As anyone who’s ever been cut off in traffic knows, our emotions aren’t the best guide for our behavior. Whether we’re doubting God’s goodness or struggling to turn the other cheek or fighting the urge to check out the girl in the bikini, the gut-level pull is often in the wrong direction. However, even though feelings shouldn’t point the way when we make our decisions, they can’t be ignored either. Holiness is much easier if it goes with the grain of our emotions rather than against it.
When I’m browsing the web and stumble on a pornographic popup ad, I can choose to close it regardless of what I’m feeling. It’s certainly an easier choice, though, if Christian anger and pity over violated innocence are there to counter the baser emotions the ad is meant to arouse. When my church goes to minister at a local nursing home, I can and should make myself go along even if I struggle to feel anything but revulsion for the unfortunates wasting away, but I’ll do more good if the choice grows out of genuine affection and sympathy.
Which raises an interesting dilemma, because there’s really nothing I can do to directly change my emotions. A good argument can change my mind and a teeth-gritting choice can shift my will, but, at any particular moment, the best that can be done with my emotions is to overrule them. That’s not to say our emotional composition cannot be changed–it’s just a longer process, more like shaping a bonsai than like turning a steering wheel. And since our emotions are so closely tied up with our moral decision-making, it’s worth thinking about how our feelings can be included in the process of “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” There are a few things that we can do.
First, pray. God really does hear and answer prayers, and the One who loved the little children and the lepers is glad to hear us ask His help in feeling what we ought. We need to be careful not to push prayer aside as an afterthought, something to supplement our real efforts. Who would you rather have working on your problems? You or God? Spending a little of your time to ask God to devote a little of His time to your problem seems like a wise investment.
Second, digest the Word. This is yet another reason why regular Bible reading is so important. Much of our emotional composition is absorbed from those around us. Live in Saudi Arabia long enough and you’ll really start to feel that a female ankle is perverse. Grow up with a parent who’s unflappable in stressful situations, and you’re more likely to be calm under pressure. If we want to have Christ’s heart, we need to watch and listen to Him, and that only comes through reading the Bible and hearing it preached.
Third, do the right thing. Nobody said it better than C.S. Lewis: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less.” The first step toward hating the pornographic popup is closing the pornographic popup. The first step toward genuine affection for the old woman in the wheelchair who has lost her mind and her dignity is choosing to be there next to her.
Fourth, don’t be stupid. Recognize that your actions and environment affect your feelings, and your feelings affect your choices. A male pastor may be able to counsel a single woman alone without either of them feeling any temptation, and temptation doesn’t have to lead to sin. But it’s still a stupid thing to do (in the theological, Proverbs-approved sense of the word). The people we talk to, the music we listen to, the movies we watch–they all touch our emotions. How they affect us will vary from person to person and even day to day, and one-size-fits-all rules are impossible, but if X leads to Y and Y is a feeling that makes it easier to do the wrong thing and harder to do the right thing, I need to take a long, hard look at X and ask myself why it’s worth doing. “And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.”
Shaping a bonsai takes a long time, and shaping a sinful heart to feel what God feels is even harder. As long as we live on this earth, we will find the slope of some temptations greased with emotions so thoroughly that it feels like nothing can be done to make obedience easier. But there is encouragement in remembering that we aren’t in this alone. God Himself is working in us to make all things new; not just our minds and our wills, but our hearts as well. And each victory won makes us want the next one just a little bit more.