fall and that the Fall began with an assault on knowledge. But what has happened is that the mind has been made subject to a heart corrupted by passions of the flesh. So in Romans 1:18-21, our desire to be gods and to make our own gods drives our intellectual attempts to suppress our knowledge about God. The “reasoned atheist” is not driven by cold rationality but by a hot blooded emotional desire to extinguish his knowledge of God. His corrupt heart rules his mind. But what happens when this hypothetical atheist is redeemed? God comes to live in the heart and transform the mind. We are given through the scriptures access to the very mind of Christ and the Spirit living in us enables us, increasingly, to act according to what we know and understand Christ would have us do.
In this regard, it is important to note that in those very sections of the New Testament where the question of Christian freedom arises it is the mind and not the heart upon which the Christian is called to depend. By “freedom” I mean those areas of life to which no divine command applies, for example: where to live, what to do with retirement, what to study, who to marry. It is precisely in these areas that modern evangelicals have been taught to pray and then follow the heart, assuming that the Christian heart/feeling/intuition is the vehicle through which God speaks. You see the exact opposite in the New Testament. Instead Paul and the other apostles give principles to govern decision making.
So, for example, in 1st Corinthians 8, regarding food offered to idols, Paul does not say: pray and wait to feel peace or follow your heart. Instead he says that the Christian must use his freedom to build up his weaker brother. In Galatians 5, he warns the Christian not to use his freedom to satisfy his desires but instead to apply the principle: “love your neighbor as yourself.” The word for love is “agape”. It is not a feeling. It is the outpouring of the self for the good of another. It requires that you know the “other” and know the “good” and then that you control your own passions in order to do what you know to be good for another. Paul writes: “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”(Galatians 5:17). These are only a few examples, but everywhere you look, when New Testament writers deal with the question of freedom, they encourage Christians to exercise wisdom and self control in decision making and never to follow the heart or lean on our emotions. In fact, the Holy Spirit indwells the Christian to “keep you from doing what we want”.
Obviously, then, our desires and emotions are to be treated with extreme skepticism. Do not lead with them. I am not at all saying “don’t feel them” or “all emotional experience is bad.” Not at all. This is not Vulcan Christianity or stoicism. Emotions are, indeed, wonderful gifts to be enjoyed to the fullest. But the best way to truly enjoy your emotions is not to let them lead the show. When you exercise self-control your emotions can come into their own. What I mean is, if you let wisdom lead rather than your feelings, you will increasingly choose good and right things and the happiness/sorrow/desire you experience as a result will be genuine and good. It is true that your emotions can be trained to desire what is good. This is one thing that the Spirit does in you. But your emotions cannot and never should be the “chooser”. They were not designed to lead, but to follow. The Spirit was given to us so that we would be able to reign the heart in and act in accordance with God’s wisdom revealed in his word. And by this, rightly done, God will increasingly heal our emotions.
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