“You cannot tell me how to feel,” the little girl shouted mid-tantrum.
“I’m not telling you how to feel,” retorted the parent. “I am telling you how to behave. And how you are behaving is completely out of line.”
Although the volume made the episode observable from almost anywhere in the store, it was the message that caught my attention. The assumption intrigued me: One cannot control another’s feelings. Although obvious enough, I began to suspect another underlying assumption: We cannot control our own feelings. While I was not brave enough to interpose myself between the she-bear and her cub to ask, I suspect the mother sought to govern her child’s behavior because that alone could be governed.
At first glance, this might seem straightforward. Anger, empathy, fear, joy, sadness, anxiety all happen to us, right? They are involuntary, like eyes that water when looking too long at the sun. Before we stop to calmly decide whether to get cross with the man that just cut us off on the freeway, our fist clenches, the bad word escapes, and the adrenaline rushes to our heads. Preceding the verdict, anger. Others cannot command our feelings because we cannot.
Behavior, as the mother knew, was another matter. The visible end to which feelings lead could (and ought to) be controlled. The girl may feel great ire towards her mother for not purchasing the Hello Kitty backpack, but squirming on the floor to avoid capture would “simply not be tolerated.” The torrent of anger could quietly flow inside the girl, but the dam of outward restraint must hold. She could murder her mother in her heart (Matthew 5:21–22), but she must remain subdued enough to ensure no witnesses to the crime.
Can Feelings Be Controlled?
We live in an emoji world where self-expression and “being the true you” hold highest priority — no one can tell us how to feel. We quickly, even reflexively, lend our smiley, sad, crying, surprised, or mad faces via text or comment. And short of rolling on the floor, we deem it better to express any and all emotions rather than hold back and become “fake.” No other options exist. Our unfiltered emotional life can, and some say should, extend to any and all persons — spouses, parents, or strangers included. Some even commend yelling at God when upset. In all, the assumption stands: you are your emotions — for better or worse. To repress them is to repress yourself.
But such has not always been the case.
As C.S. Lewis articulates in The Abolition of Man, men such as Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine have reasoned that our emotional responses, rather than being fixed dispositions, could (and must) be trained. “The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” As the cauldron began to brew, the child’s inner parent (her conscience) should have instructed, “How I’m tempted to feel right now is completely out of line.”
This “out of line” language paraphrases the great scales that ancients appealed to in order to judge and reprogram our emotions: reality. With this standard in place, emotions could be appropriate or inappropriate, just or unjust, rational or irrational, and therefore must be expressed and repressed accordingly. Sadness, for instance, is rightfully expressed when we lose a loved one. Sadness is wrongfully expressed when, weighed down by envy, it slouches us in our chair at yet another friend’s wedding.
Educators in other eras considered the training of their pupils’ sentiments as a chief part of their employ. As opposed to merely making sure they knew their multiplication table and English grammar, education sought to train students to hate what is hateful and love what is lovely. They taught how to discriminate the good from the bad and then respond appropriately. Today, suspicious of emotional propaganda, we distance ourselves from this and then wonder why some give such free rein to their untutored emotions. We have removed categories for a parent to tell her young girl that her tyrannical feelings of anger are utterly out of line, regardless of what she says or does in the back-to-school aisle.
How to Train Your Emotions
Does God expect us to train our feelings? It appears that he does. He commands them.
God commands obedience “from the heart” (Romans 6:17) — the vessel we often judge as ungovernable. He, unlike the mother, tells us what to fear and what not to fear (Luke 12:4–5); what we must and must not delight in (Philippians 4:4); what we must abhor (Romans 12:9); that we must never be anxious (Philippians 4:6); and how we can and cannot be angry (Ephesians 4:26).
When we only deal with our actions, we are left with moralism, not Christianity. Outward conformity in behavior alone is meaningless when inside we are full of emotional uncleanness (Matthew 23:27). God searches hearts (Romans 8:27). The screaming girl must at some point hear the good news that God offers her more than restraint; he offers a transformation of her heart. He commands new emotions, and by his own Spirit, he gives what he commands. This is great news: we are not left to be enslaved to our emotions.
How does he teach us to love, hate, and feel in line with godliness? He gives us at least four helps.
1. His Son
The often-assumed foundation for all godliness is the gospel. No reformation of emotions or resolve for restraint means anything if we stand condemned for past anger, lust, and coldness. But the good news for all who struggle with inordinate passions towards wrong (or constipated passions towards good) is the person and work of Jesus Christ, the perfect-feeler, who lived the emotional life we couldn’t and suffered the emotion-crushing wrath on our behalf, all in order to make us new down to the core of our emotions. Has there been a more emotionally distraught cry than “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)?
2. His Spirit
Furthermore, to train us, he gives himself (Romans 8:9). We do not feel alone. We, beyond all comprehension and expectation, become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), including distinctly new affections than we experienced before (2 Corinthians 5:17). God has given us his own emotion-giving-and-governing Spirit to produce affectional fruit pleasing to God (Galatians 5:22–23): love (instead of hate), joy (instead of despair), peace (instead of turmoil), patience (instead of anger), kindness (instead of severity), goodness (instead of badness), faithfulness (instead of temperamentality), gentleness (instead of harshness), self-control (instead of passions-control). He addresses our emotional lives at the source: our hearts.
3. His People
God does not surround us with self-help books, daytime talk shows, or yoga classmates to balance our emotional states. He surrounds us with his people. Sanctification, never forget, is a community project. The older instructs the younger. All serve one another with their varying gifts. They hear the word. Live life together. And build each other up, “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Healthy emotional states are found in healthy emotional lives found in the blood-bought community of the redeemed. We help each other towards intoxication with our God and sober-mindedness with our sentiments.
4. His Word
Finally, God reveals capital “R” Reality through his word to be believed by faith (Hebrews 11:1). The peace of Christ rules in our hearts when his word dwells richly in us (Colossians 3:15–16). For example, in the span of four verses, Paul points us to one aspect of Reality that, when believed, will liberate us from anxiety and impart undauntable joy.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4–7)
He doesn’t merely say, “Sing in the Lord,” or, “Dance in the Lord,” or, “Smile in the Lord,” but, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And when ought we to rejoice? Always. When ought we to stop? Never. When should we be anxious? Never. Why? Because God’s reality never stops giving us reason to: The Lord is at hand. The world’s nihilistic reality says that if you are single, wronged, jilted, or oppressed, you have a right to be unhappy. Paul thinks differently, because he inhabits a different world.
He calls happy resilience in the face of suffering reasonable: “Let your reasonableness be known” (Philippians 4:5). When tragedy strikes and we have reason to despair of life itself, we have — even then — cause to feel delight before a watching world — “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). He is near to hear our prayers. He is near to comfort us. Nothing can separate us from his love (Romans 8:37–39). When sorrows roll like sea billows, we still have cause to sing, “Even so, it is well with my soul!” Over the shoulder of every pain stands our heavenly Father.
Reality like this will change how we respond when denied whatever backpacks we hoped for in this life.
Dethrone the God of Feelings
God gives us the wonderful gift of emotions to color life. He is a feeling God, and those made in his image are not robots. But while feelings are wonderful servants, they are terrible gods. When they flow — ungoverned by God’s Spirit and God’s Reality — they make us threats both to others and to ourselves.
In a world given to untethered emotions and cold apathy, a world impassioned by trivial things and unfeeling about eternity, we have a stunning opportunity: to let our reasonableness be known. We can live for God’s glory in God’s world as citizens of the next, loving what he loves, hating what he hates, living, laughing, and crying in such a way as to reflect the highest Reality: God is. He is at hand, and he keeps those in perfect peace whose minds are stayed not on their feelings, but on him (Isaiah 26:3).