Recently I woke up in the night feeling terrible, like I had sinned in some great way. Over the course of my life I’m sure I’ve had this experience dozens of times, maybe hundreds. How do I make sense of that? Where did that emotion, that feeling come from?
Scripture commands us to feel certain emotions. We’re told to rejoice and be joyful. Other emotions are commanded like love, peace, compassion, and fear. Those are virtues, but aren’t they also emotions? We’re told to mourn and to weep. Most (all?) of those are certainly more than just a feeling, but they are not less.Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63. For example, what makes a Christian definition of joy actually Christian is that it involves a mental evaluation. The Apostle James tells us to assess trials as joy (Jam 1:2). So it’s a feeling we feel after evaluating our trial. Of course Scripture also tells me not to have certain emotions—sinful anger or anxiety for example.
Unwanted emotions have been compared to the warning lights on the dashboard of your car. They tell you that something is wrong. The warning light is not the problem; it just points out that something is a problem. Others have said that emotions or feelings tell us what we value, what’s important to us, what we think or believe. “Emotions are the surface expression of deeper desires and values” and “Different emotions are valuations. Emotions gauge how desirable or undesirable people find the particular situations or objects to which they respond.” Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.
I believe all that. Yet… I’ve woken up in the night and felt guilty, but with no obvious reason for it. As I scan my day I cannot recall a reason or circumstance that would justify this feeling.
What do I do with that feeling? That emotion? I tell God that I will confess whatever his Spirit brings to mind, but I rest in the gospel. My status with God doesn’t change because I have (as far as I can tell) an unwarranted feeling of guilt. My standing with God is always through Christ’s righteousness, not my own (2 Cor 5:21) and it’s not at all based on what I feel.
In our theology of emotions, can we make an allowance for some emotions being unwanted and not related to our values or beliefs? Maybe some times they are like the check engine light which is normally on in all my cars–I have terrible cars ;)–which some times just means the dealer wants me to bring my car in for expensive service. It doesn’t really signify more than that. In other words, in some cases the dashboard light means nothing.
It’s complicated. I’ve counseled people whose feelings were not in synch with their circumstances. Often they’ve been given a diagnosis of depression by others, and they come wanting help with their feelings. They would welcome sadness if it were appropriate. They have no reason to feel sadness, yet they do. Maybe it sounds like not much help, but I can’t assist them in feeling any particular way. That’s beyond my abilities, and I think, the abilities of any Christian counselor.
I do encourage them to keep their focus on Christ. I tell them that God can give them the strength to do right even when they don’t feel like it. That Jesus really is more satisfying than they think. But I don’t promise that feelings will change. Often they do, but sometimes they don’t.
In a world broken by sin I’m not surprised that sometimes the warning light of our emotions is going off at the wrong times. It’s a type of suffering. I’m not putting my situation in this category. The lack of synchronicity between my feelings and my life has normally been rare, short-term, and not severe. The depressed people I’ve had the privilege to counsel have had a larger gap between what they should feel and what they do feel and for a longer time.
Ed Welch says that “God doesn’t prescribe a happy life.” Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15. And, “It is a myth that faith is always smiling. The truth is that faith often feels like the very ordinary process of dragging one foot in front of the other because we are conscious of God.”Welch, 31.
How do I help? I tell them that doing right when they really, really don’t feel like it takes an extraordinary faith. I think that. I believe that. I know that. They are exercising more faith than I am when they do right. Attending church on Sunday morning is really hard when every cell of your body tells you to stay in bed. I like attending church. I love my fellow church members. I am getting something out of attending church that does feel good. But what if you feel worse after obedience than you did before? That’s how some counselees have felt over the years. If so, then doing right really becomes an act of faith that is far more than my faith in showing up Sunday morning.
When your feelings don’t seem to fit your circumstances, you can be satisfied that God gives grace to do right. Your weakness lets the power of Christ rest on you (2 Cor 12:9-10). When your feelings don’t align with your life, you can remember that your feelings don’t define your status with God. He sees you as righteous because you are clothed in Jesus’ righteousness.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Cor 5:21 (ESV)
|↑1||Brian S. Borgman, Feelings and Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 62-63.|
|↑2||Jeremy Pierre, The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2016), 41, 42.|
|↑3||Ed Welch, Depression: Looking Up from the Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2011), 15.|