Sometimes, the questions we ask indicate as much about us as our response to the answers we receive. For example, I was discussing a controversial theological point with someone recently, and at one point in the conversation, she quite innocuously asked a question starting, “But do you feel that…”
The phrasing caught my attention. It is common enough, at least in the circles I run in. People often speak of what they feel to be true in a given area. In one sense, the phrase is harmless enough: people really mean, “This is what I believe.” In another sense, though, it should give us pause that Christians often treat “I feel this” and “I believe this” as interchangeable.
Often, the words we use and the ways we use them expose something important about us. Linguists and philosophers have recognized for quite some time that our vocabularies shape our view of the world around us and vice versa. There are all sorts of consequences arising from this simple fact – complicated challenges for translators, questions about philosophy of mind, and so on. For the moment, however, I want to focus on just one.
If we use two terms interchangeably in our ordinary, day-to-day conversation, we are quietly indicating that we basically equate those terms. This isn’t a conscious phenomenon; it’s simply one of the ways that our language reflects our underlying (even pre-verbal) assumptions about the world we live in. Accordingly, observing how we treat various words – as equivalent, contrastive, complementary, etc. – can help us understand the way we think about our lives, including our faith.
Given this, I find it suggestive and a bit worrisome that Christians often use “believe” and “feel” interchangeably in our theological discussions.
The good Christian struggle
Now, most evangelical Christians I know would, if asked, deny that their feelings about a topic have the same value as a carefully considered belief grounded in Scripture – as it should be! Unfortunately, the way those same Christians speak suggests that many of them actually treat belief and feeling as basically equivalent. This equivalence runs deep; it is apparently one of our most basic views of the world around us.
That makes it much harder to deal with. While surface level beliefs are fairly easily confronted and changed, these sort of deep-seated assumptions about reality are much more difficult to untangle. At issue is the conflict between how we really approach the world around us and how we want to. Every Christian deals with this internal war. He wants to be pure, but constantly finds himself tempted to lust. She wants to be charitable, but constantly struggles not to gossip. We want to ground our approach to God in thoughtful study of Scripture, but often find ourselves relying on our feelings instead.
Each of us has spent much or all of our lives immersed in a culture that prioritizes feeling, especially in spiritual matters, so this struggle should come as no surprise. Not only does our culture grant us spiritual autonomy to decide for ourselves what is right and true; it also tells us that spiritual understanding is essentially emotional. Simply by of living in this culture, most of us have absorbed these toxic views to some extent or another – and make no mistake: they are toxic. Emotions are deeply fallible and often quick to change. God’s revelation of himself in Scripture, thankfully, is neither .
Accordingly, mature Christians grow to understand the world in the terms set by Scripture, not those set by fallen and finite human emotion. When we encounter a point in the Bible that butts up against what we feel, we must bend. We must reject the tendency to worship our own feelings by giving them greater credence than God’s word. Christians are to be concerned first of all with truth.
An aside on emotions
Of course, someone may protest that the Christian life is experiential, and this is a valid point. Our faith is not merely a matter of assenting to a set of propositions; we are called to walk with God. I agree, then, that emotion is a necessary component of one’s pursuit of God. However, our emotions are to follow what we know to be true, rather than the other way around. We must discipline our emotional responses, just as we do our intellectual responses, to submit to truth.
This may be a bit of a strange concept. We are not used to thinking about changing our emotions; we are used to thinking of them as things that simply are, outside of our control. To some extent, this is true: at any given moment, what we feel is not consciously chosen. However, over time, as we saturate our minds with truth and as we pray, the Spirit changes us. Just as your first thought in response to a statement you once disagreed with might now be affirmation instead, your emotional response might change from anger to delight at the same truth.
Nor must we be merely passive observers of this whole process. We can choose to change our emotional state. When I am angry, I can choose to stop being angry, although it may be difficult. When I am sad, I can choose to smile and think in ways that make me happier. There are limits to this ability, of course, and this process follows rather than preempts those initial reactions. By the grace of God, though, as we continue to choose to respond both intellectually and emotionally in an appropriate way, those initial responses also begin to change.
Addressing the problem
It should be clear that it is not enough for the Christian to treat carefully considered belief and feeling as equivalent. Moreover, I think it is clear that too many of us do, seeing as we so readily equate the min our language. How do we unseat these deep-rooted wrong approaches to the world around us?
- Pay attention. If we aren’t attentive to the ways we think and speak, we will never even notice these patterns, and accordingly will never deal with them. By contrast, when we are aware of the unbiblical ways we think and act, we can begin to attack them.
- Be people of prayer. Human hearts are stubborn things, resistant to all our efforts to change them. Without the Holy Spirit, all our efforts are doomed to failure. We cannot (and should not try to) escape from our culture, but we can and must fight its degenerative effects on our souls, and the only way to swim against such a strong current is prayerful reliance on the Holy Spirit.
- Be people of the Word. First, the Holy Spirit does much of his work in our hearts by shaping us through His revelation. Second, to unseat lies from their throne in our hearts, we must put truth in their place, and we know truth through Scripture.
- Be people in community. It is often easier to catch the little details in the ways others think and speak than in ourselves – and the flip side is that it is often easier for others to catch the hiccups in our thinking as well. As always, we need each other for sanctification.