If you’ve been following my ramblings for a while, you probably know that I like to draw a distinction between emotions and feelings. Emotions are fleeting, surface-level, and driven mostly by circumstances. Feelings are stabler, instinctual, and driven more by underlying beliefs. Emotions generally deal with what we want to be and do in the moment, while feelings tell us what we think we should be and do.
So here’s where it gets interesting—if feelings come from our beliefs, then what happens when our beliefs conflict with each other?
Let’s set up an example. In my experience, negative feelings are usually a reliable warning that you are running afoul of a belief. Nearly everyone, for example, believes that stealing is wrong. If you steal a candy bar (which I once did as a kid), then you can expect to feel shame and guilt as a result. At the time, I was pretty nearly paralyzed by those feelings, and I ended up confessing not long after. Strong feelings arise from a belief.
Easy enough so far, but as followers of Jesus, scripture asks us to believe some pretty difficult concepts. We are instructed to feel joy when we suffer, to love those who cause us pain, and to hold ourselves blameless for sins we remember committing five minutes ago. So we should not be surprised when we find those beliefs in conflict.
Let’s return to our earlier example, then. I have stolen a candy bar. Maybe I have already confessed, repented, and made amends to the guy at the gas station, but I still feel awful. I have a belief that stealing is wrong and bad, so I must be wrong and bad too. Simplistic? Yes… and not only because I was young. Feelings are simple. You have to help them with complicated concepts like forgiveness and grace.
I think the reason things like this are always so difficult is that they conflict with a basic belief we all share. You might call it the law of nature, because it’s basically rooted in observation of how the natural world works, at least on the most obvious, physical level. This law says that if you do good, you are good, and if you do bad, you are bad. It says that pain and loss are bad, and that pleasure and gain are good. Period.
As followers of Jesus—and really, as mature adults who understand the concept of delayed gratification—we know that reality is more nuanced than this. But how do we convince ourselves of that? How do we cultivate one feeling over another?
The short answer is love. Love is not a feeling; it is what allows us to choose between feelings—and God’s will for our feelings always follows the path of love. But like anything else, you’ve got to believe in it to use it, and that takes practice. It takes a willingness to slow down, submit our feelings to God, and search for the best outcome for everyone, ourselves last of all.
Have a blessed, wonderful day!