All the Feels in All the World
Long before the emergence of the hashtag #allthefeels, there was me. I have always been a “feeler.” I’ve cried about scones, I’ve cried about orphans, I’ve cried at Johnson and Johnson’s baby commercials, and I’ve cried about hurt feelings. I’ve cried with joy at salvation and I’ve cried in sinful frustration. I said, “I love you”, on the fourth date to the man who’s now my husband—and meant it. I’ve rejoiced loudly about new babies and new marriages and I’ve grieved loudly about death. I feel deeply. And I’m not alone in this.
“All You Need is Love,” the Beatles preached. Pharrell makes us dance with “Happy,” and even declares that “happiness is the truth.” At the old age of 27, Adele is already dripping with nostalgia in “When We Were Young.” Marvin Gaye celebrates a good woman and her sexiness with “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.” Sam Smith feels remorse and grief for a lost love in “Lay Me Down.”
When Good Feelings Go Bad
No matter which emotions we’re talking about, it’s clear that feeling is part of being human. We laugh and cry. We feel worried, ashamed or fearful. We long to feel love and to have others feel our love, too. We search for happiness (and even consider it a right). We rejoice at new life and we grieve over death.
Feelings are such a big part of life because God purposefully created us with the capacity for emotion—and he declared this “very good” (Gen. 1:31). So feelings are a gift. Like all gifts, however, feelings have been affected by our fall into sin. The first humans enjoyed an unbroken communion with God and with each other. They were completely and perfectly and incandescently happy (even more than Lizzy Bennet). And they never felt depressed or ashamed or afraid… until they sinned.
Sin is more than “breaking God’s rules.” Sin is also a power, a force at work within us that continually messes up the way things are supposed to be: it messes up our relationship with God, with each other, and even with ourselves. Sin perverts and twists; it darkens and distorts. It grabs hold of our minds and hearts and wills, polluting our thoughts and desires and decisions, and yes, our emotions, too.
So we are made to feel, and that capacity for emotion is good. But where are we now that our feelings have been affected by sin? Well, sin has not destroyed our ability to feel anymore than it destroyed our ability to think. What sin has done, however, is introduce sinful feelings alongside good ones. In other words, we now can experience good and godly feelings as well as sinful and wrong feelings.
Reining Them In
One of my favorite authors tells her daughters: “Feelings are like horses—beautiful spirited horses. But they [the daughters] are the riders. We tell them that God gave them this horse when they were born and they will ride it their whole life. God also set us on a path on the top of a mountain together and told us to follow it… This is how we ‘walk in the light as He is in the light and have fellowship with one another’ (I Jn. 1:7). When our emotions act up, it is like the horse trying to jump the fence and run down into a yucky place full of spiders to get lost in the dark. A good rider knows what to do when the horse tries to bolt—you pull the reins! Turn the horse’s head! Get back on the path!” (Rachel Jankovic, Loving the Little Years, 99).
Although Rachel first addressed those words to her young daughters, we are all spirited riders, and we all must learn how to ‘keep the horse on the path.’ We do this mainly by avoiding the ditches and deep valleys on either side of the road. If we know Scripture, it is not so difficult to determine the path of life from the valleys of death.
The key to determining the path from the valley is avoiding emotionalism. Emotions are good, but emotionalism is a prison. The –ism part of emotionalism refers not just to having feelings but to living by them. Instead of remembering the road, we let our horse roam free. This drags the rider wherever the wants to go. This is a sure way to get stuck in the muddy valleys.
Put Them to the Test
How do we avoid the ditch of emotionalism? How do we rein in our feelings if they are out of control? We must put them to the test, which we can do with a simple question: Do your feelings line up with what God says about the world, others, and you?
Are you feeling ugly and unloved? You and your horse are in the ditch. Jesus says that he loves you and has adopted you into his family. You are not just a ‘little bit loved.’ You have literally been loved to death. Jesus wanted to give his life for you so that you could find life in him. There is no greater love than this!
Are you feeling downtrodden and hopeless? You’re probably in the ditch. Jesus says in Isaiah 40:30-31 “Even youth grow tired and weary and young men stumble and fall, but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength.” The Lord is able to renew their strength not with more emotions, which come and go so quickly, but with the immovable promises of his victory. No matter what happens, there is hope in Jesus.
Are you feeling isolated? Did you wake up feeling friendless? You’re probably in the ditch again. You do have friends, especially if you are part of a church that understands the eternal bond we have together in Christ. More than this, Jesus himself is your friend. (If it seems strange to say this, it may be because you don’t what a true friend looks like!)
Are you feeling afraid or anxious? Hello, ditch. The most frequently repeated command in all the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.” God says “'Do not fear, for I am with you; Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isa. 41:1). Indeed, our anxiety is usually a sign of our failure to trust God and to take him at his Word.
But what if you are grieving the death of a person or a relationship? Then you are not in a ditch. In fact, Jesus is grieving with you. He wept bitterly over the death of his friend. But amazingly, Jesus could be angry and sad at the reality of death (and the sin that causes death) without being mad at himself as God. This is the way to grieve with hope: hate death and the sin that causes it, but rejoice in the One who has conquered them both.
Are you feeling angry about the sin and injustice in the world? You are not in a ditch. Jesus was angry at the injustice being done against his people. He is perfect justice and at the cross dealt with all of our unjust ways so that we could experience life-giving flourishing and peace.
Are you feeling moved to tears or compassion for those who may be suffering? You are not in a ditch. Over and over, the Gospels tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds: “Seeing the people, Jesus felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36). This feeling is good, and it’s meant to drive us into action. In fact, if we don’t feel compassion for others, then something is dangerously wrong with us.
Are you feeling joy and happiness? You are not in a ditch. Jesus rejoices with you! More than this, Jesus himself is the ultimate cause for rejoicing. As the psalmist says of God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). Jesus is the author of all true goodness and joy.
Follow the Light
We are humans affected by sin, so the feelings that we feel are a constant source of both joy and temptation. Only light of gospel can illuminate the path that leads away from emotional ditches (John 8:12). That is why the first and last step in avoiding emotionalism is to remember the gospel and to remind others of it daily.
Of course, the gospel is more than the warning to avoid the ditch. The gospel also tells us not to beat ourselves up when we find ourselves there (for Jesus has already taken our punishment). Instead, if we find ourselves in the ditch we should trust the Lord, and ask him to help us pull on the reigns and get back to the path. We do this by believing what God says about us and the world is true regardless of how we feel at that time. Facts trump feelings. So we must test our feelings against Scripture to remind ourselves of the truth.
But we don’t have to do this alone. If we are even too deep in the muck to understand the ditch from the path, we can ask for help and rely on others to help point us back to the truth. Rachel Jankovick also says, “We also tell our girls that God told us if we see one of them with her horse down in a mud puddle spitting at people who walk by, it is our job to haul them up, back to the path” (Loving the Little Years, 29). God says something similar in Hebrews 3:12-13: “Take care, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that leads you to fall away from the living God. But encourage one another daily… so that no one of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
Sin is deceitful, and so are the feelings that come from sin. We will be tempted to doubt what God says, to “feel like” something is not true when God says it’s true and so on, but the good news is that God’s grace is in the business of redeeming whole people—including their feelings. That is why the Scriptures tell us this good news: “God is greater than our hearts” (1 John 3:20). Or as it says in another translation of that verse, “God is greater than our feelings.”
Jessica Ponder is a wife and mother to four. She loves reading, singing, baking, and urban walking. In her dreams she is a piano player with time to practice, a gardener whose plants don’t die, and someone who could hang out with the entire world at the same time, all the time. Follow her on Twitter @MrsJessPonder.