Stop Feeling Your Feelings
Since emotion is a mangled and confusing word, we need to separate the different experiences it is used to refer to. As we have seen, older generations used the terms affections and passions to at least attempt to point out the differences. Some of these emotional experiences are moral desires and should be treated with the same caution and care given to any other moral command. Some of these emotional experiences are bodily whims and passing moods, and should be paid no more heed than hiccups or an itch. In other words, some are matters of the will to be obeyed, and others are matters of the body to be simply endured or ignored.
The great problem in modern evangelicalism is it does precisely the reverse: feelings are sought, cultivated and savoured, while moral affections are casually ignored and dismissed as neutral and non-moral. In the name of an authentic and lively faith (reacting against cold and bookish Christianity), some groups grab all feelings, fondle them and give them scrunchy-faced intensity. In the name of a stable and theologically serious faith (reacting against flakey and mystical Christianity), some groups routinely snub Christian affections or send them packing to the room marked “unimportant matters of preference”.
So we end up with two camps in either ditch: the sentimentalists obsessed with feeling their feelings, and the brutalists obsessed with maintaining stoic indifference to most affections. In actual practice, the same Christian veers into either ditch at different times.
C. S. Lewis perhaps remains the very best modern theologian of the affections. He has much to say on real Christian affections, particularly in The Abolition of Man. At the same time, Lewis never tires of telling Christians to mostly ignore their feelings.
“Don’t bother much about your feelings. When they are humble, loving, brave, give thanks for them; when they are conceited, selfish, cowardly, ask to have them altered. In neither case are they you, but only a thing that happens to you. What matters is your intentions and your behaviour”. Letters (13 June 1951)
“Obedience is the key to all doors; feelings come (or don’t come) and go as God pleases”. Letters (7 December 1950)
“Feelings come and go and when they come a good use can be made of them: they cannot be our regular diet”. The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 109.
“For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling. In feeling there is so much that is really not ours—so much that comes from weather and health or from the last book read. One thing seems certain. It is no good angling for the rich moments”. Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (pp. 116-117).
“Nobody can always have devout feelings: and even if we could, feelings are not what God principally cares about. Christian Love, either towards God or towards man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do His will we are obeying the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God.’ He will give us feelings of love if He pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as a right But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not.” Mere Christianity, bk 3, ch. 9
“Accept these sensations with thankfulness as birthday cards from God, but remember that they are only greetings, not the real gift…. The real thing is the gift of the Holy Spirit which can’t usually be—perhaps not ever—experienced as a sensation or emotion. The sensations are merely the response of your nervous system. Don’t depend on them. Otherwise when they go and you are once more emotionally flat (as you certainly will be quite soon), you might think that the real thing had gone too. But it won’t. It will be there when you can’t feel it. May even be most operative when you can feel it least”. Letters (15 May 1952)
How do we reconcile these statements with all Lewis has to say on the importance of affections? After all, he wrote a whole book on different kinds of love, The Four Loves.
The answer is that in these quotes and in many other places Lewis is dealing with that aspect of the concept emotion that is truly non-moral: our bodily and neurological experiences, our moods, our liveliness, our general state of optimism or despondency, our physical sense of alertness to spiritual realities. As Lewis never tires of pointing out, these come and go. They may be given by God, or they may be withheld by God. They may come from a good lunch or the lack thereof. They cannot be willed or they lose their very nature as spontaneous accompaniment. They are pleasant or terrible companions, but they are just that: fellow-travellers that we must tolerate while we live in a fallen world in fallen bodies.
Feelings is a fairly modern term. Theologians in Jonathan Edwards’ time spoke of “animal spirits” and “animal fluids” as part of their philosophy of affections and passions. Ancient Greek theories about “choleric”, “sanguine” “phlegmatic” and “melancholic” bodily fluids humors were supposed to account for differing moods and temperaments. Theories about moods and emotions have moved on from supposed bodily humors to theories of serotonin in the brain, and in that sense, people are still accounting for certain aspects of human emotional states in the composition or function of the body itself.
When dealing with these matters, Lewis is exactly right. Bodily fluctuations sometimes work to your advantage, and when they do, give thanks. Sometimes they work against you, and in those moments you must ignore them or master them. Certainly we should never make our bodily feelings any test of how sincere we are, how devoted we are, or how authentically we are worshipping. Churches or Christian leaders that encourage a pursuit of what amounts to bodily undulations as a litmus test of faith, joy, or love have effectively imprisoned their people in the cells of their ageing and changing bodies. Even worse, when “intense feeling” becomes the measure of spirituality, the opposite always results: people begin manufacturing facades of intense feeling – which must be the ultimate insincerity. Since no one can control feeling, but no one is allowed to admit as much, you end up with a crowd of phonies pretending that they have all inexplicably been visited by overpowering religious feelings (again) in the last week. This is the blind leading the blind into a ditch of despair. No one is feeling their feelings like the leaders claim you must, but no one wants to point out that the Emperor has no clothes. So people pretend to have intense feelings, while feeling guilty for not having them, when in reality, no guilt is necessary for the relative state of your body. The only ones not feeling guilty are the ones who actually are: those novices leading the flock into the idolatry of sentimentalism.
We don’t need to feel our feelings. We already do. We are to pursue Christian desires, wholeheartedly. We should seek to be affected by the beauty of truth. More on that next time.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.