About a year ago I 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, do not let your heart be the arbiter. This is the path of foolishness. Our emotions are foolish. Deceitful. Frivolous…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 listen to our emotions and even as Christians we have been given to believe that one way God speaks to us is through feelings and intuitions. So we wait to feel right about something before doing it, assuming that because we are Christians and the Holy Spirit lives in us that we will feel good when we are following God’s will and feel bad when we are not.
The primary objection to my Facebook post was that our emotions were created by God and are, therefore, good. The first part is certainly true. Our emotions were created by God. The second part was once, before the Fall, completely true but not now. Now, the heart is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9). “Heart” in that text does not mean exclusively “emotions” like it often does for English speakers. It is far more encompassing. The heart is the seat of the self, the core of your identity. God, through Isaiah, is warning us: whatever you do, do not believe in yourself. Do not trust in your own wisdom, understanding, and certainly not your emotions. It is true that the Christian is a new creation and that our emotions are being renovated and restored but even so Paul tells believers that we were given the Holy Spirit not to speak to us in the still small voice of our desires but to prevent us from doing what we want to do. “For 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). The Spirit doesn’t lead us by our desires. He empowers us to resist them.
But then what was God’s purpose in giving us emotions? Originally, I think, our feelings were given so that we might enjoy what is truly good, that we might taste and see that God and all that he has made is beautiful and enjoy him forever. But they were never intended to determine the good.
Identifying the good is the function of the mind. This is why God, even before the Fall, gave verbal commands rather than non-verbal impulses: “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 then the will to act in keeping with that knowledge to make the right decision. Thomas Cranmer’s famous formula, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies” is correct but we must not think that even in a pristine world our affections would identify what is right. Were our emotions not corrupted by sin we would desire the good that reason identifies rather than hate it and love the choice the will chooses rather than inhibit it and we would abhor all other options rather than pine for them so that all of our faculties would harmonize and our beings would resonate with praise to God for his wisdom and the wonder of his creation.
But, of course, our reason has also been corrupted by the Fall. It is part of the “deceitful heart” of Jeremiah 17:9. The fallen mind is captive 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 that knowledge about God that we possess. It is not that the mind is no longer able to recognize God or identify the good, we do that well enough. But the good we know we despise and the God we recognize we revile. 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 the 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 his Spirit living in us enables us, kindles in us, a desire to act according to what we know and understand Christ would have us do.
It is crucial to note that in those very sections of the New Testament where the question of adiaphora arises it is the mind and not the heart upon which the Christian is called to depend. Adiaphora is the Greek term used to refer to those areas of life to which no divine command applies, for example: what job to take, who to marry, where to live, what to do with retirement, what to study. But it is precisely in these areas of freedom 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. And what is the consequence? An impulse, a felt “word”, an experienced passion becomes “the word of God”. The conscience becomes bound to commands that arise not from God but from the affections and “laws” authored by the human heart begin to take on the pallor of divine command.
But this is not the way of the New Testament. In 1st Corinthians 8 regarding a matter of adiaphora, 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.
“Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:8-13)
In Galatians 5, he warns Christians not to use their freedom to satisfy their 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. When New Testament writers deal with the question of freedom, they encourage Christians to exercise wisdom and self-control not to follow the heart or lean on the affections. The Holy Spirit, as already noted, indwells the Christian to “keep you from doing what we want”.
Obviously, then, our affections are to be treated with extreme skepticism. This is not to say, “don’t feel them” or that your emotions are always evil. I am not promoting Vulcan Christianity or stoicism. Emotions are gifts to be enjoyed. But they are not guides to be followed. When, by God’s grace, you exercise self-control your emotions come into their own. When His revealed wisdom leads rather than your feelings, happiness/sorrow/satisfaction ultimately, become bound to what is genuine and good. True happiness will be rediscovered after the counterfeit is undone. Your affections were not designed to lead, but to follow.