How Should I Feel?
by Joe Thorn
Human beings are emotional creatures. We love or hate, feel happy or sad, angry or joyful. And yet christians sometimes struggle with integrating emotion into their spiritual lives and end up falling victim to dangerous tendencies when it comes to their emotions. These tendencies occupy two ends of a spectrum, and they have led many into a superficial kind of Christianity. We see these tendencies at both the personal level and at the corporate level.
One danger is emotionalism, in which we allow our feelings to interpret our circumstances and form our thoughts about God. This is putting feelings before faith. The other danger is a kind of stoicism, where faith is rooted in theology but void of affection. This tendency removes feelings from faith altogether. While it is true that our emotions should not lead our theology, it is vital to our faith that theology lead to a deep experience of our triune God.
Good doctrine is critically important to the health of the Christian and the church. But the church doesn’t need men and women who can merely define repentance. Rather, the church needs people who hate sin and love righteousness. Memorizing our catechisms is important, but it is useless if it isn’t also producing in us awe, humility, love, and worship. The substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ is not only something to affirm and defend, but it should also be something in which we rejoice. Yes, “zeal without knowledge is dead,” but knowledge without deep affection is just as lifeless.
It should be obvious that Scripture calls us to be a people who feel what we believe, who not only know truth but experience it. There is an order to this. Our feelings and emotions must be governed and guided by truth. We are to fear the Lord, hate evil, love the truth, mourn over sin and injustice, and rejoice in our sufferings. These are not naked commands but precepts given by God in light of who He is and what He has done. We are supposed to feel the weight and the power of the truth revealed in Scripture. Theology should do more than inform us—it should warm and stir our hearts. And if it doesn’t, then we have missed the connection that God’s revelation is designed to make between head and heart.
The key is not to pursue feelings themselves but to pursue the Lord Jesus Christ by looking to Him, knowing His ways, pondering His promises, and obeying His commands. Faith is what gives birth to feeling. The emotional component of the Christian life isn’t always as present as we would like. It often lags behind. as the English Reformer John Bradford said, “Faith must first go before, and then feeling will follow.”
Consider how often we find ourselves afraid when we face the unknown or the dangerous. When we run up against the fragility of life or the potential of loss, anxiety and fear are right beside us, working their way into our hearts. This is precisely when God calls us to “fear not.” yet the hope for relief from fear is not found in ignoring what lies ahead, but in looking to the God whose sovereignty is certain and whose promises are sure. It is when we seek the Lord and ground our faith in Him that our fears are overcome (Ps. 34:4). The trouble itself may not disappear, but the knowledge of God conquers what makes us afraid. His love for us, demonstrated in His adoption of us in Jesus Christ, is just one of the truths that replaces fear with comfort and confidence (Rom. 8:15).
Pain and suffering are not only common to all, but for the Christian, they are to be expected as a consequence of following Jesus. We know the feeling of dread that can accompany severe trials. But the lifting of our heads and the courage of faith is tied to God’s character and promise. We know that He is “near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18). We can cast all our anxieties on Him because we are assured that He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
When we struggle with assurance and long for a confident hope in Jesus, we must learn to trust Him more. The assurance of our salvation is first and foremost based on the mercy and merits of Jesus Christ. We fix our eyes on Him by faith and find in His life, death, and resurrection all the hope necessary to stand before the face of God without the threat of judgment. Christ alone is our surety. This transforms us from a people who despair over our sin into a people who sing the praises of the Savior who has delivered us from our transgressions.
God has created us as emotional people. There is a time to weep and laugh, to mourn and dance, to hate and love (Eccl. 3:1–8). Neither stoicism nor emotionalism are marks of healthy faith. What is needed is robust, biblical theology that informs and transforms our emotions.