Feelings vs. Emotionalism

If there is an uncomfortable prospect in the Fundamentalist Church these days, it is the subject of “emotionalism.” Emotionalism is the broad and ambiguous catch-all term where people dump things like 1. Being controlled by emotions, 2. Being too emotionally expressive, and 3. Practicing what they view as the extremes of “Charismania” or Pentecostalism. To add to the confusion, they use scripture to support their fear of emotionalism, as with the verse, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Jeremiah 17:9

The trouble is, as is usually the case when we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we really need to understand what it is we are throwing out. Let’s try and break it down a bit.

1. Feelings(Emotions)-ok, so guys, what are feelings? They are the barometer for our soul. Feelings are what arise in response to the circumstances of our lives. If we are to “…walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise…” Eph. 5:15, then we must examine every aspect of our self. Emotions are a very useful tool to illuminate areas in us that God may want to address. Keep in mind that emotions are part of God’s attributes, and as such, there are no “good” or “bad” emotions, just as there are no “male” or “female” emotions. Men, we must engage with our emotions: discouragement, frustration, anger, melancholy, exhuberance, annoyance, etc, in order to get to the root of the matter, and we must do so every day. It is not indulgent, it is critical for our physical, relational, and spiritual health.

2. Feelings(Senses)-this category of feeling, while generally lumped in with emotions, is how we engage with life, and more specifically, with the spiritual realm. “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.” Heb 5:14  The Scriptures are full of examples of how we discern using our 5 senses, plus intuition, our 6th sense.

3. Emotionalism(being governed by our emotions)-this generally refers to how a person bases their course of actions on how they feel, or perhaps, just lives in a reactive state to the whims of their emotions. The antithesis of this, of course, is someone whose life is completely dictated by logic, like Spock. We are told that it is much more acceptable to be logic driven rather than emotion driven. The reality is that in order to be “whole,” we need to be balanced in how we utilize logic and emotion.

4. Emotionalism(abuse of “Spiritual Gifting”)-this use of the word applies to how the Fundamentalist Church views some of the wackiness that not just embarasses Christianity, but actually becomes a mockery of the authentic empowerment of true spiritual gifts by the Holy Spirit. We get so gun-shy, that we avoid anything that has the label “Spirit-filled” on it.


So, what do we do with all of this? Well, Scripture seems pretty clear-we are to exercise our senses to grow in discernment, we are to examine our hearts and walk circumspectly, we are to model the fruit and the activity of the Holy Spirit, and we are to equip ourselves so we are not “tossed to and fro” (James 1:6,  Eph 4:14).

Gentlemen, if we are to live Biblically-sound lives, then we must abide also by the scriptures that speak to our emotions, our senses, and how they are to incorporate into our walk with God. I would even venture the proposition that until you engage emotionally with God, you are keeping part of your heart from Him, and you are not a surrendered man.

Still a skeptic? Let me close with some thoughts from A.W. Tozer.

“I have had people tell me very dogmatically that they will never allow ‘feeling’ to have any part In their spiritual life and experience. I reply, ‘Too bad for you!’ I say that because I have voiced a very real definition of what I believe true worship to be: Worship is to feel in the heart!” Whatever Happened to Worship?


4 responses to “Feelings vs. Emotionalism

  • Will Rieske

    “Worship is to feel in the heart”? Except it’s been proven by looking at brain activity that pagans experience similar emotions during their worship. I’ve been reading “The Pursuit of God” and it seems more like “The Pursuit of Happy Feelings.”
    When feelings are so deceptive, how can I choose to include then in my spiritual life? I’ve seen so much harm done by people who use their feelings to make decisions. I agree that we need to give our whole selves to God, but doesn’t that involve not letting the truth get clouded by what we “feel deep within our hearts”?

    • metamorpheus

      Hi Will,

      Thank you very much for writing in! Thank you also for your honesty-I relate very much with your viewpoint.

      You are so right about emotion-led decisions. As much as we don’t want to be slaves to our emotions, we still follow them, don’t we? And, to make matters worse, we assess the world around us by how we feel. For example, how many Christians have found themselves in a state of happiness, perhaps for a few weeks, and assume it is because God is “blessing” them. Of course, the same person reacts oppositely when they feel discouraged: “I feel far from God,” therefore, it must be true.

      If emotions are an indicator of what is going on inside us, then they provide valuable information about our current state of affairs. For example, if I feel anxious, I should know by now to ask myself, “What is creating this unsettled, nervous feeling?” Here comes the disconnect, however. Philippians 4:4 says, “Be anxious for nothing…” So what do I do with the anxious feelings? I do what I learned to do; I “dismiss” them as if they never happened-I stuff them. I select a scripture, perhaps even the one I just quoted, and I “claim” it, and it is supposed to work like magic. However, this is not what this verse is teaching us, and this is certainly not what King David, the “man after God’s own heart,” modeled for us throughout Psalms.

      The verse in its entirety reads, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Ok, so at first glance, even this isn’t much of a stretch. Most of us probably feel the anxiety and then go ask God for rescue, peace, etc. But, we miss the heart of prayer when we limit prayer to just supplication. King David, Abraham, Jonah, Job, Moses, and so many others throughout the Bible engaged emotionally with God! I don’t know about you, but my upbringing bred in me a fear of showing my emotions to God. Moses argued with God, and God reverted His decision to destroy the children of Israel. David poured out his terror, his anger, his sorrow, etc, to God and awaited God’s response. How did God respond, it was always with reminders of His own magnificence. Prayer is all about authenticity before the One who already knows our darkness and wants to meet us in it. Jesus even was honest with the Father in the garden, admitting that He really wished there was some “other way” to save mankind, but nevertheless, He would submit and do the Father’s will. He asked this twice!

      Now, what about worship? I was a “worship leader” at our church for many, many years, and it was actually Tozer’s book, “Whatever Happened to Worship?” that cut me to the heart and prompted my resignation. I was the blind leading the blind. I knew nothing about true worship, and I was modeling my falsehood to other people. I knew how to manipulate the crowd, playing soft music during prayer, having people stand at just the right moment or repeat the right words. I knew when to stop playing and just sing with our voices. I knew all the tricks to elicit an emotional response from people. Even now, it is really hard to stomach a lot of “worship services” because there is no worship actually happening. It is all a show.

      John 4:24 says, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.” The truth refers to what we “know” to be theologically true (as verse 22 affirms), so worship comes in part from the foundations of truth we have learned. But, the other part is that I am to worship in my spirit. A very challenging exercise for me was to learn to worship without singing. The singing had become such a part of my falsehood, I didn’t even think about the words anymore. I thought my “intent” or “intensity” would show God a worshipful posture. Through silent worship, I started to just “pour out” to God. It became less and less about provision. It became more about acknowledging the attitudes of my flesh and submitting those to God. Something interesting started to happen. As I poured out, I would also listen. If I finished telling the Father what was on my mind or my heart, I would just be quiet and wait there. He started prompting me to worship Him by naming His names, His victories, even His attributes. It seemed as though He were directing me to tell Him what He wanted to hear from me. I started to be changed in the process. My spirit was learning to worship God the way He wanted to be worshiped. And yes, there was emotion that resulted from the process, but it was just that. It was a result, but it did not drive the process. God did that.

      So, what is the point? If I am to follow Jesus’ example, I will experience emotion, and it will drive me to honesty with the Father. Jesus was furious with the moneychangers, He acted on that rage, and the Father was glorified. Jesus was deeply anxious (Luke 22:44 says He was in agony) over the eminent crucifixion and He took that anxiety to the Father.

      Will, my perspective on emotions is that they are a tool. They are a powerful tool in the life of a believer to bring them to the Father for comfort, instruction, affirmation, healing, clarification, or however else He chooses to minister to them. And to quote the oft-paraphrased saying, “Emotions are a terrible master but a wonderful servant.”

      How does this sit with you? Is there a sticking point? I know how frustrating it is to have this esoteric component (emotions) in an otherwise logical and structured existence. It is significant to remember, however, that our emotions are God’s attributes. He has all the emotions we do-though He may experience them differently. So the emotions are not bad, they are actually His divine design. It is the inappropriate wielding of those emotions that can be unhealthy.

      Will, I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this!

  • Will Rieske

    Hi metamorpheus! I apparently just saw your response, after six and half years. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write a well-thought-out and caring reply, and I just want to let you know that I’m in a much better place now. Not a surly teenager anymore!

    I went through a “Spock” phase in 2010-2011 that correlated with some other confusions in my life, like a period of “dark night of the soul”-type depression and silence from God. Simultaneously, I was trying to figure out charismatic theology and felt turned-off by the rampant emotionalism. This was also a point after I had a sort of intellectual awakening after graduating high school, and felt disappointed that the world wasn’t as logical as I wanted it to be.

    The biological reality of how God created us is that we are bags of chemicals and electricity, and our brains are inescapably and fundamentally tied to emotion. For some reason, it took a while before I was willing to accept that fact.

    All in all, I feel awkward that I put such personal information on the Internet using my full real name, and I’m not sure what good adding even more detail now will do…but I’d like to again thank you, metamorpheus, for your kindness, and also let anyone reading this in future years to know that I’m a pretty normal guy, I guess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: