Growth in Grace: The Feelings

Introduction

To grow in grace must include a transformation of our feelings and emotions. This is evident from two perspectives. From observation, we know that part of a long term diet plan includes learning to like different foods. If this change does not take place, then evidence shows that people have a tendency to end up heavier than they were before going on a diet. From Scripture, we see that the ideal Christian life includes the experience of appropriate positive emotions regarding God, truth, goodness, and beauty and negative emotions with regard to evil, sin, suffering, and so-on.[1]

The topic of emotional growth and transformation in the life of God’s grace is dangerous, though. It’s dangerous territory because emotions are pathologized in many ways. In this post, I do not mean to:

  1. Conflict with some actual medical diagnosis somebody may have. A genetic predisposition toward depress or a measured chemical imbalance is not to be scoffed at or treated as fake.
  2. Allow people who (without medical diagnosis) to merely treat their feelings as a matter purely of personality that cannot be dealt with because of some personality test continue to live with a self-destructive God dishonoring approach to emotions.

But, despite the dangers of discussing feelings and emotions, this is an important topic. Besides, a life boat is a dangerous on the high seas, but it is better than sinking with a damaged vessel. Similarly, a Christian approach to our feelings is much safer than simply staying upon a sinking vessel in those same high seas.

Four Theses on Feelings

  1. Human beings often make major decisions based solely upon their feelings.
    This is almost an axiom, but if you need evidence use social media.
  2. This state of affairs, which is often treated as virtuous in movies, music, literature, and television shows, is not ideal.
    Many people think that going against their feelings is inauthentic. I’ve even heard famous pastors define hypocrisy as obeying the Lord when you don’t feel like it. The Star Wars films use the phrase, “search your feelings” over and over as a call to seek higher knowledge than sense or reason can provide. But, one can see how impulses and feelings lead us astray on a regular basis. For instance, many sweet foods are over eaten and this leads to health problems on a national scale. Similarly, the sexual impulse of humanity misapprehended leads to children growing up in terrible and broken households.
  3. The Biblical picture is that feelings are a good gift from God that have been distorted by sin.
    In Romans 1:18-32, Paul says that God gives idolators (the human race) over to debased minds and shameful lusts as a punishment. In 1 Peter 2:12, Peter observes that our passions actually wage war against our souls. On the other hand, the Bible often uses positive emotions as motivations for living the good life with God. One need only read Proverbs 1-9 to see how frequently pleasant emotions are associated with growing in wisdom, maturity, and godliness.
  4. With our cultural acceptance of feeling as a prime source for authentic living (if it feels good, do it!), Christians must re-examine and re-accept the Biblical picture of human feelings and their place in being disciples of Jesus Christ.
    If the first three theses are true, then this one is a matter of course. A non-ideal state of affairs based on a false belief should always be changed.

3 Myths about feelings

  1. Self-control means to directly go against your emotions all of the time.
    Some people caricature stoicism and think that self-control is bad because it means going against emotions or ignoring them entirely. Very few people put this in writing. This is more of an awkward conversation that occurs with people who are about to make a bad decision based on emotion. We’ve all been there, so we might as well refute it here. Self-control, Biblically, is having a mastery over your feelings in such a way as to lead you to crucify evil ones and to willingly engage in God honoring ones (Galatians 5:22-24).
  2. On the other hand, it is a myth that to go against your feelings to do the right thing is bad.[2]
    For instance, John Piper says that buying your wife flowers because you feel obligated isn’t actually love, therefore similarly obeying God out of duty is also not love. This is an interesting point and is very helpful form a certain point of view, but if it is over focused on, it can really confuse us. Paul says that we are under obligation, just not to the flesh in Romans 8:12. The implication, of course, is that we are under obligation to the Holy Spirit. Now, where Piper is right is that our duty is to delight in God. But it is also our duty to act loving when we feel disinterested, hateful, or angry with somebody (God included).
  3. All feelings are true/All feelings are false
    Some people treat their feelings as a totally accurate source of data. Other people treat them as routinely unreliable. An important step is to learn to treat your feelings as an important part of who you are and just like your thoughts and beliefs, they can be right or wrong.

Developing Grace Shaped Feelings

Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart, offers excellent tools for experiencing the transformation of the feelings. What I say below will be partially adapted from his work as well as a collection of some of my own thoughts on the process.

  1. Have a vision of yourself transformed
    Previously, I wrote about the power of having a Christ-formed vision of who you are meant to be. This is true of the feelings as well. Few people can overcome their desire for an unhealthy diet because they refuse to imagine themselves as somebody who really doesn’t want the first bite of cake in the first place or at least as somebody who thoroughly enjoys a small piece and moves on with their life. Dallas Willard puts it this way, “If a strong and compelling vision of myself of one who is simply free from intense vanity or desire of wealth or for sexual indulgence can possess me, then I am in a position to desire not to have the desires I now have. And then means can be effectively sought for that end.”[3]
  2. Reason with your emotions
    Many of us believe that our feelings are deeps sources of knowledge about reality. This is why we really belief that they must be satisfied. This can be true of sadness, anger, lust, hunger, and so-on. Part of dealing with these feelings is reasoning with them. “Will I really just die if I go for a walk instead of look at porn?” “Is it realistic to think that I must win this argument with my wife?” “Did my child really try to make me angry?” “Am I literally worthless?” If we ask these questions of our feelings and then dispute them, we may find ourselves slowly having transformed feelings. I’ve written more about this here and here.
  3. Learn the circumstances under which you experience your emotions and change them
    I mean two things here. The first is to recognize the bad external circumstances over which you have power, and change them. If you need more sleep, start going to bed early tonight. If you watch depressing or violent crap on television, stop. If you read salacious literature, don’t. If you watch the food network and feel hungry all the time, stop watching it.
    There are also internal conditions of feelings. These can be beliefs and thought patterns. If you really believe that you are worthless, then you really will feel like a worthless worm of a person. So, repeat true, Biblical statements to yourself until your belief is changed. “I am in loved by God.” “I am made in God’s image.” “God is worth giving up my immediate desires.” “Self-denial for the sake of Jesus is good.” Other beliefs or processes can be important as well. I have several circumstances that opposed my life success that everybody I know says were the fault of others who took advantage of my niceness and problem solving ability. If I live my whole life thinking about how so-and-so messed me up, I will live my whole life weakening my resolve. So, I’ve chosen to believe that I am fully responsible for those failures and what comes next. This belief is only partly true, but I don’t know enough about those other people’s intentions to really believe that meant to take advantage of me. But I do know that I simply did not have a biblical form of self-love and put others interests before my own in an unbiblical fashion.[4] Learning to change this past belief to one of personal ownership of the result has helped me have way more peace about my current circumstances and to feel must more ownership over my course in life.
  4. Don’t repress your feelings, but change them (in the ways mentioned above) or use them constructively
    Many people, as I mentioned above, see self-control as an inauthentic attempt to repress or hide all feelings. While there are times to hide your feelings, repression is not the best way to have your feelings transformed. There is a time to ‘fake it’ till you make it. If you feel hungry, but don’t eat to train yourself to keep your new diet, that is probably good. But you have to own the fact that you felt hungry despite having eaten enough. If you do not own your feelings as an actual part of who you are (they aren’t all you are, btw), then it can be hard to change them over time. I’ve written about this in more depth here. Another way to approach this is to take potentially sinful feelings and use them to seek the good thing they were designed to point you toward. Examples:

    1. Anger: Anger is meant to tell you where your will is being thwarted. If you’re angry about something you currently cannot solve, go solve another problem.
    2. Lust: Use feelings of lust to motivate yourself to improve your marriageability, attractiveness, or current marriage.
    3. Sadness: Sadness comes from a sense of loss or demoralizing defeat. Use sadness to propel you to empathy with others or to motivate you to improve your chances of overcoming your circumstances. You could also use it to guide you toward repentance. Remind yourself that this feeling is the feeling that should accompany sin.

Conclusion

The point of this post is to give clear instruction on the ways in which our feelings can be transformed according to Christlikeness. The three biggest challenges for this are:

  1. The belief that feelings are primary for knowing and deciding in life.
  2. Our lack of vision about the Biblical picture of feelings formed in Christ (read the New Testament and Proverbs very thoroughly to solve this)
  3. Our inability to admit that our feelings are often the result of choices we make that are sinful at worst and foolish at best.

If we can get these things straight, then we can hopefully chart a clearer course through this aspect of growing in God’s grace. May his Spirit help us.

Posts in the series

  1. What does “grow in grace” mean?
  2. Growth in Grace: Vision
  3. Growth in Grace: Intention
  4. Growth in Grace: Means
  5. Growth in Grace: The Feelings

References

[1] For instance, Paul commands us to “abhor the evil” but also says that God’s spirit will work “joy” in our lives. And while I am quite opposed to the idea that love is an emotion, love is often accompanied by delight. Our sense of delight in those we choose to love (rather than only gravitating toward loving those in whom we delight) is an important sign of spiritual growth.

[2] John Piper, Desiring God ([Sisters, OR]: Multnomah, 2003), 93, “Consider the analogy of a wedding anniversary. Mine is on December 21. Suppose on this day I bring home a dozen long-stemmed roses for Noël. When she meets me at the door, I hold out the roses, and she says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful; thank you” and gives me a big hug. Then suppose I hold up my hand and say matter-of-factly, “Don’t mention it; it’s my duty.” What happens? Is not the exercise of duty a noble thing? Do not we honor those we dutifully serve? Not much. Not if there’s no heart in it. Dutiful roses are a contradiction in terms. If I am not moved by a spontaneous affection for her as a person, the roses do not honor her. In fact, they belittle her. They are a very thin covering for the fact that she does not have the worth or beauty in my eyes to kindle affection. All I can muster is a calculated expression of marital duty.”

[3] Willard 119.

[4] Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11, teaches us to emulate Christ in putting others interests above our own. And we should, but insofar as the interests of the other involve the purposes of the gospel. For instance, Paul won’t put others interests above his own when it comes to his calling or responsibilities. Same with Jesus. Jesus tells would be apostles (people who want to go preach with him) that they can’t come because they want him to wait for their needs to be met first. This is important to remember. If somebody’s need involves you failing to feed your family, pursue your calling, or whatever then think very carefully about whether or not it is wise to do. For instance, in the parable of the good Samaritan, the Samaritan didn’t invite the guy into his home or offer to pay all of his bills. But he did help him in the moment and agree to pay for his care at an inn.

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