In Part 1, we talked about how we bring our emotions into their right place by choosing faith and obedience. Emotions do have a role in our lives. They have a role in a godly life! But as we desire to glorify God and follow Him with full surrenderance, we need to know what our mainstay is: godliness. Our feelings will not always come from nor point towards godliness, so we must stand watch over our heart and mind.
Why Godliness Doesn’t Always Coincide with Our Feelings
Now, to many people, not living by our feelings feels like a betrayal of the self. We imagine that this means we are “pushing down our feelings” and not being true to how we feel, or to our needs. But what we must understand here is that our desires and feelings that are contrary to Christ are a part of the flesh that is deception and sin. These are not things that we should feed and give in to, but things we should starve.
In our western culture we are taught to pay close attention to our feelings, that our feelings are who we are, and that only in being true to our feelings will we discover who we are. And while in no sense am I saying that we should outright deny and ignore all our feelings, I am saying we must realize that not all of our feelings are as “true” or “pure” as our culture makes them out to be. We should not allow certain feelings in us to go unchecked, but rather, put them to death (i.e grumbling, jealousy, certain hatreds, wrath, etc). When we see ungodly feelings rise up within us, this is where we must act and say, “I am not going in that direction but rather towards the Lord.”
Not all of our feelings are as “true” or “pure” as our culture makes them out to be.
Ephesians 2:3 shows us that being led by our desires is the very thing that leads us to sin. When we trust in our feelings so as to continuously indulge them, we honestly do not believe what the Word of God says is true about our nature: that we are contrary to God and wicked. If we are truly by nature as rebellious and opposed to God as His Word says, then that means our feelings and emotions are just as much a part of that as anything else in us. So how foolish and dangerous is it for us to permit any part of that nature to guide us? Our foolishness is in permitting whatever we are biased towards in the self. Whether it’s sinful lust or self-indulgence through our emotions, it is always a danger to us, and none of us are permitted the “right” to indulge in these things.
There are many things that come from us naturally: external sinful desires, God-hating thoughts, idleness, mistrust towards God, resentment towards God or His people, sinful hatred, etc. We are in great need today of realizing that these things are sin! The nature in man hates God and is rebellious towards Him, and it is from this heart that these feelings and desires flow. We get so busy exploring these feelings rather than putting them to death. When we see these things as a part of the sin nature that opposes God, rather than a part of something either benign or good in us, this will help us to know which thoughts, desires, and feelings we should foster and which are nothing more than evil and should be thrown out.
Our Feelings as a Tool for Identifying Sin
We must understand, then, that both entirely removing and entirely accepting our emotions, thoughts, or desires are wrong. Rather, we must learn to do the hard work of developing discernment. Often it is important to examine our feelings, and we should not just remove all emotion from ourselves. Many people do this as a tool for control over themselves and even as an attempt for godliness. But we know from Scripture (the Psalms are full of examples) that this is not what God intends for us to do.
Both entirely removing and entirely accepting our emotions, thoughts, or desires are wrong. Rather, we must learn to do the hard work of developing discernment.
Instead, we are meant to bring our emotions into submission to God and His Word, just as much as anything else in our lives. If we try to bring our bodies into submission, but not our minds, then we allow a large part of ourselves to maintain its rebellion against God, and we will find ourselves continually blown back and forth between loving God and resenting Him (Matthew 6:24a).
We are absolutely meant to have our emotions, but we must be careful to learn to not indulge them or permit them to guide us wherever they choose. Often our emotions give the greatest indication of what sin or lie we are believing or walking in. This is a tool for us, not to permit our sinful attitudes, but to oppose them.
...this only shows us how highly we think of the self and that we think of this self above godliness. We are willing to keep whatever is true of us even if it is evil.
We should then confess these sinful desires and attitudes rather than continue to try and walk in them simply because they belong to us. It is this action of stepping out of something that truly does belong to us, but is evil, and into the right attitude of faith or obedience that is often confusing to us, and feels disingenuous to us. But this only shows us how highly we think of the self and that we think of this self above godliness. We are willing to keep whatever is true of us even if it is evil. So, naturally, stepping out of these things looks like oppression to us. And that is because we are having to choose godliness over the self. But this is only a loss of sin, a loss of lies, rebellion, and hatred of the Living God. It’s not any real loss. It is humbling to the self, it is death to the self, but it is losing one’s life to find true life, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 16:25)
Our Feelings in Service to the Truth
We have established how important it is to truly see how often our emotions are resistant to the truth. Along with this is the trouble of thinking our emotions are simply benign or even thinking we ourselves are victims to them. We seem to have the idea that we are not responsible for these emotions—they just “happen”. While we certainly cannot control how we feel in a moment, especially at first, we often misapply this fact as a general rule with all our emotions, believing we have no control over our feelings and that they are not our responsibility to control.
We are taught that suppressing our emotions is harmful and wrong, and indeed, if we always did that, it would be. But there are clear commands in Scripture that show us that we are not to merely accept whatever emotion rises within us, but direct our emotions within the truth.
In reality, walking in godliness also means commanding our emotions into the Truth. We can see this illustrated to us in verses like Psalm 62:5, “For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.” Or Psalm 42:11, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God...” We could also take the commands from God to not fear or be anxious, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God...” (Isaiah 41:10) “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6) All of these verses show us where we are meant to not indulge our emotions, but rather, to turn against them when necessary for godliness, faith, and obedience, and redirect them into the truth. We disregard and silence them, going upstream instead of with the flow of their current. In our culture today we are taught that suppressing our emotions is harmful and wrong, and indeed, if we always did that, it would be. But there are clear commands in Scripture that show us that we are not to merely accept whatever emotion rises within us but direct our emotions within the truth—and this is one area in which we need to trust God to know what He is talking about. Not all emotions should be permitted or tolerated. And part of ruling our lives in godliness is knowing which emotions to foster in us and which to starve.
What to Do with Our Emotions
It must be emphasized that denying we have certain feelings is not the right path. When a Christian is facing uncertain circumstances and finds themself in fear, they should not deny this to be their current state. They must acknowledge that Christians are commanded not to fear, confess their sin to the Lord, and choose to set their heart on the Lord in faith.
We see this modeled in Psalm 56:3-4: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you. In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can flesh do to me?” Notice the words are “I shall not be afraid”, not “I am not afraid”. Why will my future state be one without fear? Because, by faith, I put my trust in God. This is an intentional submission of my emotions in service to the truth, and I may need to exert effort to starve out the fear I am feeling, but if I were to merely deny I am afraid, I would leave myself enslaved to the emotion rather than taking it captive. (2 Corinthians 10:5)
The way to overcome our emotions is always within the truth. Therefore we confess these sinful emotions and seek to walk instead in obedience. But while we are honest with God about the sinful emotions within us, we must not confuse this honesty with a permission for remaining in this sinful attitude and try to speak and relate to God by it. An example of this could be when we see we are angry with God and bitter in spirit with Him. The way to approach God in this is to confess this attitude, to be open with God about how we feel but also remain in the truth. The truth tells us that anger with God is sin because God is perfectly good. So while we don’t have to instantly suppress this anger and deny it, we must also not imagine that being honest with God means remaining in a sinful attitude and expecting God to converse with us there. We must acknowledge when our attitudes are sinful, when we are struggling to overcome them, and yet press on towards godliness, praying for God’s help.
The confusion here is when we believe that all our feelings should be catered to by ourselves and by God.
Part of the struggle for us is learning to discern where we must allow ourselves to be open about sinful emotions and where we must just learn to separate from them. Sometimes it is needful to just sever them, like not giving in to impatience or anger, and at other times it is needful to communicate these things to God. The confusion here is when we think that our emotions always need to be treated the second way. We believe that all our feelings should be catered to by ourselves and by God. There are many times that it is good to come to God and speak openly with Him about our struggles in unbelief, mistrust, anger, etc. But we must remember what we are aiming for: faith and obedience to God. Sometimes it is needful to simply put these feelings aside since they are opposing God, and at other times it is needful to come before God and speak plainly about unbelief, fear, anger, etc. What we must remember in this place of honesty with God is that these things are still our sin and we are still speaking to a holy God. We do not need to hide from Him, but we are wrong to interact with our emotions in any way that furthers our sinful attitudes rather than kills them.
Now, cutting off certain emotions in us is not about just cutting off ALL anxiety or fear; it’s about cutting off whatever attitudes arise in us that oppose God. This could be fear and anxiety, a mistrust of God. It could be the desire for pleasure and self-indulgence, or anger and agitation. We cut off that which is opposed to God and His Word, and we feed what is in worship of God. This means that we do not cut off righteous pleasure in the Lord, anger at sin, or godly fear, while we do cut off our pleasure in this world, pleasure that comes from our pride, anger based upon selfishness, and fear that is not of God.
Many Christians fail to burn with true holiness because they seek to sever from themselves entire emotions such as anger, hate, or fear. This leaves them incomplete and lacking.
Part of our trouble is that we often cut off entire emotions, rather than rightly discerning within our emotions what is of God, and what is against Him. We often try to sever from ourselves all fear or all anger, and we think this is good and right. And often, we want God to serve our attempts in doing this. But what does Scripture say? “Be angry, and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph 4:26) We are taught to have self-control in our emotions, to always maintain utilizing them for good, and never allow them to be used for evil. “Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” (Rom 12:9) Many Christians fail to burn with true holiness because they seek to sever from themselves entire emotions such as anger, hate, or fear. This leaves them incomplete and lacking. And often this is done because they are seeking to serve themselves rather than seeking to serve Christ; the Bible to them is merely a means to get whatever feeling they desire. No, we are meant to have these emotions, but to control them in holiness, and not have them control us in evil. This is by no means an easy battle, but it very much is a part of the battle if we are to live in obedience and faith.
The Path of Holiness
Many of us are trying to go deep with God, but the tools we are trying to use are based in emotionalism—trying to excite our hearts or stir up feelings. We misunderstand that this is not the method for depth with God. Rather, obedience and faith are the tools for this. We think that emotionalism is the path to love for God, when Christ makes plain that obedience and faith alone are that path (John 14:15, Heb 11:6). Most importantly, it is in devotion to God, based upon His terms (this is essential!), that gives us a true heart for Him. Many of us are trying to be passionate about God but by our own methods rather than by the methods that God gives to us, and our efforts are failing us. We sin against Christ in the very ways that we are trying to be passionate about Him!
Holiness is the path to the deeper life, not experiences or feelings. Faith and obedience are the tools of obedience we must use in order to walk deeper with God; it is these that will light the flame in us. This is so important to understand today because so many people are trying to walk deeper with God but they are trying to do so by emotional experience, or trying to develop an emotional intensity. Emotionalism is an incomplete substitute for love and holiness.
Emotionalism is an incomplete substitute for love and holiness.
It is helpful for us to understand that our desires, feelings, and walk with God must be personable and yet structured. In our approach to God in prayer this is no less true. When we approach God without either we can go amiss. We know from the attention God gives to specifics of the law, of the way the priests should minister, of the construction of the temple, and in many other issues that God is holy and that He has a way in which He must be revered and worshiped. He values structure. We can see this in the fact that God calls us to approach Him through His Son and not merely to just seek to approach Him. Yet we also see the great lengths God has taken to establish personal relationship with His children, the tearing of the veil separating us from the Holy of Holies, and the deposit of the Holy Spirit. Because of this, we have room within prayer to be personable, to speak our hearts to God and be honest with Him. The trouble is when either of these start to impede the other, when we get too “familiar” with God and begin to lack reverence for Him. Or we get too structured and become cold and rigid. But in the name of saving one we must not lose the other! We often see today the danger of becoming cold and irreverent, but we do not see the danger of becoming unstructured within our approach to God and losing our reverence and obedience before Him.
Today we are in great need of relearning how to approach God. While we are meant to have hearts that are alive, we must also approach God by holiness. The angels can never cease to burst with declaration of His holiness (Revelations 4:8), yet we, for many inadequate reasons, can even begin to forget what the word “holy” really means. Holiness is the path in which we are called to walk both with God and man. We lose sight of the truth of this in the name of cheap grace. God is gracious to the sinner and He stoops down to Him, yet to raise him up! To call him out of sin and darkness and into holiness and light. We are in great need of relearning that our approach to God must be in obedience and faith through His Son. And our emotions can be just as much a part of our fleshly efforts as anything else. We must seek, rather, to cultivate faith and love as God’s Word directs and not as we imagine we may approach Him. Our emotions today are some of our greatest areas of self-indulgence. They form some of the greatest strongholds in our lives that oppose the Truth and faith. We cannot maintain indulging our sinful emotions and yet hope to be brought into the love for God to which we are called.
Let all who love the Lord be willing to submit to Him in all things. Let us be careful of the dangers on either side, abolishing all emotions or indulging them. May the Lord continue to guide us and sanctify us further and further through His blessed Son.