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How far do we trust our heart's feelings?

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

Can we experience the abundant life Jesus promised if we rarely feel the love, joy and peace from God - but simply obeyed Him? That is a hard road to walk, yet many think it’s the right road. What if it’s not only unsatisfying but also dangerous? When Jesus pointed the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, the key factor was that their hearts were far from God, yet they thought they were being strictly obedient. Is there a connection here?

Precise language to get to the heart of the matter

Is it necessary to feel the love of God as one obeys Him? For many, such feelings are not prioritized, or at best they are relegated to the back carriage of the train as was portrayed by the once-popular evangelical tract. Yet why are we so wary of trusting our feelings and yet so confident of trusting our minds?

We know the benefits of ignoring the feelings of sloth, gluttony and avarice. Yet how do we make sense of our feelings in a faith that extols the virtues of self-control and sound reasoning but also expects us to be filled and led by the Spirit who lives in our hearts?

Let’s look at the impact of our language. We can start by making a clear distinction between “surface feelings” and “deep emotions”. When the Word or Spirit speaks to me, I can feel that truth burn in my heart; that’s what I call a deep emotion. I can feel dejected or depleted but there can still be a deep peace or joy in doing what I clearly don’t feel like on the surface. But if I don’t have that deep emotion when I think I’m obeying God, I wonder what really flows out of me. Is it going to be good fruit from a heart that really isn’t tapping into love?

This is what I think Paul means, in the letter to the Ephesians, when he advises us to “speak the truth in love.” It means that the truth that people need to hear, the truth that leads to repentance or encouragement, is felt at a deep level, in the heart. A hard heart, on the other hand, speaks out a hard word that breaks, harms or destroys its target. So much harm can be done in the name of Biblical truth - when misapplied by hearts that are not led by the Spirit. If truth is not deeply felt as love, one is skating on thin ice.

This is about the practical matter of how to live in the “storm and stress” of life; how to faithfully live out the truth of the gospel. Recall Jesus said to the Pharisees “You diligently study the scriptures because you think they give you eternal life” (John 5:39). That gives me pause for reflection. How can we discern which verse applies to our current situation?

We must take care when we claim “I have the mind of Christ”. I may be sincere, but what is going on in the heart still matters. If that “light” in our view is actually darkness, our thinking will be flawed. For example, if your heart’s motive is to just win an argument or punish someone for the sake of Jesus. Let’s remember that out of the heart comes the words and deeds that bring life and true godliness – or the opposite, depending upon the heart’s composition.

Let’s bring in a little language borrowed from brain science. The heart we speak of is actually part of the limbic (emotional) system of the brain. It’s also known as the executive center of the brain - the prefrontal cortex - where we make decisions. It’s distinct from the analytical center, our “logical verbal processor” which is the part that is word-based and rational. But our decisions about what to believe and how to live doesn’t arise from there; they arise from the prefrontal cortex which is identity and character-based. That’s where we have the knowledge that is both felt and understood. We are not analytical computers; we are knowledge feelers.

Let’s start “living from the heart Jesus gave you” instead of relying on our analytical minds. I don’t want to be the last one in the room to find out that I’ve only been fooling myself, when I thought I was so right. The root meaning of emotion is “that which moves”. To ignore emotions is to be blind to our true motivation; we ignore those “feelings” at our peril.

I don’t mean simply that if “it feels right” it is right; that won’t do. Neither will it do to calculate “what would Jesus do?” Then it’s too late; the moment is lost. We need to operate as we’ve been designed: out of the brain’s control center – a place where we spontaneously know and feel what is true and right and lovely… (Philippians 4:8).

Remember to attend to what’s going on in your heart - your executive brain. Check and put aside those negative emotions clamoring noisily for attention; don’t let them commandeer your analytical brain. Tune into the love of God; expect to feel the knowledge of the truth you need to know. There you will meet God’s mind on the matter. It happens in a nanosecond. It’s called being led by the Spirit; a deep emotion you can trust all the way.

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