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19 September 2021

“I can’t help the way I feel.”

As I looked through my feed on facebook the other day, I read an article mentioning some celebrity who had cheated on her spouse.  In defence of her actions, she said: “I can’t help the way I feel.”  The idea that we can’t control our feelings pops up often in modern culture.  Sometimes we may even *ahem* feel this way ourselves.  But is this idea true?

Now don’t get me wrong, feelings are a wonderful gift of God.  As we read the psalms, the full complex of human emotion is on display.   God himself is an emotional being. He feels grief (6:6), there are things that bring him delight (1 Kg 10:9), and there are also things he desires (Jn 4:23).  God doesn’t want us to suppress our feelings, he wants us to revel in the full experience of them.  Even so, he also wants to sanctify our feelings just like he wants to sanctify every other part of us.

So what are we supposed to do when we’re faced with sinful feelings?

In the first place, we need to bring them to God.  When sinful feelings flood our hearts (and they will), then cry out to him.  Confess straight away, repent, and plead with him to deliver you.  It’s a pattern we see in the psalms again and again: when you’re emotionally struggling, bare your heart to God, keep short accounts, and stay close in communion with him.  But feelings can be long-term too.  If someone has a heart attack, they may need CPR on the spot.  Running to God straight away is like CPR.  In the long-term, however, other treatment might be needed too.  In other words, emotional sanctification also takes time.

It’s hard isn’t it?  Changing our feelings is not as simple as taking out the trash, or switching off a light switch.  Nevertheless, Scripture ultimately teaches us that our feelings follow where our mind goes.  Murray Capill puts it nicely: “(the Bible) always begins with the mind and, as our minds are renewed, our passions are engaged and changed.  What we once loved, we now hate; what we once hated, we now love” (The Heart is the Target, p.110).

Think of the psalmist in Psalm 73.  When his mind was consumed with envy for the godless, all he could think about was how good they had it (v4-12).  He almost made a shipwreck of his faith (v2), and he was consumed by despair (v13-14).  It was only when he entered the presence of the Lord and saw the truth (v16-17) that he felt remorse (v21-22), and was ultimately moved to feel an overwhelming desire for God (v25).

The answer, then, is that as our minds are sanctified our feelings fall into step.  We go to God for “CPR,” and then we feed on Christ to treat our condition.  As we dwell on him who is true and good, our heart gets a taste for that which is good.  On the other hand, if we dwell on that which is not good, our feelings will likewise follow along.

So what does this mean?  Do we simply need to “force” ourselves to be more spiritually and mentally disciplined?  Well, no.  Taken by itself, this is an impoverished answer as well.  Let me put it this way: sinful feelings are like wallowing in a disgusting, smelly, muddy pool in a boggy marshland.   Godly feelings, on the other hand, are like swimming in a pristine blue river on an island paradise in the Pacific.  God sent Jesus to pull us out of the bog, scrub us down in those clear, clean waters, and then teach us to swim.  What am I really saying here?  I’m saying that God saves us through Christ, forgives us for our sins, and gives us a new heart as his Spirit works within us (Ez 11:19).

Now this is quite a process.  Feelings generally don’t change in an instant.  In a sense, as the whole psalter itself illustrates, struggling with sinful feelings will be a lifelong process.  We will always struggle with wrong feelings in this life, for sin still lurks within our hearts.  But we also have the promise of God in Christ: “sin will have no dominion over you” (Ro 6:14).  So if we’re struggling, we must let the struggle drive us to God, crying out for deliverance.   And we must always set our minds on Christ (Col 3:2), the leader and finisher of our faith.  It’s easy to get bogged down in sinful emotions, which is why we need to constantly remind ourselves that we are new creations in Christ – and that is the foundation behind anything we do as Christians.

So… feelings.  We may be walking peacefully in the shade by a cool stream (Ps 23:2).  We may be exhilarated as we stand on the peaks of God’s providence.  Perhaps the waves of our temper are crashing on the surface, or the deep currents and passions of our souls are changing for the worse.  Whatever the case, one thing is sure: let us look to Christ.  Constantly.