I have a lot of feelings.
What I mean is that I am the sort of person who feels deeply, in many different ways, about many different things. Sometimes this is a blessing: it doesn’t take much to make me happy or excited, curious or delighted. Sometimes this is a curse: it also doesn’t take much to make me fretful, sad, or even angry. Nor am I alone in this; I know a lot of believers who are “feelings people.”
But what is a Christian to do with all of these feelings? They can enhance our Christian walk; they can also detract from it. And we’re in danger if we lean on our feelings as a guide for our lives. One of the most important things I was taught early on in my Christian walk by a conscientious Sunday School teacher was that “joy” is something fundamentally different from the feeling of happiness, that “love” in the Christian sense is not always necessarily fuzzy-wuzzy warm affection in the heart. And yet even with that knowledge, I’ve struggled to make sense of my own feelings at times and how to integrate them into my own spiritual walk. Therefore, some thoughts for those who might have the same struggle:
1. Feelings are human, and part of God’s design. God created us in “his own image” (Gen. 1:27), and if you read the Old Testament for long you’ll see that God has a lot of deep feelings. He rejoices, He laments, He celebrates, He grows wrathful. I don’t believe God ever meant for humans to be emotionless automatons. The Bible instructs us at various points to dance, to laugh, to grieve. Feelings are a part of how God made us!
2. Don’t deify your feelings. It’s true that sometimes God can speak through a strong surge of feeling or emotion. He’s spoken to me in such ways before. But it’s dangerous when we assume that every strong emotion or feeling is an indication of God’s will, or of God speaking. Be sure to check your feelings against His word, against the spiritual counsel of other believers, and in prayer as well. Feelings are not the Holy Spirit. They are not always right; they should not always be prioritized. In fact…
3. Feelings can be fickle. Feelings are a product of so many different things, biochemical and otherwise: our hormones, our brain chemistry, how much sleep we did or didn’t get last night, how we’re getting along with our loved ones. Feelings can shift from moment to moment, from day to day, and that’s why it’s dangerous to pretend that they’re a reliable or constant guide. Ask anyone who’s ever had a puppy love – including me – how quickly the feeling of “love love love forever and always” can shift to a bemused “what was I thinking?” years down the line.
4. Be wary of feelings that lead to sin. It’s human to feel. But certain kind of feelings, if we’re not mindful of them and of our own behavior, can lead us quickly into sin. For example, feelings of frustration and irritation, left unchecked, can blossom into angry thoughts, malice, slander, and resentment. We should be paying attention to what we feel and how it’s causing us to think and behave. When feelings are causing us to sin or leading us in that direction, we need to pay extra attention to them and nip it in the bud as soon as possible – with prayer and with godly support.
5. As a Christian, you will sometimes be called to reframe your feelings within the context of God’s desires and your obedience. As Christians, we live a complex ambiguity: we are sinful people who have been redeemed. Therefore, while we have the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are also subject to the flaws and temptations of human nature. What does this mean with regards to feelings?
Well, it means that sometimes you might very well know what God wants you to do, assent to doing His will, and still struggle with feelings like sadness, hurt, and worry over it. It means that sometimes you might very well know that God loves you and wants to take care of you, but your feelings of confusion, loneliness, and sorrow threaten otherwise. It means that you sometimes might very well know you ought to love that person, but they have been mean and unkind and you’re choking on resentment and hurt. In other words, there will be times when your mind knows what Scripture says, but your feelings aren’t having it and decide to trash the hotel room instead.
In these cases, as Christians, we have to reframe our feelings within the greater understanding of our Christian walk. We can vent about them and spill them out to God, of course–He appreciates and enjoys the honesty, and the act of sharing with God brings you closer to Him. We also have to recognize the ones that might cause us to sin and put them in their place and keep a watch on our actions and behaviors. Finally, we have to acknowledge that sometimes our very human feelings (even if they aren’t leading us into sin) might be getting in the way of something that God wants us to do.
That doesn’t mean ignoring your feelings or shoving them down and never mentioning them again. It doesn’t mean that you’re not permitted to feel anything, or to struggle, or to be honest. Get some support! Get some encouragement! Get some understanding, compassionate listening ears. And don’t be afraid, when necessary, to ask God to help you shape and mold those feelings appropriately – or help you handle them – so that you can do what He wants you to do. He is listening and paying attention, always, and you will be amazed at the ways He can transform a human heart.
6. If you think you’re dealing with a mental illness that is more than just “feelings,” reach out. A long while back, one of my Christian friends was going through a period of prolonged despair and misery. She was afraid of what she was feeling, and worried about how it would affect her husband and sister as well as her parents, who were not believers. It got bad enough, eventually, that she was struggling to complete everyday tasks and to get out of bed. When she was finally feeling better, she whispered to me – after swearing me to secrecy, because she was afraid of what people would think – that she had gone to see a psychologist, and was taking antidepressants. And just earlier this week, I heard a testimony from a believer who had recently recovered from postpartum depression.
In light of that, I always want to put the reminder here: if you’re worried that what you’re dealing with goes beyond “feelings,” or the natural emotions that ebb and flow in daily life, please reach out for help if you need it. Don’t be ashamed. People who are ill need doctors! Find a therapist, find a counselor, find a psychologist. Many modern churches can actually offer useful guidance in this area (my current church has therapists and counselors on-staff, but I know other churches keep lists of local community mental health professionals), so if your church offers something like this, take advantage of it. Even if not, don’t be afraid to look on your own.
You are fearfully and wonderfully made. God designed you to laugh, to cry, to feel deep happiness and sadness, to weep, to wonder. So if you’re a “feelings person,” you’ve got a lot to work with. The gamut of human emotion can be a wonderful gift–especially when we view it and approach it with a godly attitude.