This is an updated version of a Bible study I did in 2006 on the role of feelings/emotions in spiritual formation in Christ. It is inspired by Dallas Willard’s book, Renovation of the Heart. This article on feelings is part of a series from my class for counselors on “How People Change.” (See my other articles on the heart, thoughts, body, social, and soul.)
In his Greatest Commandment Jesus teaches us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength… and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31). Other words for feelings include: emotions, desires, passions, affects, concerns, and sensations.
Locating Our Feelings
It’s difficult to locate feelings in the human personality, What this language indicates is how integrated we are as persons as they often seem to be literally all over the place in our person! We speak of heart desires, mental perceptions, bodily sensations, relational concerns, and soul longings. We’re indicating that our feelings are important to how we access all the dynamics of who we are and how we get ourselves going in a direction.
Dallas Willard follows the tradition of the classical philosophers and understands feelings or emotions as being in the mind, closely intertwined with our thoughts. (Alternatively, in the Bible Paul sometimes locates feelings and desires in the belly.)
The Importance of Feelings
Feelings and emotions are essential, wonderful, God-created aspects of our lives and relationships; they enable us to experience our life and connect with one another, which is why upon greeting someone we often ask, “How do you feel?” Feelings are the “concerns” that connect us in relationship with ourselves, others, and God.
Sense-ations of all kinds help us to sense, know, or “touch” the reality of what is going on in our personal experience with other people, or in the situation we find ourselves. It’s important to say that “feelings”, in this sense, are perceptions that represent subjective reality inside us that may or may not accurately reflect objective reality in the world.
We often call feelings e-motions because they help to activate and incline our will; they get us going in a particular direction and in that aspect our feelings can be good or bad since they’re leading us toward God or away from him.
It’s always helpful to be aware of and understand our feelings – even if they’re inclining us in a sinful direction – and not to repress them or deny their existence, but to admit or confess that we have them, like the Psalmist does. Our feelings can be pleasant or unpleasant, healthy or unhealthy, but they are not sinful in themselves, unless we indulge them (e.g, nursing a grudge or losing our temper at someone). Awareness of what we feel helps us to develop self-control.
Feelings make wonderful servants but horrible masters!
Learning to Resist Negative Emotions
In the Bible the “heart” refers to the will and it’s the center of our being. But in our culture we put emotions in the heart, not the mind or the gut, which compels us to act on whatever we feel! This is a main source of unwise decisions, hurtful behavior, sin, and addictions, which are basically the compulsion to act on how I feel. When we are governed by our feelings they toss us up and down a piece of drift wood on the waves of the sea.
Sometimes we must resist acting on a feeling (e.g., lust, anger, desire for alcohol), exercising self-control or delaying gratification so that we can live in ways that are good, healthy, and loving. In our culture today to not act on a feeling seems inauthentic. Feelings tend to dominate us. We may even worship them! When we don’t feel good we may be so desperate that we’ll do anything to feel better.
So Paul teaches us, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24, ESV). Instead of gratifying selfish wants which leads to all kinds of sexual sin, jealousy, anger, drunkenness, and the like we can learn to “live by the Sprit” and “keep in step with the Spirit” who bears in us his fruit of love, joy, and peace (see Galatians 5:16-24).
Love and Feelings
In our culture we tend to think of love as a feeling. For instance we say, “I love chocolate cake!” No, you want to eat it! Love is much more than a feeling. The feeling of love, though delightful, is too fickle to be relied upon. Love (along with the rest of the fruit of the Spirit) is so much more than a feeling – it’s a characteristic of being, an intention of heart that is expressed in action and, of course, we want to experience it emotionally too. To love is to will good for another person.
At the same time it’s important to realize that if we can’t feel love or rarely feel the positive emotions associated with love then that is also a problem that needs help!
Using Thoughts to Cultivate Positive Emotions
It’s best to understand feelings as coming from our mind. This is why thoughts and feelings are meant to go together, even in the way our brains work (e.g., we remember best the things that we have feelings about). It’s important to integrate our thinking and feeling, to think about our feelings and feel about our thoughts, so that personally we can be awake and alert and yield our will to God and his kingdom and function well as we serve him. A good rule of life is to always think and feel (back and forth and prayerfully) before you decide to say or do anything of significance.
To overcome negative feelings that lead us away from God and the good things he has for us we need to replace these with positive feelings by cultivating the qualities of faith, hope, love, joy, and peace, and their emotional components. This begins by thinking on the goodness of God and his love for us.
Bible Verses on the Role of Feelings and Emotions in Spiritual Formation
For the Bible verses below I’ve put the emotion words in italics. Often the emotion is imbedded in a concrete action and is being demonstrated implicitly. (That’s the way the ancient Hebrews understood emotion.)
“His delight is in the law of the LORD” (Psalm 1:2).
“Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).
“The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the broken hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:17-18)
“There is a time for everything… a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).
“LORD, we love to obey your laws; our heart’s desire is to glorify your name” (Isaiah 26:8, NLT).
“Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I feel sorry for these people… I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the road’” (Matthew 15:32, NLT).
“[The two disciples walking on the Emmaus road] said to each other, ‘Didn’t our hearts feel strangely warm as [the risen Christ] talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?’” (Luke 24:32, NLT).
“[God’s] purpose… was that the nations should seek after God and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him – though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27, NLT).
“For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7, KJV).
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…” (Galatians 5:22).
“It is for you that I am suffering, so you should feel honored and encouraged” (Ephesians 3:13, NLT).
“May you experience the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3:19, NLT).
“In your anger do not sin: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” (Ephesians 4:26-27) (This principle of caution applies to any emotion. For instance, we could say, “In your sadness do not sin…” or “In your anxiety do not sin…”)
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart… all of you share in God’s grace with me” (Philippians 1:7).
“All I want is to know Christ” (Philippians 3:10a, CEV).
“Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach… their mind is on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
“Flee… evil desires” (2 Timothy 2:22).
“[The ungodly] are… doing whatever they feel like” (Jude 16, NLT).
Bible Verses on How Feelings Can Incline the Functions of our Person
As we said above, the Bible shows emotions present in all the main dynamics of a person. Notice how the feeling words below (in italics) are associated with each of our functions:
Mind: “A cheerful mind works healing” (Proverbs 17:22, AMP).
Heart: “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4).
Body: “Your sensual desires… are ever warring in your bodily members?” (James 4:1, AMP).
Social: “You’re… showing such strong concern for me… You came alongside me in my troubles” (Philippians 4:10, MSG).
Soul: “My soul faints with longing for your salvation” (Psalm 119:81).
An Example: David Expresses His Emotions in Psalm 55
We could pick any Psalm and identify a variety of emotions. For instance, Psalm 55 is a Lament which uses a number of feeling words that represent or include positive or emotion. I’ve bolded the positive emotions.
- “Plea” (v 1)
- “Trouble” and “distraught” (v 2)
- “Suffering” and “anger” (v 3)
- “Heart is in anguish” and “terrors” (v 4)
- “Fear and trembling” and “horror” (v 5)
- “Oh, that I…” = longing and “rest” (v 6)
- “Confuse” and “violence and strife” (v 9)
- “Malice and abuse” = endangered (v 10)
- “Once enjoyed sweet fellowship” = loss and grief (vv 12- 14)
- “Let death take my enemies” = rage (v 15)
- “Cry out in distress” (v 17)
- “Fear of God” (v 19)
- “His speech is smooth as butter” = feeling manipulated and “war is in his heart” (v 21)
- “Cares” and “sustain” (v 22)
- “Trust” (v 23)