For a long time, I thought God considered my emotions to be a secondary part of me.
Ever hear of the “facts-faith-feelings” train? The idea is that what really matters in life are the FACTS: Facts are the “engine” of the train. So our goal should be to find out what the facts are. We then make a choice to hitch our FAITH – the next car in the train – to the facts. FEELINGS, on the other hand, are dangerous and unstable. They should just be the “caboose” of the train. If we give them a more prominent role, they’ll lead us astray. As long as we stay focused on the right FACTS (like God’s love, and the forgiveness we have through Christ), our feelings will eventually fall in line.
In the early years of my Christianity, I worked really hard to apply this. I’d heard it said, “If you don’t feel like you love people, just act like you do, and eventually your feelings will change.”
Now, I think there is truth to be gained from these illustrations. But now I’ve come to believe that they are misguided, and that they mistakenly try to minimize the role that emotions are intended to play in our lives. And in fact, for me, living them out became very dangerous.
I knew there was a lack of love in my heart. So I decided, “I guess I’ve got to work as hard as I can to choose to love people, and eventually I’ll feel it.” After a while, I noticed it hadn’t gotten better. In fact, I was feeling less. I was tired, and even a little bit numb. Again and again, I redoubled my efforts, hoping that this time the formula would come out right. But to no avail. I ended up burnt out on ministry. And far from feeling more love for people, I was actually resentful of the people that I was supposed to be reaching out to, and bitter at God for not coming through the way I thought he was supposed to.
The Fact-Faith-Feelings train, it seemed, wasn’t working.
What does the Bible say about it?
All throughout the Bible, God is deeply concerned about the hearts of his people. “These people honor me with their lips”, it says in Isaiah, “but their hearts are far from me.” Again and again, God becomes frustrated with his people when they live as if good behavior and belief in the right truths is all that he wants from them.
This theme of the significance of the state of our heart continues into the New Testament: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13) “Love must be sincere”, says Paul in Romans 9. Or as the New Living Translation puts it, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them.”
Reading that last one pounded the final nail in the coffin of my idea that the “act like you love people until you feel it” strategy was anything close to Biblical.
I was stuck. Stuck bad.
I wasn’t loving people. My efforts weren’t cutting it. I could grit my teeth and behave in a loving way towards people. But I couldn’t, with much sincerity, tell my best friend, “I love you, too”, when he told me that he loved me. That was a painful moment, believe me, when my friend loved me enough to tell me that it hurt him to know that I couldn’t feel for him.
I felt like Conor Oberst in his song, “Hit the Switch”: “I’m completely alone at a table of friends. I feel nothing for them. I feel nothing.”
There’s a song by Waterdeep in which Lori Chaffer sings, “Living in a cave/it’s easy to behave./To think we call this saved.” That’s how I felt: “This is saved? I can’t even love my friends!” I remember struggling even to sing the lyrics of “Amazing Grace”, “I once was lost, but now am found/was blind but now I see.” I believed firmly in Jesus’ power to heal and his promises, but I felt I had no place to tell anybody that I was “found” when I didn’t even know how to love those closest to me.
Giving emotions their proper place.
All of this is to say: It is a great grace of God that he cares about the state of my heart. Simply living my life according to the “Fact-Faith-Feeling” formula would have left me as little more than a Pharisee, performing nice deeds, but lacking love. But God wasn’t going to let me off easy, letting me ignore my feelings and just hope they’d eventually sort themselves out if I believed the right truths.
Instead, I had to plumb the depths of my heart, stripping away the layers one by one. I had to roam through the desert of my heart searching for any tiny, neglected spring of emotion I could find. And when I did find one, I didn’t have the luxury of rejecting it because it wasn’t the one I’d been hoping for. “Oh, you were looking for selfless love? Well, here’s some anger. Take it or leave it. And look over there! There’s some sadness! And here are some questionable longings that you’d rather not feel…” In the past I would have ignored these feelings, or tried to talk myself out of them with truth. But I was desperate, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll try something new. Maybe I’ll just listen, and see what these feelings have to say to me.” I began to have gentle and understanding conversations with my heart.
Only over time, as I began to cultivate the garden of my heart did I find new growth springing up, in ways I’d never expected. I remember after some time, one day a friend shared with me about some exciting things that were happening in his life, and I said, “Oh my gosh! I feel happy for you! I mean, I’m not even just saying it, I actually feel! Happy! For you!”
It was so cool to see God perform this miracle in my heart. And after all my years of struggle, I truly knew that it took nothing less than a miracle to bring about even this tiny instance of compassion for a friend in my heart.