Three Mistakes You’re Making With Your Feelings
Sin is sin, right? Lying is a sin. Adultery is a sin. Murder is a sin. I’m pretty sure we can all agree on those. But then there are other things—attitudes of the heart—that we sometimes want to debate. For example, if we feel angry about something, and we hang onto that anger in our hearts, but we don’t take it out on anyone and we don’t become vengeful, is that a sin? What about envy or resentment? If someone seems to have a better life than we do, and we find that we just don’t really want to be their friend, is that a sin? After all, we’re not commanded to be friends with everyone, right? How about depression? Can we just say that we have a melancholy personality, and be excused from seeking to be joyful in life?
The things I’ve described above are sometimes put into the category of “gray area” for many Christians. We are highly psychologized in our society, and many of us want to say that feelings can’t be helped, and we all have a right to feel what we feel. But today, I’d like to challenge that notion a little and invite you to do the same. I speak from a place of experience, having struggled a great deal with depression, resentment, and anger in my life, so don’t think I’m coming from a lofty place of self-assurance. By God’s grace, I have been enabled to overcome these things to a degree and in retrospect, I see three areas where I went wrong.
Overestimating the importance and value of feelings
When I said we are highly psychologized, I was including myself. I have a BA in Psychology, so I may be even better schooled in it than some of you! If you are even slightly awake and aware in our culture, you will hear this “feeling language” everywhere. People make such statements as:
“I really feel like I need to be free of this awful marriage.”
“She made me feel so angry, and that’s why I punched the wall.”
“I feel like I don’t fit in there, so I’m going to look for another church.”
Isaiah 17:9 tells us that our hearts (immaterial man, which includes our feelings) are deceitful, so whenever we catch ourselves making decisions or excuses for our behavior that are based on our feelings, we need to take a second look at the statements we’re making. Let’s take each of the above sentences and put them to the test:
The person who says she feels the need to be free of her awful marriage is expressing a desire of her heart, not a feeling. She is ignoring what the Scriptures say about marriage and is instead obeying the desires of her deceitful heart.
The second sentence is a clear case of blame shifting. No one can make us feel or do anything. We choose our feelings and actions based on the thoughts, beliefs, and desires of our sinful hearts. The person in the example chose to be angry in response to something she said or did, and he chose to punch the wall because it was what he wanted to do.
The last sentence exposes the heart of someone who has given in to fear of man. She is basing her choice of a church on how she feels when she is there and what she believes others think of her instead of seeking God’s leading and choosing a church based on biblical factors.
Feelings are notoriously unreliable indicators of truth, so be careful not to make them your standard!
Believing that what I was feeling wasn’t hurting anyone else
I struggled with my emotions for many years before the Lord taught me that I must bring them into submission to His Truth. One of the reasons I allowed myself to stay “stuck” in depression was that I figured it wasn’t hurting anyone else. People who are stuck in emotional pits of anger or sadness often are so self-focused that they don’t even recognize the pain they are causing others. Looking back, I see how my depression led to the neglect of my relationship with my husband; a quick temper and lack of patience with my children; and a really poor witness for Christ with my unbelieving loved ones. I am paying a high price for these things now.
Here’s the truth: Your feelings do affect others. The scary thing is that the effects are so subtle that you may not even notice them until much later in your life. Better to take those thoughts captive to Christ now, and submit to His will for your life than to try to make up for it later or worse, find that it is too late.
Thinking that change could wait
When I finally decided that my heart was indeed deceived, and that my feelings did adversely affect others, it was still difficult to begin to change. (That’s an understatement. True heart change can be a monumental task. It is never an event, but a process—one that will last for the rest of your life.) I kept putting it off. Looking back, I see how foolish it was, but at the time I had some reasons. I was used to feeling sad, and it had become oddly comfortable, just because of the familiarity. I also had gained a few perks from my sadness—sympathy from friends, more help with housework, lower expectations from others—things that I sinfully enjoyed, and to which I felt entitled.
But none of those things compared to the joy of repenting of that sinful thinking, and learning to walk in obedience to Christ in my heart and mind. My repentance came about through a particular Scripture that the Lord set before me one day as I complained to Him of how tired I was of being in this sad state. Romans 6 convinced me that I had given myself over to slavery to sin. Self-focus, self-pity, self-centeredness, distrust of God, discontentment, anger at God, petulance, and a host of other sins came flooding from my heart as I recognized that somewhere along the way, I had sold myself to another master.
What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey? Whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? ~Romans 6:15-16
This was a crossroads for me, and perhaps it will be for you, too. I knew in that moment that if I truly was a Christian, I could not continue in these sinful thought patterns, living in this sinful way. I had developed the excuse that if God wanted me to change, He would make it happen so it was ok for me to stay in my sin a while longer. I had been putting God to the test, and He used this Scripture to reveal that to me.
Romans 2 tells us that when we refuse to repent, we are presuming on the kindness and patience of God. While this particular context is about repentance leading to salvation, I believe the principle applies to this issue of a Christian staying in sinful thinking. We should never presume on the patience of God in any situation, especially unrepentant sin. The Lord disciplines those He loves and if necessary, He will bring consequences for sin that will bring us to our knees in repentance.
Don’t wait for correction. Repent today, and trust that your loving Father understands that you have emotions. After all, He is the one who gave them to you. However, He didn’t give them to you to be your masters, but for you to master! Begin today to recognize the deceitfulness of your own heart, where your feelings are concerned, and repent. As you walk in obedience, your feelings will follow! The Holy Spirit will be your helper as you die to yourself day by day, living more and more for Christ.