Friday, February 11, 2011

A theology of feelings

There’s a sense in which our emotional life is the goal of life. Why seeks heaven? Because that’s a state or place of bliss. Eternal bliss. Why avoid hell? Because that’s a state or place of misery. Eternal misery.

Hume famously said the mind is slave to the passions, and, to a great extent, human ingenuity is diverted to pursuing and fulfilling our emotional needs or desires.

Consider the intellectual resources that must be applied to opera, movies, gambling, a cruise ship, a sports car, or pro football. For opera you need an opera house. You need the architects, carpenters, engineers. You need the orchestra. Trained, paid musicians. You need trained, paid singers. Consume designers. Stage sets. You need composers and librettists. All that and much more just because some folks like opera. Because it feeds their emotional life.

Or consider pro football. You need the stadium. Consider the engineering that goes into a modern sports stadium. You need trained athletes. Special diets. The gym. Sports medicine. Coaches. Equipment. Cheerleaders. And so on and so forth. All because lots of folks (especially men) enjoy watching or playing football.

Or take a movie. You need the director. Screenwriters. Actors. Photographers. Composers. Sets. Exotic locations or CGI. DVD or Blu-Ray technology. And so on and so forth. All because lots of folks enjoy watching a movie.

Or take the gambling industry. How much intellectual capital has been invested in making Vegas a tourist magnet? Or take a cruise ship. Or sports car. But you get the idea.

To a great extent we don’t value intelligence for its own sake, but for what it can do. As a means to an end. So often, brilliance is entirely subservient to our feelings. We use our intelligence to make us feel good. Much of our fabulous technology exists for the sole purpose of making life more pleasant. Entertaining us. Making us happy. A few euphoric hours.

Much of this is decadent, but it raises a deeper question: what are emotions? How important are emotions? Where do they fit in Christian theology?

Christian theologians tend to demote feelings. Feelings are secondary. Unreliable. The main thing is right belief and right behavior.

But I’d submit that emotions are a way of valuing or disvaluing things. And there are primary as well as secondary emotions. Secondary emotions are generated by primary emotions.

Take love. Love is clearly a way of valuing something. Conversely, hatred is a way of disvaluing something.

And even though love and hate are opposites, that also explains how love can switch to loathing in the blink of an eye.

If you love someone, and he (or she) betrays you, then that can easily and quickly devolve into hatred. If you’re double-crossed by a stranger or passing acquaintance, it doesn’t have the same effect. For you didn’t value that person the way you valued a spouse or best friend. You deeply valued their affection, understanding, trust, or companionship.

It’s because that person meant so much to you that if you feel betrayed, it cuts so deeply. It can instantly provoke vengeful, spiteful feelings.

Conversely, the betrayer may feel regret. For he (or she) has lost something he once valued in the process.

We feel sad or grief-stricken if we lose something we value, or if we can’t have something we value. We yearn for what we value.

We may feel envious if somebody else has what we value, but lack. We feel jealous if a rival poses a threat to something we value. Jealousy is a type of fear. Fear of loss. Loss of affection. Or admiration.

Anxiety is a type of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of losing, or never having, something we value.

We feel relieved if the threat to what we value dissipates.

We are angry if our efforts to seek or keep what we value are frustrated. We resent the impediment. And frustration, itself, reflects a failure to attain or maintain what we value.

We feel disappointed if we were hoping for something we value, but it eluded our grasp.

We feel satisfied or contented if we have what we value.

We may feel bitter, alienated, or depressed if we are trapped in something we disvalue, or if we despair of never having what we value.

In pity or sympathy, we identify our values with the values of another.

So our emotional repertoire is a complete value-system unto itself. A tacit, innate value-system. For good or ill, our emotional life will mirror our values. An expression of our ethics.

Whether emotions are good or bad all depends on what we value or disvalue. What we treasure. Cherish.

Where is your treasure? Do we value the right things? Do our values align with our God-given design?

In that sense, there’s nothing wrong with living for your feelings as long as your feelings value the right things, or disvalue the wrong things.

At the same time, emotions are derivative. It’s a mistake to focus on feelings rather than the underlying source. The way to cultivate right feelings is to cultivate the right source of right feelings. Learn to prize what matters. 


  1. Good indeed!

    It seems that this view is corroborated in Scripture re: the whole-person reorientation we as Christians experience upon conversion and throughout sanctification (à la Rom 6:6, Eph 4:22-24, and the obvious Lk 12:34).

  2. This subject is what I find so profound about the "Christian Hedonism" that John Piper promotes. Our Triablogger Jason Engwer said in a recent post, "
    I consider John Piper's Desiring God the best book I've read outside of the Bible."

    I felt the same way when I first read the book in the middle 1990s. I still do. Piper's thesis isn't new. Just stated in a novel way. It's a distilled, concentrated, and focused understanding of Christian motivations. I recommend the book to every Christian.

    The non-25th Anniversary version is freely available to read or download here:

    Finally, there are some things where Piper kind of goes overboard or isn't precise enough. Steve Hays our Triablogger does an excellent job in correcting Piper in those areas in this blog of his:

  3. I'd go further, Steve. I know of a medical study done on people with brain damage. Their emotional centers had been affected. Unable to feel emotions, they became unable to make any kind of decisions.

    We tend to think our decisions are driven by rational considerations. Especially atheists, oddly. But while we do generally use reason to steer our actions, the gas that's running the engine is emotion.