The Deepest Part of You

How Feelings Relate to Choices

Which is more revealing of the “real you”: your spontaneous and unguarded emotions, or your purposeful and intentional choices? Put another way, which is more fundamental to who you are: the feelings that spontaneously erupt from your heart, or the choices that you intentionally make?

At Bethlehem College & Seminary, I teach a class called “Foundations of Christian Hedonism.” Alongside the Bible, we read Piper, Edwards, Lewis, and more. We talk about the supremacy of God, the indispensable importance of the affections, the Christian life, and pastoral ministry. I love it.

One stimulating aspect of the class is identifying tensions and disagreements between our favorite Christian Hedonists and wrestling together with them. Last semester, we discovered a seeming dissonance between how Piper talks about feelings and how Lewis talks about the will.

Piper’s Grief

In chapter 3 of Desiring God, Piper explores “Worship: The Feast of Christian Hedonism.” In doing so, he accents the importance of feelings, emotions, and affections in worship.

Piper emphasizes that genuine feelings are spontaneous and not calculated. Feelings are not consciously willed and not performed as a means to anything else. He gives numerous examples of feelings — hope (that spontaneously arises in your heart when you are shipwrecked on a raft and catch sight of land), fear (that spontaneously arises when camping and you hear a bear outside your tent), awe (that overwhelms you as you stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon), and gratitude (that spontaneously erupts from the heart of children when they get the present they most wanted on Christmas morning).

“Feelings are spontaneous, unsought, unplanned. They are our immediate and natural reactions to reality.”

The most poignant example of spontaneous feeling that Piper describes, however, is the grief that poured from his heart when he received the news that his mother was killed in a car wreck. In that moment, “The feeling [of grief] is there, bursting out of my heart” (91). No planning, no performance, no decision — just emotion and feeling. And here’s the crucial bit: “It comes from deep within, from a place beneath the conscious will” (91).

Lewis’s Prayers

At the same time, we were reading Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm. In Letter 21, Lewis discusses the frustrating irksomeness of prayer and the nature of duty. One day, when we are perfected, prayer and our other obligations will no longer be experienced as duties, but only as delights. Love will flow out from us “spontaneously as song from a lark or fragrance from a flower” (154). For now, we contend with various obstacles and impediments.

Even still, we have rich moments in the present — “refreshments ‘unimplored, unsought, Happy for man so coming’” (156, quoting John Milton). But then Lewis makes this statement:

I have a notion that what seem our worst prayers may really be, in God’s eyes, our best. Those, I mean, which are least supported by devotional feeling and contend with the greatest disinclination. For these, perhaps, being nearly all will, come from a deeper level than feeling. (157)

In other words, our best prayers may be the ones we pray even when we don’t want to pray, when our prayers are not riding on positive feelings toward God, but are actively, deliberately trying to overcome resistance within us. The will, Lewis might say, rises from deep within, from a place beneath even our feelings, proving who we really are at bottom.

Clarifying the Tension

We can see the tension, can’t we? Are feelings deeper than the will (as Piper says)? Or is the will deeper than feelings (as Lewis claims)?

Before evaluating, we need further clarity. We can begin by noting key areas of agreement. First, both Piper and Lewis agree that we ought to distinguish feelings from the will.

Second, they seem to agree about some of the key differences between feelings and the will. Feelings are spontaneous, unsought, unplanned. They are our immediate and natural reactions to reality (like birds singing and flowers blooming). The will, on the other hand, involves intention, planning, choice, and execution.

Third, both Lewis and Piper agree that the will and the feelings ought to be viewed in some sort of hierarchical arrangement, with one being “deeper” than the other. We might call this sort of arrangement of the mind’s faculties a “tiered psychology.” Certain faculties are deeper (or perhaps higher) than others.

These three points of agreement help to clarify the tension. The arrangement of the mind’s capacities into different levels implies that one level may somehow be more important (or at least more revealing). The implication, in both Lewis and Piper, is that one level is more genuine, more authentic, more reflective of the real self (one could say, deeper). The corresponding implication is that the other level is somehow less genuine, less authentic, and less reflective of the real self (one could say, more superficial).

So then, which level better reflects the real self — our feelings or our willing?

From Feelings to Passions

We turn now to evaluation. And this is where we might simply conclude that one of them is right and one of them is wrong. Or perhaps, that both of them are wrong. That sometimes happens, even with very intelligent authors. My own goal, however, is to honor the truth in both perspectives by attempting to take up whatever aspect of the truth each author is emphasizing. Perhaps with some minor modifications and clarifications, the two perspectives might yet be reconciled.

For example, Lewis and Piper both refer to feelings. However, the older word for the phenomenon they are discussing is passions. Passions are the immediate, spontaneous reactions or motions of the soul.

Reframing feelings as passions enables us to see how Lewis and Piper can be reconciled. On the one hand, Lewis is correct that the will is deeper (or higher) than the passions. In classical tiered psychology, the intellect and the will are considered the higher faculties of the soul, with the intellect as the faculty that reasons, reflects, contemplates, and judges reality, and the will as the faculty that moves toward or away from what the intellect perceives.

Additionally, the soul also has two lower faculties: “sense apprehension,” which receives impressions from the senses, makes snap judgments about those impressions, and stores the impressions in memory; and “sense appetite,” which immediately reacts to what the sense apprehension perceives and thus is the seat of the passions.

Thus, the human will frequently has to contend with the disinclinations of the feelings at the lower level. While the will can restrain and sometimes overcome the passions, it doesn’t directly control or direct the passions. The very term passions suggests that we are passive; they aren’t consciously willed or decided upon in that moment. They occur spontaneously.

The Will Constrains Passions

Reframing feelings as passions demonstrates the truth in what Piper emphasizes as well.

Piper is adamant that feelings (passions) are spontaneous. Thus, when he says that his grief comes from “beneath the conscious will,” he means the grief bypasses conscious decision-making in the moment. Our feelings are more like snap reactions than considered responses. They are spontaneous, not because they are necessarily deeper (or more reflective of our genuine self), but because they are closer to the surface, more visceral and therefore frequently intense, and almost always tied to some bodily expression (such as tears or laughter).

Even Piper’s example of extreme grief suggests the will’s capacity to restrain and overcome the passions. When he receives the news of his mother’s death, he takes his own baby son off his leg, hands the child to his wife, and walks to the bedroom to be alone, before collapsing in tears for the next hour. In other words, as grief begins to bubble up, Piper’s will is able to temporarily hold back the floodgates of the passion until he is alone and able to give expression to them. He puts on the brave face until the occasion for release is right.

The Real You

So then, we now have a tiered psychology, consisting of the higher powers of intellect and will, and the lower sense powers. The will performs actions; the sense powers experience passions or feelings. What then can we say about which level is more genuine, authentic, and reflective of the real self?

“Both our actions and our passions, our willings and our feelings, are reflective of who we are as embodied creatures.”

The truth is that they both are. Both our actions and our passions, our willings and our feelings, are reflective of who we are as embodied creatures. This is doubly so since our passions flow from all of our previous history, including our beliefs, the stories that we tell ourselves, our experiences, our memories, and our choices. While the will does not despotically direct the feelings, the higher powers can train and cultivate habits of heart that spontaneously flow in particular directions.

Again, we can infer this from Piper’s story of grief. While Piper may not have consciously chosen feelings of grief in the moment, he had, for 29 years, been shaped and molded into the kind of person who spontaneously responded to that news in that way. The spontaneous tears and visceral sorrow of that day were the fruit of nearly thirty years of motherly kindness and filial gratitude, of hundreds of tender hugs and bedtime kisses, of lively dinnertime conversations and glad-hearted, lifelong obedience to the fifth commandment.

One can imagine a different mother, a different son, a different relationship and history, different choices and actions, a different setting, and therefore different feelings when the phone call comes.

With Piper and Lewis

Thus, we don’t need to choose between Piper and Lewis on the will and feelings. We can bring them together. We are complex creatures, bodies and minds, capable of both spontaneous reactions and intentional responses. We make choices and experience feelings, and our choices shape our feelings and our feelings shape our choices.

This is how God made us, and this is how he is remaking us in the image of his Son. With our new hearts and transformed minds, we willingly offer our bodies (including our passions) to God as our spiritual act of worship (Romans 12:1). We put off the old man, with its desires and practices, and we put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of our Creator (Colossians 3:10).