We feel, therefore we are.
That seems to be the cultural mantra we are all living under whether we recognize it or not. We use that gauge to determine nearly every decision we make, from the restaurant we want to eat at for lunch, to the person we choose or do not choose to remain married to, right down to the fitting room we choose to use in a clothing store. If you imagine our lives as locomotives, then the engine at the front of that train – the one that pulls everything else along – is the engine named “Feelings.” We feel, therefore, we are, and therefore, we act.
Our feelings also take the lead in our theology. We read a difficult text, hear some tough words from Jesus, or start to wrestle with a biblical doctrine that just seems so out of date in the modern world, and often the trump card is our feelings. We pick and choose and interpret even the words of the Scripture using our feelings as a grid. The ultimate question, then, is not what is true, but what do we feel.
Given how important feelings are to us, it’s surprising to see just how little the Bible seems to care about them. Don’t misunderstand - the Bible is very honest when it comes to our feelings. The Psalms are an incredibly emotional set of songs filled with gut-wrenching doubt, sorrow, and anxiety. The Psalmist pulled no punches in acknowledging his own feelings, and neither should we. So it’s not that the Bible doesn’t honestly acknowledge our feelings; it just doesn’t seem too concerned with addressing them beyond giving us space to feel what we feel and even space to speak those feelings out loud to the Lord.
Why is that? Why doesn’t the Bible tell us what and how to feel? I’d suggest three reasons:
1. Because feelings are liars.
As Eugene Peterson puts it, “Feelings are important in many areas but completely unreliable in matters of faith.” That is true, and the Bible tells us so along with Peterson: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9)
Our emotions have been corrupted by sin. We aren’t made happy by the truly joyous things, and we aren’t nearly grieved or outraged enough by those things that truly grieve and outrage a holy God. We simply can’t trust our feelings, and the Bible knows it. It is a fearful thing to live in the knowledge that you can’t trust yourself. But that fear can either paralyze you, or it can make you look outside yourself for the ultimate source of truth and guidance. This is what the Bible is concerned with – revealing to us that source of truth which, unlike our own hearts, can indeed ultimately be trusted.
2. Because God is primarily concerned with faith.
The Book of Hebrews explicitly tells us this: “Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
God is looking for faith. True, genuine faith. And, as the writer of Hebrews also pointed out, faith is all about confidence in what we cannot see; it’s about a lasting hope in what we hope for in God. The very essence of faith is predicated upon a different reality than is immediately apprehended by our senses. We can’t see it. We can’t touch it. We can’t smell or taste it. That’s why we must have faith; then we can extend those five senses into the realm of feelings. We can’t feel “it”, but we nevertheless believe “it” to be true. That is faith.
So the Bible recognizes the primacy of faith in our lives and wants to teach us what to believe about God, the world, and ourselves. Not what we should feel.
3. Because actions, not feelings, are the truest window to the heart.
Is your faith real? Is mine? Feelings will not dictate the answer to that question. Nearly the whole Book of James tells us that actions, not feelings are the truest window to the heart: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can such faith save him?” (James 2:14)
Church history (and even our own pasts) are riddled with stories of those who knew they ought to feel one thing, yet they did not. But the issue does not end there. We might not feel like reading the Bible; or singing in worship to God; or being faithful to our spouse; or reporting our income honestly on our taxes. The question, though, is not what we feel; it’s what we do. For it’s those actions that are the truest reflection of whether we have actually been deeply changed by the gospel.
Friends, none of us feels exactly what we ought to feel. All of us have hearts that lie to us and lead us astray. But thank God we have a Bible that tells us the truth even if we can’t do the same thing for ourselves. And thank God that someday, gloriously, we will be made whole – whole in body, whole in spirit, and even whole in our emotions.