By Tim Mize
Like it or not, we are all emotional creatures. The Bible shows us that God is an emotional God, and that he made man an emotional creature. This being the case, we ought not despise our emotional nature. Our emotions are not evil in and of themselves. However, just like every other good gift which comes from above, they can be well-used or misused.
Loving God and Hating Evil
Emotions are very hard to describe with words; truly, they are easier felt than told. Emotions are inward feelings which can stired up by various circumstances and which can motivate us into all sorts of behavior. They have often been associated with the heart, perhaps because it is around this organ that they are most strongly felt to press themselves. Our emotions, though, are better associated with the mind, the rational part of man. It is with our minds that we evaluate things as being true or false, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and it is in this activity that our emotions manifest themselves. For not only can we know what is true, we can love what is true, and hate what is false. Not only do we see that something is beautiful, we also find joy in what is beautiful, and disgust in what is ugly.
The Scriptures commend this function of our emotions. They encourage us to develop feelings of love toward what is good, and disgust toward what is evil. First, they show us that God has such feelings. Wickedness is an abomination to him. When he sees it, it disgusts him. On the other hand, “he loveth him that followeth after righteousness” (Prov. 15:9; see also 3:32; 6:16ff; 11:1,20; 12:22; 15:26; 16:5). Second they show us that he expects us to have the same feelings. The godly person not only recognizes what is right and true, he also loves what is right and true, and hates every false way (see Psa. 119:103-104, 127-128; Rom. 12:9b). Along with this goes an emotion that God cannot feel: shame. Once we recognize our own behavior as being wrong, feelings of disgust and shame should then arise.
These emotions are important because they motivate us. Though the lusts of the flesh may strongly move us to do evil, God has given us emotions that can strongly move us to do right. It is the painful emotion of shame, the “godly sorrow,” that moves us to repentance (2 Cor. 7:8-11), as does the terror that is generated by a knowledge of the judgment to come (2 Cor. 5: 10-11). It was the zeal for what is right that moved our Lord to cast out the moneychangers in Jerusalem (Jn. 2:13-17). And it was when Paul’s dispirit was stirred in him” that he was moved to do the work given for him to do at Athens (Acts 17:16ff). It is this moving power which makes our emotions so valuable a gift.
This gift is well-used when we love what is good, and hate what is evil, but it is misused and despised when our emotions become perverted and misdirected. The deadliest “heart disease” is the calloused heart, the heart that no longer hates the evil and loves the good. Such a person will be ruled entirely by his own lust and pride (Eph. 4:17-19). Jeremiah lamented over Judah, “Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush” (Jer. 6:10,15). How well his words describe the world in which we now live! Our world has forgotten how to blush at filthy talk, lasciviousness, extramarital sex, adultery, dishonesty and covetousness. But may Jeremiah’s words never describe a man of God. Whether we see sin in others or see it in ourselves, when we become so desensitized towards sin that our heart is not stirred, we are in great danger.
When I was in the first grade, there was a little girl in the back of the room who was pulling up her shirt and showing her belly and causing the kids around her to giggle. The teacher didn’t laugh, though. She made the girl stand at the front of the room and hold her shirt up so that everyone could see her belly. Funny, no one laughed then. We all felt the shame that should have been felt when she first did the deed. The fact is, if we forget how to blush at sin, God will eventually remind us how. At the judgment seat of Christ all who had forgotten will learn again to be ashamed of sin. As the Lord said to apathetic Judah, “Therefore will I uncover thy skirts upon thy face, and thy shame shall appear” (Jer. 13:26). But then it will be too late for shame to do any good.
Emotion Is Ruled By Reason
Another way that emotions are commonly misused is to allow the emotions to rule the reason, instead of the other way around. How many times have you heard someone say, “I feel this is true,” instead of, “I think this is true”? But our feelings are not given to supplant reason. Our feelings are designed to cooperate with what the mind already understands to be right. To let your feelings guide you to what is right is to ask emotions to do something which is simply not within them to do. The Scriptures do not say, “what you love is right.” They say “love what is right.”
And yet, some people act as if their emotions and vague impressions are a direct telephone wire from God himself. It is common to hear religious people insist that their feelings and impressions are God’s way of communicating to them personally through the Holy Spirit. A strong feeling pressing them in one direction amounts to a command of God as far as they are concerned. As Debbie Boone expressed it, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right. ” But where is the Scripture? Where does the Bible show us that God ever manifest his will through our feelings? In every scriptural example of God revealing his will to an individual, if it shows how he did it, it shows that he did so by means of unmistakable spoken words. For example, when Paul was called to be an apostle (1 Cor. 1:1), it was through God’s will being spoken plainly and clearly through his prophet Ananias (Acts 22:14-15), not by means of the Holy Spirit pressing his feelings in that direction (cf. also Acts 5:19; 8:26,29; 9:4-6; 10:3-6; 10:916; 12:7-8; 16:6-10; 18:9-10; 21:11; 26:15-18; 27:21-25).
Emotions alone are not a reliable guide to truth. They could just as well be caused by the Devil as by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 10:14). For this reason we must rely on the Scriptures to guide us, not our feelings. Only then can we be certain that we are being “led of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14).
This article was not meant to be comprehensive on the subject of emotions, but was meant to remind us of the importance of using them well. We all need to understand the purpose and place of emotions, and then work to develop healthy emotions in ourselves and in our children.
Guardian of Truth XXXIII: 4, pp. 105, 120
February 16, 1989