Emotion, the Will, and the Spiritual Life

One of the disturbing things that I have found to characterise so much of the life of contemporary Christians is the tendency to rely on emotions above all else. The reliance of feelings instead of firm acts of the will based on the clear teachings of Scripture has resulted in a woefully substandard Christianity in so many circles today.

Biblical Christianity has never emphasised a life of feelings, but a life of faith which is fully channelled by the Word of God and adherence to it. This has been basic Christianity for millennia, but today’s believers seem to have forgotten this altogether.

Not only the Bible but all the great saints have warned against living a Christian life run on and controlled by mere emotions. For example, in his important 1977 book Knowing Scripture R.C. Sproul dealt with this in detail. He said in part:

Many of us have become sensuous Christians, living by our feelings rather than through our understanding of the Word of God. Sensuous Christians cannot be moved to service, prayer or study unless they “feel like it.” Their Christian life is only as effective as the intensity of present feelings. When they experience spiritual euphoria, they are a whirlwind of godly activity; when they are depressed, they are a spiritual incompetent. They constantly seek new and fresh spiritual experiences, and use them to determine the Word of God. Their “inner feelings” become the ultimate test of truth.
Sensuous Christians don’t need to study the Word of God because they already know the will of God by their feelings. They don’t want to know God; they want to experience him. Sensuous Christians equate “childlike faith” with ignorance. They think that when the Bible calls us to childlike faith, it means a faith without content, a faith without understanding. They don’t know the Bible says, “In evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Cor. 14:20). They don’t realize that Paul tells us again and again, “My beloved brethren, I would not have you ignorant” (see, for example, Rom 11:25)
Sensuous Christians go their merry way until they encounter the pain of life that is not so merry–and they fold. They usually end up embracing a kind of “relational theology” (a curse on modern Christianity) where personal relationships and experience take precedence over the Word of God. If the Scripture calls us to action that may jeopardize a personal relationship, then the Scripture must be compromised. The highest law of sensuous Christians is that bad feelings must be avoided at all cost.

emotion 6Elisabeth Elliot put it this way: “Faith is not an instinct. It certainly is not a feeling – feelings don’t help much when you’re in the lions’ den or hanging on a wooden Cross. Faith is not inferred from the happy way things work. It is an act of will, a choice, based on the unbreakable Word of a God who cannot lie, and who showed us what love and obedience and sacrifice mean, in the person of Jesus Christ.”

A W Tozer was one of God’s choice servants of last century to stir up the church and call it back to her true calling. He was relentless in calling for holiness, the cruciform life, and a life based on Godly choices, not emotional highs and lows.

In his book Man – The Dwelling Place of God he had a whole section on this: “True Religion Is Not Feeling but Willing”. Let me offer that in its entirety:

One of the puzzling questions likely to turn up sooner or later to vex the seeking Christian is how he can fulfill the scriptural command to love God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself.
The earnest Christian, as he meditates on his sacred obligation to love God and mankind, may experience a sense of frustration gendered by the knowledge that he just cannot seem to work up any emotional thrill over his Lord or his brothers. He wants to, but he cannot. The delightful wells of feeling simply will not flow.
Many honest persons have become discouraged by the absence of religious emotion and concluded that they are not really Christian after all. They conclude that they must have missed the way somewhere back there and their religion is little more than an empty profession. So for a while they belabor themselves for their coldness and finally settle into a state of dull discouragement, hardly knowing what to think. They do believe in God; they do indeed trust Christ as their Saviour, but the love they hoped to feel consistently eludes them. What is the trouble?
The problem is not a light one. A real difficulty is involved, one which may be stated in the form of a question: How can I love by commandment? Of all the emotions of which the soul is capable, love is by far the freest, the most unreasoning, the one least likely to spring up at the call of duty or obligation, and surely the one that will not come at the command of another. No law has ever been passed that can compel one moral being to love another, for by the very nature of it love must be voluntary. No one can be coerced or frightened into loving anyone. Love just does not come that way. So what are we to do with our Lord’s command to love God and our neighbor?
To find our way out of the shadows and into the cheerful sunlight we need only to know that there are two kinds of love: the love of feeling and the love of willing. The one lies in the emotions, the other in the will. Over the one we may have little control. It comes and goes, rises and falls, flares up and disappears as it chooses, and changes from hot to warm to cool and back to warm again very much as does the weather. Such love was not in the mind of Christ when He told His people to love God and each other. As well command a butterfly to light on our shoulder as to attempt to command this whimsical kind of affection to visit our hearts.
The love the Bible enjoins is not the love of feeling; it is the love of willing, the willed tendency of the heart. (For these two happy phrases I am indebted to another, a master of the inner life whose pen was only a short time ago stilled by death.)
God never intended that such a being as man should be the plaything of his feelings. The emotional life is a proper and noble part of the total personality, but it is, by its very nature, of secondary importance. Religion lies in the will, and so does righteousness. The only good that God recognizes is a willed good; the only valid holiness is a willed holiness.
It should be a cheering thought that before God every man is what he wills to be. The first requirement in conversion is a rectified will. “If any man will,” says our Lord, and leaves it there. To meet the requirements of love toward God the soul need but will to love and the miracle begins to blossom like the budding of Aaron’s rod.
The will is the automatic pilot that keeps the soul on course. “Flying is easy,” said a friend who flies his own plane. “Just take her up, point her in the direction you want her to go and set the pilot. After that she’ll fly herself.” While we must not press the figure too far, it is yet blessedly true that the will, not the feelings, determines moral direction.
The root of all evil in human nature is the corruption of the will. The thoughts and intents of the heart are wrong and as a consequence the whole life is wrong. Repentance is primarily a change of moral purpose, a sudden and often violent reversal of the soul’s direction. The prodigal son took his first step upward from the pigsty when he said, “I will arise and go to my father.” As he had once willed to leave his father’s house, now he willed to return. His subsequent action proved his expressed purpose to be sincere. He did return.
Someone may infer from the above that we are ruling out the joy of the Lord as a valid part of the Christian life. While no one who reads these columns regularly would be likely to draw such an erroneous conclusion, a chance reader might be led astray; a further word of explanation is therefore indicated:
To love God with all our heart we must first of all will to do so. We should repent our lack of love and determine from this moment on to make God the object of our devotion. We should set our affections on things above and aim our hearts toward Christ and heavenly things. We should read the Scriptures devotionally every day and prayerfully obey them, always firmly willing to love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourself.
If we do these things we may be sure that we shall experience a wonderful change in our whole inward life. We shall soon find to our great delight that our feelings are becoming less erratic and are beginning to move in the direction of the “willed tendency of the heart.” Our emotions will become disciplined and directed. We shall begin to taste the “piercing sweetness” of the love of Christ. Our religious affection will begin to mount evenly on steady wings instead of flitting about idly without purpose or intelligent direction. The whole life, like a delicate instrument, will be tuned to sing the praises of Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood.
But first of all we must will, for the will is master of the heart.

Choosing to do what is right, instead of depending on how we happen to feel at a given moment, is how we are to live our Christian lives. But making hard choices, often against how we feel, is not easy to do, so far too many believers simply opt for what their mood is at the moment. This is unacceptable.

[1720 words]

9 Replies to “Emotion, the Will, and the Spiritual Life”

  1. Thanks for the brief but powerful message Bill. I didn’t go to church today because I didn’t feel like it. I won’t say much, but this was more than just an article. God bless you Bill.

  2. R C Sproul”s words about Christians embracing a relational theology etc were truly prophetic, as that is what is happening all around us, even among evangelicals, sadly. It all comes back to a lack of being taught the necessity from conversion, of reading and getting to know the Bible .
    A very good article which needs to be widely shared. Thank you.

  3. The relationship between emotions and the will is explored by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who, after years of being a Marxist, became a Christian. In his book ‘After Virtue’ he gives the historical reasons why we have become an ‘emotivist’ society (with, often, an emotivist religion). This kind of society is a manipulative society, with values and morality being determined by the will of those in power, and being arbitrarily imposed. A good and readable account of MacIntyre’s book is Christopher Stephen Lutz’s ‘Reading Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue’.
    But the idea we have of the Divine – whether it is of one governed solely by his (irrational) will alone – the Muslim view – or one not only of love, but also of divine reason (logos – the Word of God), the principle of God active in the creation, largely determines how we behave. Many have commented on this distinction between Christianity & Islam, including Benedict XVI in his Regensberg address.
    The trouble, described in the article, is that many Christians have become emotivists – and they often also ascribe this to the nature of God.

  4. Love that is a mere ephemeral excitation of one’s personal neurological infrastructure is bound to have no answer to those days when the body’s systems are feeling flat on account of sickness.

    That the word “lovesick” is in English vocabulary is a reminder that what passes for love in certain parts of human experience is not always reasonable or healthy. Contrary to the mantra touted by some of our contemporaries, all loves are not equal: It is the peerless love of God shed abroad in human hearts which alone is able to transform sinners into saints – a love which drives us beyond the thraldom of appetites common to us all to see our neighbours in the the light of the supreme expression of divine love – the scandalous fact that Christ, the everlasting Word died for our sins.

  5. Thank you Bill, words of truth necessary to take in and act upon in every generation. Were the teaching so clear as when I was raised — certainly provoking now. As people share this article, I suspect it will b taken to heart by some and impact families and communities in powerful ways. God bless you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *