March 24, 2017

March 4, 2015

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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Brain researchers are saying that the emotional centers have already made their decision before the logical centers have even noticed that there is a decision is to be made, so many of our “decisions” are not thought through at all but instead are a direct result of the initial emotional response.

[1] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 3-4-2015 at 10:17 AM · [top]

But… but… but… Thinking is so harrrd.  Feeling is easy!

[2] Posted by Aardvark on 3-4-2015 at 10:18 AM · [top]

Hi undergroundpewster…yes I think that is probably right….which is one reason Paul says:  “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)

[3] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 10:34 AM · [top]

What do you do after you have checked the bible and then prayed?

[4] Posted by Pb on 3-4-2015 at 11:18 AM · [top]

wisely apply the purposes and principles God has laid down in scripture to your circumstances. Imagine I’m trying to decide whether to attend college in San Diego or Washington DC.

Scenario #1: I want to go to San Diego. In prayer I get the sense that God wants me to go to San Diego. There is nothing in scripture that would prohibit this decision, so I “follow my heart” and go.

Scenario # 2:  I both devote myself to studying scripture to understand God’s purposes in the world. And in the course of study I realize that God has called his people to be witnesses and evangelists. I know the faith, I know scripture, God has given me a gift for communication. How can I use these gifts to further his purposes in making this decision about college? Investigating the two schools, I realize that the one in DC is situated in a primarily Jewish neighborhood and most of the students are not Christians. Most of the professors are not Christians. There is a good but struggling church in the area. The school in San Diego is a solid Christian University, in a Christian neighborhood, with good churches all around. Knowing God’s purposes as revealed in scripture, and knowing what he has equipped me to do, I go to the school in DC.

[5] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 11:21 AM · [top]

The old (traditional) moral order was as follows
1.  Reason to the right moral action
2.  Do it - regardless of what you feel about it, but because it is the right thing to do
3.  You may (and probably will) receive an emotional “reward” for doing what is right.

We have not inverted that
1.  “Feel” what you want to do.
2.  Do it because it “feels right.”
3.  Use your “reasoning” to justify your actions.

[6] Posted by Philip Snyder on 3-4-2015 at 11:32 AM · [top]


I seldom post here, but here goes. You argument (I use that word purposely) rests on a fallacious equation between the Hebrew metaphor “heart,” and “emotion.” That works in modern English where “heart” has come to mean the equivalent of emotion. However, in both ancient Hebrew and ancient Greek, use of the word “heart” as a metaphor did not mean “emotion.”  Hebrew tended to associate emotion with another part of the body, specifically the “bowels.” (We’re more squeamish these days.)

In Hebrew, “heart” referred to the metaphorical “center of the person,” including both intellect and will—something like the way we use the metaphor the “heart of the matter.” The Hebrews did not associate intellect with the brain, as do modern Westerners.

The context of Jeremiah 17 (which you cite) makes this clear. The metaphor of “heart” appears throughout.  Verse 1 states that the “sin of Judah” is engraved on the “tablet of the heart.” The key problem in the passage is not emotion, but that the hearers are trusting in themselves rather than God (v. 17); this is contrasted with the person who “trusts in the Lord” (v. 8).

The Hebrew parallelism of verse 9 and 10 make clear that “heart” in the passage is not about emotion, but the whole person,:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?
I the LORD searches the heart and tests the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.

The solution to the problem is found in verse 14: “Heal me, O LORD, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved.”

Of course, Jeremiah believes that the “heart” is sinful and fallen, but he also promises that God will give a “new heart” so that his people can seek him with all their “hearts.” (Jer.24:7, 31:33, 32:39,32:40-41).

Scripture does not make our nice distinctions between “emotions” and “intellect.” Christians are neither Platonists nor Vulcans. Certainly the emotions are fallen and deceitful, but so is the intellect. Those who lead with their intellects rather than their emotions are every bit as susceptible to idolatry as the reverse. I think particularly of the “new Atheists.”

In light of the fall, both our intellects and our emotions have been corrupted, and both need to be transformed by grace in order that we may love God with all our hearts, soul, mind, and strength. (Deut. 6:5; Mat. 22:37; Mark 12:30Luke 10:27).

Depending on temperament, Anglicans have tended to focus on either one or the other. C.S. Lewis spoke of the “passionate intellect.” Cranmer scholar Ashley Null regularly summarizes Cranmer’s position as ““What the heart loves, the will chooses and the mind justifies.” I tend to be more sympathetic to Lewis’s way of putting it than Cranmer’s, but that likely shows the particular temptation to which I myself am susceptible. I am seldom in danger of letting myself be led astray by my emotions.

[7] Posted by William Witt on 3-4-2015 at 11:56 AM · [top]

Hi Dr. Witt, thanks for the comment

I agree with you about the “heart as the center of the self”. This is true. So, I’ll grant that Jer 17 is not a specific allusion to the passions or emotion. It is far broader than that…referring to the whole person (although it can sometimes refer to the seat of emotion eg. Prov 27:11, 23:17, Lev 19:17) I would add, however, that the distinction I argued for above is present in the OT…desire/passion/emotion v. wisdom. To resist envy, greed, extortion, adultery, autonomy, selfish gain etc and instead fear God and trust him requires understanding his revealed purpose and will and conforming your desires to it. 

I do disagree with what seems to be your point about platonic categories. I was not suggesting that Paul or the NT employs them or our “neat distinctions” but I disagree that the distinction between understanding and emotion/passion/desire is absent from the NT. And, as I argued above, it is at just those points where we are called upon to exercise discernment (areas of Christian freedom) that Paul in particular wants his readers to think through their decisions on the basis of revealed principles: care for the weak brother or what will most clearly display the gospel, or love your neighbor as yourself. This kind of discernment requires one not to be led by emotion or desire etc but by reasoned thought and wise application of principles. This is not to say that the desires will not be consistent with the action at some points, but the appeal itself seems to imply a trustworthiness of the human mind (at least the redeemed mind) to understand and apply these principles correctly…even when it goes against what the self desires to do.

And it is precisely this realm of decision making that the modern evangelical is so often told to trust his “heart” (and by that, we moderns tend to mean feelings, desires, passions) and not only trust the heart but to assume that the desires that flow from it can and should be associated with the leading of the Holy Spirit.

I think this is madness and quite different than anything Paul had in mind with regard to Christian discernment and decision making.

[8] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 12:10 PM · [top]

The question I don’t see addressed here is how to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit.  The example about choosing a school seems to privilege the intellect, making the assumption that reading scripture and following its precepts will give information that, when joined with reason, can be reliably depended upon to show one where to go.  In other words, knowledge of scripture plus research plus reason leads to knowing God’s best for us.  Because He wants us to be witnesses, the best school is the one with the best opportunities to witness.  Matt, you went to a liberal seminary, presumably making your choice by a process similar to the one you described.  And that was right for you.  But does that mean every Christian called to the priesthood should attend a liberal seminary where they can be a witness?  I doubt it.  For some Christians, the school in San Diego, or TSM or Nashota, might be a better choice, might really be the place where God wants them.  But they won’t reach that conclusion using the logical process you propose.

If I cannot trust God to lead me—mind, heart, and emotions—into right paths as I pray and seek Him and study His Word, I may as well just go out and do all the things I most dislike doing, on the theory that if I like or want something it is sure to be wrong. So I will study to be a nurse when I loathe hospitals and touching people I don’t know because nursing people is a merciful act, God expects us to be merciful, and there is nothing actively merciful about doing what I really want to do, which is, say, writing books.

I simply cannot believe God is so incapable of transforming us that whatever we want or desire is most likely to be wrong.  Yes, the unregenerate heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, but God tells us that He gives us a new heart.  Can’t that new heart discern His will and follow Him? And won’t right emotions often accompany the stirrings of that heart?  Of course we don’t depend upon or trust our emotions just because they’re ours, and we can have right emotions and wrong ones in successive seconds.  We are eminently untrustworthy creatures, and all our trust needs to be in God.  But if we’ve yielded ourselves to Him, we will usually be able to discern the right from the wrong—as scripture also says.

[9] Posted by Kay on 3-4-2015 at 03:47 PM · [top]

Hi Kay, thanks for the comment. I have addressed that question elsewhere…here’s a link:

[10] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 03:49 PM · [top]


I certainly agree with you that emotivism is a problem for Evangelicals of a pietist stripe. The solution is not reason rather than emotion, but wisdom. Wisdom is a matter of virtuous character; it has to do with “knowing how” rather than “knowing that.” Wisdom is a matter of Christian character formed over time through learning to love God and neighbor by indwelling the Christian tradition through Christian practices of communal worship (liturgy), regular and patterned Scripture reading (both lectionary and private study), and a regular rule of daily prayer. 

A spiritually formed character will be more helpful in making life decisions than simply “following your heart” (if that means relying one one’s personal preferences), but I’m not sure that there is any one right answer for arriving at a decision of the kind you suggest. Perhaps God would want someone with communication skills to choose a school in a Jewish neighborhood, but it is also possible that the Christian University would be preferable because it would allow the student to spend four years in study and spiritual formation among other Christians in order to better prepare for an entire lifetime of communicating the gospel. A freshman college student with little in terms of emotional maturity or life experience, and the kind of superficial knowledge of Christian faith typical of someone just graduated from high school might be the worst possible person to set loose on a Jewish community.

[11] Posted by William Witt on 3-4-2015 at 04:21 PM · [top]

Hi Dr. Witt,

I think we will probably end up disagreeing a bit. I think you are drawing a false dichotomy between knowing “how” and knowing “that”. I think one cannot know “how” unless one first knows “what”. This is why Paul lays down the principles I alluded to above and then expects his readers to act accordingly.

I am not at all suggesting a simple swap - mind for emotion. I agree that would be futile. Both can mislead. I am suggesting that the mind and emotions are both given for a purpose and we (evangelicals in general) have confused the purposes. The scriptures seem to favor the use of one over the other when it comes to decision making, determining the right course…otherwise the whole enterprise of giving commands and principles and expecting us to apply them reasonably is somewhat futile. In other words, the very mode of revelation implies the expectation that we will be and can be rightly led by our minds (being transformed by the Spirit)

So I am not saying kill the emotions and live by the mind. I am addressing the question of which of which faculty ought to be the “chooser, how the mind and emotion ought to function together in decision making. And I think evangelicalism (modern) has largely gotten it wrong (following our overly emotion driven culture I think)

As to your take on the “which school to choose” question. I agree, there are a number of factors to consider in this hypothetical student’s life. The point was not to recommend one school over the other or to suggest that the considerations I proposed are the only ones…but simply to model the kinds of considerations that I think should be determinative over and above the simple desire to go to one place or the other…and most certainly if that desire is spiritualized and made to be the voice of God (which is what often happens).

[12] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 04:51 PM · [top]

All this assumes that many people follow their emotions without reason and claim that they are following the will of God.  I would be against that, too. The mind is a useful servant but a terrible master. Remember the “head” of N.I.C.E.

[13] Posted by Pb on 3-4-2015 at 07:25 PM · [top]

Hi Pb

re: “All this assumes that many people follow their emotions without reason and claim that they are following the will of God.”

No assumption at all. Many do.

re: “I would be against that, too. The mind is a useful servant but a terrible master. Remember the “head” of N.I.C.E.”

The unredeemed mind, yes.

[14] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 08:01 PM · [top]

If the heart is the “center of the self” then, as we sometimes say of the soul, it is comprised of intellect, will, and emotion.  Not only are our emotions untrustworthy, but so is our intellect.  Proverbs 3:5 says “Trust in the LORD with all your heart And do not lean on your own understanding. ”  The point being that, even as redeemed fallen creatures, there are aspects of ourselves that we cannot trust.  Joyce Meyer seems to be saying that once you have read the Bible and prayed, you can (as though setting those aside or going beyond them) trust your heart.  To which Matt is right:  No, no, no, no, no.  Continuing in prayer, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, clinging to Scripture, we try to discern the mind of Christ on a matter. 

And, while I am generally skeptical of Joyce Meyer, it seems that in this article (apparently not the one to which Matt is referring), she gets it right:

[15] Posted by ToAllTheWorld on 3-4-2015 at 08:42 PM · [top]

The argument I am making does not hinge on the meaning of “heart” in Jer 17. It rests primarily on those passages in the NT that address how the Christian ought to make decisions in those areas of life where the Lord has not given a direct command. You never see Paul suggest feeling your way through the problem, laying fleeces, trying to get to a place of peace, following passions and desires. Instead he lays down principles (see examples above) that he expects his readers will understand and apply in a rational way to the their circumstances while exercising self control over their passions.

[16] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 09:06 PM · [top]

By the way, Joyce Meyer is definitely someone to be skeptical about:

[17] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-4-2015 at 09:13 PM · [top]

The NT writers frequently connect “love” and “knowledge”: Phil 1:8-9, 2 Pet 1:5-7, other passages less explicitly.  Similar words, such as discernment, wisdom, and training, feature prominently.  The connection from mind to action is very strong.  That said, it’s also possible to have mind that doesn’t lead to action, and this is worthless.

The NT writers rebuke those whose mind does not lead to action.  They never rebuke those who develop their mind in order to act; in fact, they vigorously encourage it.  They also warn against those who would act without engaging in knowledge, for godly knowledge and wisdom are the guard against folly.

[18] Posted by Andrew W on 3-4-2015 at 09:14 PM · [top]

PS: the auto-parser doesn’t like the way I formatted my references above.  Trying an alternate form:  Phil 1:8-9; 2 Pet 1:5-7

[19] Posted by Andrew W on 3-4-2015 at 09:16 PM · [top]

Speaking of a drunken joy ride of emotion…here’s a prime illustration of what can happen when you ‘follow your heart’ and blame it on the Holy Spirit: “Pastor Capehart, a couples’ counselor of 17 years said she rejected the offer to appear on the TV show three times before God spoke to her and told her to go on the show. Capehart said, “ thing about my life and one thing about God is He would push you to do some things that you probably think that you shouldn’t do. I’m so glad because through prayer after I turned it down the third time, the Lord as He did many times in my life, with everything else in my life, instructed me that He had prepared me to do this. My presence would make a difference in being on the show.”

Well, if you heard God’s voice in your heart, who could object?

[20] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-5-2015 at 05:05 AM · [top]

Did GoDaddy hijack you all this morning?  Will there be more hot Anglican chicks on StandFirm now? wink

Glad to see you back.

[21] Posted by Newbie Anglican on 3-5-2015 at 09:34 AM · [top]

RE: “Speaking of a drunken joy ride of emotion… . . . “

Hey man—she went *against* her feelings of discomfort!  She did what her emotions told her *not* to do—in order, I assume, to glorify God.

What a sacrifice she made!

[22] Posted by Sarah on 3-5-2015 at 10:17 AM · [top]


I want to know who came up with the Sex Box idea.  What an awful awful awful awful idea—for both the participants *and* the audience!

[23] Posted by Sarah on 3-5-2015 at 10:18 AM · [top]

I’m so glad because through prayer after I turned it down the third time, the Lord as He did many times in my life, with everything else in my life, instructed me that He had prepared me to do this.

And Satan NEVAH imitates the voice of the Lord.  He NEVAH tries to twist His commands or words.  NEVAH. Nevah. nevah.

[24] Posted by Jackie on 3-5-2015 at 10:49 AM · [top]

My wife read me this from her morning time. “The renewed mind is the result of a surrendered heart.”

[25] Posted by Pb on 3-5-2015 at 10:57 AM · [top]

The heart cannot surrender to what the mind does not know

[26] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 3-5-2015 at 11:20 AM · [top]

This comment may be sufficiently off topic so I understand if it gets deleted.  I wonder how all this applies to those who have intellectual disabilities, either from birth (but who have some capacity to live independently—how much autonomy?) or later in life. 

My grandfather divorced his wife of 60 years in his 80’s.  I’m not sure he was following emotion or intellect or who’s to say?  I’m not sure he knew.  During that debacle I was unsure who should step in, if at all, and how when in a large family the family is divided on what to do.  Emotionally, he became angry, but that may have also been the result of senility setting in.  He was “with it” enough to prevent someone else from gaining power of attorney.  I hope God is merciful for his sins.

My mom taught special ed.  Its tough to teach some of them how to follow the bible.  Some seem imprisoned to certain emotions.

[27] Posted by Matthew on 3-5-2015 at 12:32 PM · [top]

Capacity in all its manifestations and ramifications is entirely considered by a loving, gracious God in His judgements.  We cannot make that call.  We may pray that He will hasten the coming of His Kingdom that all such imperfections may be healed in Grace.  Truly, we see darkly in these matters, Matthew, but we may trust God to do right.  He Who sees our down-sitting and up-rising, Who knows our very words before they are on our tongues, He will judge righteously those who have capacities that currently limit them.

[28] Posted by dwstroudmd+ on 3-5-2015 at 04:19 PM · [top]

About the sex box, Pastor Capehart disregarded the entire tenor of scripture on the subject of sexuality when she agreed to serve as a judge.  Even Joyce Meyer would probably agree that the pastor ignored the fundamental requirement of studying scripture and praying diligently before “following her heart.”

[29] Posted by Kay on 3-5-2015 at 09:10 PM · [top]

Matt. I think we are talking about a sort of both/and proposition. I am not sure what Joyce Meyer meant but there something important here. There are professors in seminary who know the gospel but have not surrendered their heart to Jesus as opposed to what they have in their mind as your comment suggests. Credo ut sciam.

[30] Posted by Pb on 3-6-2015 at 09:58 AM · [top]

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