I have noticed over the course of my life how much more people replace the word “think” with the word “feel.” People say things like, “I feel this is the most important thing for me to do right now” or “I do not feel that people should behave in such and such a way.” I have read in recent months things like “most Americans feel the government is . . .”, or “The Supreme Court’s latest ruling shows that it feels . . . .” Student papers and essays in my work as an educator have become more emotion-oriented. News reports, articles, speeches, and, of course, advertising materials all emphasize and reference feelings and emotions almost to the exclusion of reason and volition. While it may be tempting to think this is only a matter of semantics, it is important to remember that language is shaped by our thinking, and our thinking is shaped by our language. These things matter in shaping our sensibilities and character. This contemporary emphasis on feelings and emotions leaves us with the impression that these are perhaps superior to, or at least more reliable and easier to navigate with, than reason and volition. This is probably worth thinking about from a faith perspective.
Obviously, feelings and emotions are real. They are essential elements of what it means to be human. Those who are unable to experience remorse, empathy, or sympathy are sometimes classified as sociopaths. Those who are not moved to joy, grief, or anger leave us wondering what could possibly be wrong with them. We are emotional creatures, and we experience feelings. And while we cannot say that our emotions are always good, well-founded, or helpful, there are times when they are all of those things. The question is not whether emotions are good or bad. The question is: how do we deal with them? If we allow emotions and feelings to rule us; to be the primary driver of our decisions and our communication; or to be the primary factor in our judgments and analyses of people, events, and ideas, we may in fact be giving ourselves over to something that is flawed, whimsical, fickle, and potentially harmful. To learn to be disciplined emotionally, to challenge our feelings with reason, is not to deny emotion but is in fact a way to enrich our emotional experiences and lead us to a greater appreciation for what, why, and how we “feel.”
I am often struck by this when reading the Bible. It is difficult to read through the psalms and not see the honest expressions of despair and joy. But there is something else. The psalmists often catch themselves mid-sentence and remember a truth that counters their despair and puts their suffering in perspective. We find these same kinds of expressions elsewhere in the Bible. One of my favorites is in Lamentations 3. Here, we read of the prophet Jeremiah’s deep despair and discouragement. He is undone by the burdens of this world and the weight of his office. He eloquently expresses his emotions, saying he “feels” his bones are broken within him and his teeth are shattered as if by gravel. He declares he cannot go on. But he reminds himself of a truth superior to his own emotions. He says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore, I will hope in him.’”
He does not deny or dismiss his feelings. Rather, he brings them under the subjection of what he knows to be true. He does not allow his emotions to dictate his ultimate conclusions or actions. He brings the very human qualities of thinking and volition alongside the equally human qualities of feeling and emotion. This is wisdom, and it is liberating. Just because we do not “feel” like doing something does not mean we should not do it. Just because we are experiencing an emotion that would cause us to act rashly, does not mean we should do so. If we allow ourselves to be governed by feelings and emotions, we may choose or seek things that will either create a desired emotional state or satisfy one—both of which keep us enslaved to our feelings. We would do well to take heed of the examples of the psalmists and the prophets who expressed and experienced their own emotions and feelings mindfully.
This article first appeared in-print in the Bucks County Courier Times on September 3, 2023.