"Experience and emotion typically register, for good or ill, what is going on in our relationships with God and neighbor. . . [Feelings] are the raw materials out of which godliness can be produced."
Such is the wise counsel of Dr. David Powlison in an article published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, titled "What Do You Feel?" This was one of the many homework assignments for last night's discipleship group meeting. In this piece, Dr. Powlison points out how our culture accepts feelings as being totally authoritative in and of themselves, which is not a biblical perspective. The Bible, which acknowledges and even celebrates the reality of emotion, calls us to see our feelings in the light of God's truth. So when we describe our feelings and stay there without further reflection, we are missing an opportunity to grow.
When we use the phrase "I feel," we actually can be speaking of a variety of things, he writes. There is the objective experience of feeling pain when injured, for example. Then there is the subjective report of emotion--"I feel angry" or "I feel hurt." Then there is the use of "I feel" to report a perspective--a way to communicate thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, such as "I feel that you won't listen to me" or "I feel that you will leave me when you find out what I have to say." Finally, "I feel" is used to communicate desire, such as "I feel like going out tonight" or "I feel like eating a ton of chocolate."
So our challenge in that meeting was to learn to unpack the meanings within our feelings and to see them as the raw materials out of which godliness can be produced. We went around the room and described our current emotional states, which covered the gamut of feelings. Then we discussed a few individual situations. What were the experiences, emotions, thoughts/perspectives, and desires in each of those statements? Where could we identify sinful actions and attitudes? Where could we identify unbelief? Where could we see the power of idolatry at work? And, finally, what was true in each case? Not just true in a factual way, but true in a biblical way. It may be true, for example, that we don't have much money in the bank. But that's only factual. What's biblically true is that God has promised to always provide for us (Luke 12:29-31). How we perceive and react to that circumstance is the raw material of Christian growth.
By sorting out those skeins of emotion, we should be better able to understand the difference between circumstance and reaction, sinful motivations and godly ones, good desires and idolatrous demands, and, finally, sinful self-talk or God-centered self-talk. That last idea was hammered home in another reading assignment: a chapter from C.J. Mahaney's book, The Cross-Centered Life. In this piece, C.J. introduces the idea of preaching truth to ourselves, instead of listening to ourselves and our litany of complaints and unbelief. Instead of reinforcing sinful outlooks, we can replace the subjective self-talk of grumbling about our lot with the objective reminder of what has already been secured for us as believing Christians in the cross of Christ.
So our assignment for the next two weeks is to examine a strong emotional reaction--be it positive or negative--and run it through the grid of questions introduced in Dr. Powlison's article. Then we are to examine the results to see where we can grow in godly character. As he writes, "Wise living involves alertness to experience and emotion. The goal of such self-awareness is not introspective self-preoccupation. It is meant to lead you to those twin radical 'extrospections': faith and love."
This brief meeting and the materials we studied only skimmed the surface of this subject--and this blog entry is even less comprehensive. There's plenty more to read and study, but it's a lifetime project to learn to master our feelings, instead of being mastered by them. Fortunately, our Father is more committed to this process than we are. In the meantime, we persevere, "for we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor. 5:7).