Last month a well-known Christian apologist was promoting a podcast episode on “feelings” and “how much trouble they cause us”. He offered a preview of the show’s content saying, “hint: feelings aren’t truth, ladies”.
I reference this because it offers a distillation of the dismissive ways feelings and emotions are often treated in the church. In some circles, emotions are considered both feminine (as if that’s a bad thing) and inherently deceptive. They are viewed as an unfortunate part of our human-ness, a problem-causing nuisance to be suppressed.
I do not have the space here to adequately address the toxic root issues present where femininity is associated with weakness and error (hint: it’s a problem). But I was taught in the church that men are rational and women are emotional (annoyingly over-emotional, it was often joked). The former (masculine) is implied to be the wise, dare we say righteous, way to go through life. The latter (feminine) is implied to be the unstable, error-prone way of life. Sure women are more receptive to relationships, some might acknowledge. But that just makes them more prone to emotional manipulation. Am I overstating it?
It’s easy to believe that binary is true because women are emotional. But so are men, because HUMAN BEINGS are emotional. And to suggest that women are governed more by their emotions than men is, I would argue, demonstrably false. Men, when was the last time your entire day was ruined because your team lost? When was the last time you became angry or depressed because of a small condescending remark someone made at work? When was the last time your blood pressure rose because of political commentary? When was the last time you really wanted a product you didn’t need because of how it made you feel? Parents, are your daughters decidedly more emotional than your sons? Not in my house. It’s true that people vary on how they act on and express their emotion. But evidence would suggest that’s more based on personality type than gender. And even then, I, being a reserved introvert, always viewed myself as being non-emotional. But I’m learning that’s false. The emotion is there, I just haven’t known how to handle it.
All of this to say, emotions aren’t feminine, they’re human. Not an unfortunate part of our human-ness, a good part of how God intentionally made us in his image. Consider the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” The context of that verse is the death of Jesus’s friend Lazarus, whom Jesus was about to raise from the dead. What’s striking is that, knowing he was about to raise him, a rational response from Jesus would have been, “This isn’t a sad moment. It’s a strategic one where I can display my power.” But he weeps. He breaks down crying with Mary and Martha to mourn death’s (temporary) triumph over his friend. As readers of this account there is a strange comfort in Jesus’s response, in his human-ness. Jesus “feels” and that feels right.
As an integral part of our humanity, our emotions should not be seen as a problem to be overcome. Rather, they should be seen as something to be strengthened, in the sense of being made healthy. A favorite verse among those warning against the problem-causing danger of emotions is Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” But this is not to be understood (or wielded) as a blanket condemnation of emotion. It is, rather, another affirmation that in our natural state our desires are set against the things of God (cf. Rom 1). That is why we need “new hearts” (Ez 36:26) so that we can love God with our whole hearts (Mark 12:30) in addition to our minds. All of this to say, our hearts (will, emotions) aren’t inherently bad, they are part of how God designed us. They are simply distorted by sin and need to be re-formed to the image of Christ, just like our thoughts.
Because we are being holistically made new in Christ, if we ignore any aspect of our human-ness, it will have destructive consequences. Consider if you denied that your physical body had any impact on your life. Our emotions are as integral to our humanity as our physical bodies (perhaps there is not such a clear delineation between the two) and have as significant of an impact on our lives. If we ignore our emotions, it doesn’t make them go away. It simply allows them to remain unhealthy and un-formed. And if we desire to see our desires re-formed, we must learn to be attentive to them with some level of skill and specificity.
Certainly, we must acknowledge that there is a very real, prevalent problem in our culture where feelings serve as the primary arbiter of truth. And this isn’t limited to one age group or political party. It’s ubiquitous. But our response should not be a fearful rejection of emotion altogether. Rather, we ought to use the moment to better understand how emotion actually impacts us so that we can better understand the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and physiology.
An oft-quoted formula linked to Thomas Cranmer spells it out this way: “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” In other words, our emotions drive the train more than we care to admit. Cranmer lived in the 16th Century, and plenty of thinkers before him articulated similar observations. One could make an argument that we are not more feelings-driven than different eras, we simply talk about feelings more. And if that allows us to get them out in the open, it’s not a bad thing. Because if Cranmer’s formula is true, understanding what the heart loves (i.e. how we are emotionally responding) will help us see that often times our minds work hard to justify something we WANT to be true (fake news, anyone?). Or, it will help us see that sometimes we have a hard time experiencing truths we’ve accepted intellectually because something is unresolved emotionally. Ultimately, it will help us see that we’re not as purely rational as we … well … want to think.
I would suggest that the only real way forward in Spiritual Formation is to recognize the interdependent relationship of our heart, mind, and body and to become attentive to all three.
And if we’re able to see this interplay then we can truly make some progress. We’ll see that the transformation we desire in the Christian life won’t come from simply downloading information as though human beings were just rational minds in a vacuum. I would suggest that the only real way forward in Spiritual Formation is to recognize the interdependent relationship of our heart, mind, and body and to become attentive to all three (i.e. our full humanity), learning to re-align them to God in concert with one another. Being dismissive of our emotions (or body) will stunt that transformation, which is what leads Pete Scazzero to make such a bold claim as, “failure to appreciate the biblical place of feelings within our larger Christian lives has done extensive damage, keeping free people in Christ in slavery.”
Feelings aren’t truth, but neither are thoughts if we’re speaking in generalities. What feelings are is “real”. That is, they are connected to something that is really happening within us. If someone says they are angry, no one can say, “No, you aren’t”. One might argue they shouldn’t be angry, but the feeling itself is real (a physiological response is taking place). If we are able to become skilled at acknowledging those feelings (rather than dismissing them or suppressing them) they might actually lead us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and even some thought patterns that we never saw. How much healthier would we be if we were attentive enough to ask “Why am I angry right now?” or “Why do I want to withdraw?” or “Why did that person’s words bring me so much joy?” There is often so much happening internally that hinders our relationship with Christ and undermines our relationships with others. Being attentive to our feelings helps us actually uncover it so that we can address it, maybe for the first time. And that opens a whole new opportunity for growth to experience the life and peace we long for.
Consider the emotional expression of the Psalmist (16:9) who shouts, “my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices”. As we learn to be attentive to our emotions, we also learn to experience our faith in an emotional way, which is biblical. And as a reserved introvert, even I can acknowledge that many of our churches would benefit from a movement toward a more emotionally tuned and expressive faith. And that’s not just about the Sunday experience, it’s about the depth of our receptivity to God. For example, in Romans 2:4 we read that it’s God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. We can turn that into a theological equation, but we ought to FEEL that. And as we feel that, it ought to disarm us, warm our hearts, and draw us in to communion with Christ. And that’s where the life we long for is found.
So here is to emotional health, for the sake of Spiritual Formation.