The Heart of the Matter

“The heart wants what it wants.” – Woody Allen “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” – Jeremiah 17:9 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart.” – Deuteronomy 6:5a How are we to feel about our feelings? That’s a more complicated question than it might at first seem to be. Upon occasion after BreakPoint has critiqued this, that, or the other societal movement, we get pushback from readers claiming that we’re demeaning the role of emotions in the human experience. While, for the most part, these criticisms are misplaced, as they’re mistaking a concern about an overreliance on subjective experience with a rebuke of emotions, as such, this does touch on an important question. What is the role of emotion in the Christian understanding of the human condition? Are emotions good or bad? Are they so damaged by the Fall that they are to be ignored at all costs? Are they somehow immune from its dire effects so that they can be followed without hesitation? It’s likely fair to say that, aside from the fringe of either extreme, most of us would contend that it’s not quite the one or the other but somewhere in between. Few of us say that emotions are of no use whatsoever, but most of us have seen how “following your heart” can lead us into some dark places. So, there is broad agreement about this, at least on paper anyway. As is the case with a lot of issues, our formal principles may affect a balanced pose, but our day-to-day practice leans to one side or the other. For some, of a more cerebral bent, the prominence of emotion in decision-making induces feelings of nausea. Others, of a more touchy-feeling disposition, find a heartless choice to be incomprehensible. Clearly our temperamental and personal distinctions play a big role in how we view the head vs. heart dynamic, making an absolute understanding of the issue problematic. Fortunately, problematic isn’t the same as impossible. We may never come to a surefire description that’s acceptable to all, but, but clearing away some misconceptions and looking to the example of Scripture, we can gain some clarity about the place of emotions in Christianity. There are some lessons that each “side” of this little debate need to learn. In short, the more emotional among us need to remember that our feelings can be less reliable than they’d like to believe, and the more cerebral need to realize that they’re not nearly as detached as they’d like to imagine. When calls go out to rein in our emotions, at least the responsible calls, it’s not a matter of a rejection the heart. The point is not, "Don't listen to your feelings," but, "Feeling it doesn't make it so." Our emotions are often what make life worth living, but, at the same time, we have to admit that our inner-voice has led us astray more than once. Think about it a minute. Have you ever felt sure about something one minute and then convinced of its near opposite the next? Of course you have. We’ve all had those times when in the course of a given day our feelings go up and down and our opinions go back and forth, all about the same issue. The more important the issue, the more disparate the variables, the more stress we feel, then the more we're likely to undergo an emotional roller-coaster in reaction to it. Our emotions are a constellation of conflicting impulses flowing from a variety of sources. We’re greatly affected by sleep, food, the weather, hormones (men too!), stress-levels, personal disposition, and relationship to people involved. Maybe you don’t like a given situation because there’s something wrong with it, but maybe you just need to eat a sandwich or take a nap. Feelings are real and illustrative, but they're not determinative of anything aside from themselves. My feelings about a thing tells me a very great deal about how I feel about it, but they don’t say anything about the thing itself. My feelings about a table can show if I like or not, but they can’t explain whether it’s a good table, whether it’ll fit into my dining room, or whether it’ll survive its association with small children. Now, some people try to make this a male/female thing, as though emotionalism is unique to a given gender. Oddly enough, this argument comes from the strange bedfellows of male chauvinists and radical feminists. The one says that the supposedly less emotional men are somehow superior while the other suggests that criticism of emotion is criticism of women. But all of this is just silly. Yes, women have a reputation for going with their hearts, but it doesn’t take much time around men to see how much questions of ego, status, and pride determine their life-choices. All of us, male and female, rich and poor, artistic or analytical, we all live as personal beings. We want things for more than logical reasons and we have an affinity for people and places even when we cannot quite say why. We can never see the entire picture of life, making any of our feelings into reactions to part and not the whole. So far so good. There’s nothing wrong with being what God made us to be, but sin adds an order of magnitude to our already malleable feelings. In our post-Eden condition, not only do we innocently want things for no good reason, but we, far less innocently, want things for perfectly bad reasons. Our desires are disordered and bent in on themselves, leading us to long for the wrong things, to twist our joy in God’s good gifts into excuses for selfish desires and corrupted practices. As personal beings, we are innately and properly emotional beings, but, as finite and fallen beings, our feelings are limited and corrupted and therefore make for very unsteady guiding lights. This sort of thing is always a problem, but our current age has elevated "following your heart" to the level of divine revelation. An emotional reaction or preference is taken as the ultimate trump card that renders any counter-argument or principle null and void. We behave as though through our feelings we have access behind the curtain of life’s mysteries, granting us insight into the "real" truth of the matter. Doctrines, moralities, even our very physical natures are seen as somehow subject to the varied opinions of billions of human hearts. Now, many people, particularly those who temperamentally or ideologically feel more at home in the mind than the heart, want to dream that a way forward can be found by divesting ourselves of our emotional qualities. Such an impression imagines the impossible. More than this, it imagines the undesirable. If we’re so foolish to want to be rid of our feelings, we’ll soon discover, if we’re honest, how very unrealistic this hope truly is. The cerebral set of human souls is as prone to heart-based decision-making as the flightiest feeler imaginable. They just hide it better. And, who do they hide it from most of all? Themselves. They pretend that their analysis of life and its mysteries is cold and calculating, but they’re only fooling themselves. In fact, very often those who think themselves immune to emotional bias are the ones most blind to the way their personal preferences are guiding their supposedly impartial observations. As personal beings, we don’t merely think that certain things are true. We want them to be true. Yes, we can take steps to guard against the intrusion of presupposition and prejudice, but we can never be fully rid of either. We may idealize and idolize the detached scientist who pursues a line of study with decided disinterest, but no one can really do this. Nor would they want to. No one can spend their lives chasing down the truth of reality without their passions for their subject and for their craft driving them along. The scientist no less than the artist finds inspiration in his love for his work. What's more, as much as we've had the experience of our hearts taking us on wild goose chases, we've also had those times when we just had a feeling about something, and it turned out to be dead-on. Maybe it was when something somehow didn't seem quite right, or maybe it was the opposite, when something, or someone, felt just right. Whatever the case, there have been those moments when we couldn't articulate what it was, but something inside pointed to an awareness that was emotional and precognitive. Call it intuition, a hunch, or simply a feeling, but at times our emotions give us hints about things that our minds haven't managed to notice. Now, these are as apt to be wrong as any emotional reaction, but it reminds us that sometimes the subconscious observes things that the conscious can’t quite nail down. Our emotions are part of who we are. Even if we could be without sin, we would not then be without emotions. In fact, we can go so far as to say that to live without emotion is to live in sin. We weren’t made to be robots, bereft of feeling, but passionate beings, full of joy for the goodness of God’s creation and sadness for what we’ve made of it. Read through the Psalms and Lamentations. Read through Hosea and the Song of Songs. Note the emotional depth – the longings, the fears, the hopes, and the dreams. Recall that for much of the time the emoter is not a finite, fallen human being but God Himself. Emotions and feelings are not only NOT unnatural for human beings, but they are absolutely reflective of God's own nature which we share by bearing His image. God loves and grieves, is sad and angry and joyful and exuberant. The Bible is full of the goodness of emotional reactions to things both good and bad. We are to take joy in the good and beautiful and express anger and sorrow for the evil and broken. Refusing to be appropriately emotional as the situation calls for it is a failure to live as a fully moral and personal being. However, the world is not as it's supposed to be. God's emotional life is pure and proper, but we aren't Him. We are finite and fallen beings, and this extends to our emotional life. While being limited is no sin, our desires are indeed hampered by nearsightedness and this is compounded by our hearts being corrupted by sin. This means that our emotional reactions to things may be sincere, but there's no guaranty of the rightness of those reactions. The answer to getting carried away by our emotions into a maelstrom of moral confusion is not to abandon the wonderful gifts of love and hate that God has given us. That would be to reduce ourselves to less than He intended us to be. Instead, we must do with our feelings what we claim we do with our thoughts. The virtue of thoughtfulness is that we work to check our inner dialogue with the outer world. The same can be done with our emotions. Instead of assuming that our feelings are always right, we must recognize them for what they are – the good creations of our loving Creator, marred by the sin of our fallen race. We must check and recheck to see if our feelings about the world reflect its reality. We must strive every day to love the things that God loves and hate the things that He hates. Through prayer and Bible study and fellowship with the Church, we reorder our feelings and bring our emotions in line with His.


Timothy D Padgett


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary