Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Feelings

"I do not understand what I do; for what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do... I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature; for I have the desire to do good but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing... So I find this at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:15-24)

Paralyzing fear, unrelenting anger, sexual addiction... even late night munchies demonstrate the mysterious power of feelings. At times, our urges even seem to overpower our intellectual and volitional faculties. Some attempt to forsake and deny their feelings because of their untrustworthy reputation. Others follow them unquestionably in the name of personal authenticity. But where is wisdom and life when it comes to interpreting and responding to our feelings and drives?

It's a textbook tactic for Mormons to suggest praying for God's Spirit lead one's feelings on the validity of their message, following whatever inner conviction we might receive. "Ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (Moroni 10:4). Many sincere seekers fall victim to this enticing invitation, failing to remember that Scripture nowhere honors such a method of discernment but rather challenges us to "test the spirits" based on better criteria. (By the way, the method of determining what is good based on subjective feelings is not new but is actually a popular and flawed system of ethics known as emotivism.)

I love that even the super-apostle Paul struggled with this issue. In Romans 7 He takes the sum of his sensory tides pushing him toward indulgence and self-exaltation and calls them "flesh", perhaps because Christians shed it when we die physically or perhaps because physical and emotional feelings are frequently partners. Paul then goes on to identify the part in himself desirous of God as the "mind". The Greek word he uses shows that he's not talking about the supremacy of intellectualism but rather the general human capacity for sound judgment. (Intellectualism as preeminent is another flawed system of ethics rooted in Stoicism and championed in our culture by people like John Locke.) Paul explains that the forces of feeling and judging are at war within us and suggests that good consistently loses to evil without the divine intervention of Christ.

I can relate. Internal turmoil, desires that wage war on each other, the battle for the will... they are inherent to both the Christian and human experiences. I'm reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln that looks at his voluminous reflections on his recurring emotional agony and the war that waged in his emotions from the earliest age. Praise God that as spiritually reborn Christ-followers we have the promise of 2 Corinthians 10:4-5, "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

But lest we grow too harsh, let's remember that our feelings are created by God... who feels deeply Himself. "Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:30). "These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you" (John 15:11).

It can even be convincingly argued that our feelings often reveal the deepest convictions of our hearts... the things we really believe. Feelings motivate us, move us to action, and speak to us about what our hearts are truly experiencing. They are the language of the heart and body - which, while not the best leaders, are valuable partners with the spirit and mind in the human person.

So, 1) our feelings are created by God as good. 2) They are susceptible in our present sinful state to evil influences. And yet, 3) they remain valuable assets to be reflected on and stewarded by our responsible faculties - namely our God-bound spirit and our choosing mind.

"The thoughts of the heart are like deep water, but a person of understanding draws them out" (Proverbs 20:5). "Watch over your heart with all diligence for from it flow the springs of life" (Proverbs 4:23).
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