In the Bible there is a significant body of moral commands directed to the human emotions, passions, and desires.
There are essentially two ways these passages are explained:
- Commands to Feel as Literal Commands to Feel
They are commands to the passions and passions can only be activated by specific experiences, therefore while God is right to command our passions, God himself must change our passions for us to obey these commands. John Piper defends this idea here and here the related idea that one must be regenerated by God who causes you to have those feelings in the first place.*
- The “act as-if” hypothesis
When the Bible issues commands to the emotions, desires, and passions, the idea is to “act as-if” this or that emotion, passion, desire, or affection is true. This does not really depend upon a theory of free-will or regeneration. It instead is simply a theory about how these commands are intended to be obeyed. For instance, one could be a Calvinist and still have this point of view. The command to rejoice is meant to be obeyed, not purely by feeling joy, but by doing the things a rejoicing person does: praising, thanking, and showing the kindness which comes from being joyful.
Because I subscribe to the “act as-if” hypothesis, here are some pieces of evidence for it:
- The ancient Mediterranean world had what some scholars call a dramatic orientation. While one could paint with too broad a brush, the idea is simply that emotions were often seen as external actions rather than mere internal cognitive states. Hypocrisy is bad, not because the feelings aren’t there, but because actions are done to hide evil intentions. Rather, actions seem to have been meant to illustrate feelings which should be there whether they are there or not.
- Stoic theories of human action typically include learning to manage one’s internal emotional states by applying reason and acting in reasonable ways regardless of feeling. Many scholars note the influence of Stoic theories of ethics on the New Testament authors. I do not think that they are incorrect.
- In Psalms rejoicing in the Lord is often connected directly to singing, playing music, and meditating on or exclaiming publicly the acts and attributes of the Lord, the God of Israel. New Testament commands probably have the same application.
- In general, the New Testament’s picture of the commands of Jesus is that they are not burdensome. This doesn’t mean “not hard.” It means they they do not weigh you down like the teachings of the Pharisees as impossible or absurd idealism. If you don’t believe me read 1 John 5:3 and Matthew 11:26-30. Even Matthew 7:13-28 show that Jesus means for his commands to be the foundation of Christian character. The point is that the teachings of Jesus are, by the power of God’s Spirit, the change of mind brought about by the gospel, the influence of a heavenly hope, the experience of God’s love, and the persuasive example of the best representatives of God’s church are meant to be joyfully followed.
In the future I’ll post about how to follow some of the emotional commands in Scripture based on the “as-if hypothesis.” Also, I do not subscribe to this hypothesis without reservation. Smarter and wiser interpreters of Scripture has disagreed with me, so if you have any thing to add, let me know.
*Note: This idea is strongly related to Jonathan Edward’s identification of the will or the faculty of choice precisely with whatever one’s strongest inclination happens to be. This philosophical predetermination of what it means for the Bible to give commands to the emotions actually leads to an interesting problem for John Piper’s over all theology. He defines hypocrisy as “acting as if you have feelings you do not have.” Yet, Piper acknowledges that feelings may indeed not be there in a genuine Christian (this is a case of a philosophical idea having empirical data to the contrary), and therefore one must fight for joy in God despite not desiring God. But this makes them a hypocrite and not a real Christian (because for Jesus, the hypocrites are merely pretending and not truly faithful). In other words, for Piper, the commands are necessary parts of a moral calculus wherein God rightfully gives impossible commands and forgives the elect of their lapses, but otherwise commands simply because he can.
In my mind, this philosophical rabbit trail is interesting, and for John Piper totally determines his interpretation of Scripture, but it is not the point of the post.
Disclosure: I’m not fond of this idea for several reasons, but the primary one is that it really is circular and hopeless. If you don’t have feelings for God that lead you to obedience, you’re in a lot of trouble, because God has to regenerate you first and he may not do so.