Many people live by the philosophy, “Love is a commitment [or action], not an emotion.” These no-nonsense types pride themselves on their ability to repress feelings. The Christian versions often say that God isn’t interested in a feel-good gospel; He’s interested in how He can use you. So your problems are trivial.
Then there are those who believe that love is a gushy, be-all-end-all emotion. These hippie types pride themselves on their ability to turn everything into unicorns and butterflies. Like the tough guys, the Christian versions tend to trivialize problems. “Just give it to God” when you’ve lost your job, house, health, or best friend.
I think both views turn an incomplete picture into the whole story. Biblically speaking, love is definitely an emotion, but not necessarily gushy affection. Love is the steady desire for the loved one’s good, whether or not you like the person. It relieves you of having to somehow drum up or fake affection. It is a commitment since commitment comes from passion. And it’s definitely an action, or God wouldn’t have commanded us to love one another.
Obviously, no one can summon or banish emotions, good or bad, on demand. But we can develop positive feelings and undermine negative ones by practicing in our thought-life. If we so readily understand and accept, “The more I think about it, the madder I get,” why would we assume it doesn’t work the other way around—“The more I think about it, the calmer I get”? Or happier, more patient, generous, and Christ-like?
The secret to better self-control is to better understand God’s design of human emotion. The more we prepare in advance, the more we fill with positive feelings that’ll be there when we need them for intelligent, loving behavior instead of bashing one another.
Reflexive vs. Willful Emotions
First, it helps to distinguish between reflexive feelings and willful, conditioned feelings. Reflexive emotions are simply alert mechanisms. They’re automatic so we don’t have to think before we act. For example, I instinctively duck when I hear a loud, frightening bang.
Anger, fear, and pain are legitimate reflex emotions to alert me to relationships or situations I must promptly attend to. They’re designed to be temporary, not a way of life. I have no control over the arrival of these feelings, and once I address the situation, they fade on their own. Therefore, reflexive emotions aren’t the focus of this discussion.
However, if I either willfully ignore or build these feelings into a life-style, they become destructive rather than life-saving. It’s this festering of negative feelings that keeps me in a ruined spiritual condition.
By filling with the wrong stuff ahead of time, I train myself to react poorly even if I want to react like Christ. If I’m a Christian and don’t understand this, I’ll conclude that I’m hopeless and will never be like him in “real” life. That’s exactly where multitudes of “believers” are—lost in a sea of emotions they either can’t do anything about or desperately try to deny.
Second, just as self-identity is tied to ideas, so also we often base self-value entirely on feelings. Shame, for example, is commonly confused with humbleness. To recognize your sins is humble and positive. But to see and identify yourself as worthless because of them is the way of death, not life.
Scripture focuses on overcoming shame, pain, and inner death, although to hear some people tell it, you wouldn’t know it. Many Christians and non-Christians alike willfully reinforce negative feelings with false information and negative images, which unavoidably develops into poor habits of mind, word, and deed. We thus become conditioned by harmful emotions rather than the truths of Scripture.
“Imagination” comes from the word “image,” and we operate by positive or destructive feelings that come from the ideas, information, and images we feed our minds. If you doubt the power of this truth, just ask a porn addict. Indeed, Satan works through false information, incomplete facts, accusation, and shame. His success relies on people who don’t develop Godly wisdom and knowledge to master emotions.
Conditioned Feelings And Intent
It’s also helpful to distinguish the subtle difference between feelings and moods. By feelings, I mean the habitual, practiced emotions that shape the will (intent, heart). They’re a pervasive, consistent way of life and the underlying source of behavior.
Moods, by contrast, come and go. Underneath, I can be a hateful person but not always be in a hateful mood, especially if I hang out with like-minded haters. In fact, I’ll likely feel good about myself and my actions. I can try to disguise my underlying ruin, but it’ll come out in obnoxious words or body language when I’m caught off-guard.
Ignoring a mood is different from trying to repress or deny an underlying feeling. The latter is dangerous because it short-circuits the healing of a ruined spirit. Repression is why some people can’t “listen to reason” and are difficult to deal with. Their minds are made up, their will is set—the very affliction of the hard-hearted Pharisees. It’s how you become pre-disposed to habitual reactions—harsh words instead of keeping your mouth shut, for example.
Conditioning also works for positive feelings and behavior. I can thus be a loving person underneath, but not always be in a loving mood. It’s also possible to “keep your wits about you” even when all hell is breaking loose. For example, courage isn’t the absence of emotion; it’s acting despite fear. Brave people are simply re-conditioned to not be gripped by every passing whim.
So don’t confuse mood swings with your will (heart, intent). They don’t have to run your life. You have the freedom to use your will to act despite them—going to work when you don’t “feel” like it, for example. Although feelings are deeply connected to mind and heart, you’re not compelled to act on every single one that comes along.
At the same time, if you constantly exhaust yourself by using willpower, investigate your underlying feelings and thought patterns. You can exercise a lot of self-control and actually plan healthy emotions that produce Christ-like behavior without resorting to willpower.
“Since they didn’t think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, He gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.” (Rom. 1:28)
Examine the myriad feelings encouraged throughout Scripture: love, hope, compassion, generosity, joy, peace, comfort, kindness, hospitality, gratitude, humbleness, boldness, grace, and more. Then consider the ones it discourages: anger, contempt, lust, greed, impatience, anxiety, fear, hopelessness, shame, lostness, pride, over-burden, and more.
Armed with this information, listen to your own reasoning. Is God really not interested in a feel-good gospel? Does He seem to consider emotions trivial? Is it truly possible to gain more control over them, or must I wait until I’m dead?
Use your imagination, make up your own questions, and think with God. This is His amazing gift to us and a primary means to seeking, finding, and carrying out His good will in everyday real life.