The Good War Against Moods

How Stubborn Faith Overcomes Feelings

Christian Hedonism emphasizes the importance of feelings. The Bible commands us to delight in the Lord, to love mercy, to fear God, to rejoice in hope. Emotions are essential to the obedient Christian life.

At the same time, Christian Hedonism recognizes that not all emotions are godly emotions. Not all feelings are faithful feelings. Not all affections are holy affections. Emotions aren’t always our friends. Far from serving worship of God, they can hinder and undermine it.

“Not all feelings are faithful feelings. Not all affections are holy affections.”

It’s my growing conviction that we need to develop (or recover) a more robust vocabulary for describing various categories of feelings and emotions. In particular, it seems good to distinguish between immediate and impulsive feelings that are rooted in the soul but closely tied to our bodies, on the one hand, and deeper, more stable emotions that are exercises of our will, on the other. The former we can call passions; the latter we can call affections. With a little help from the apostle Peter and C.S. Lewis, we can see the value of making this type of distinction between immediate (and superficial) passions and deeper (or higher) affections.

Set Your Hope on Grace

First, consider Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 1:13–16.

Preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Notice the three phrases in verse 13: (1) “preparing your minds for action,” (2) “being sober-minded,” and (3) “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you.”

The first phrase literally means “girding up the loins of your mind.” To use a modern image, we might say, “rolling up the sleeves of your mind.” Peter calls them to get ready to do some serious mental work, the kind that takes effort. This isn’t roll-out-of-bed-in-your-pajamas work. This is get-your-work-clothes-on, make-sure-your-shoes-are-tied, get-your-game-face-on work.

The second phrase refers to the opposite of drunkenness. Be sober-minded. Now, drunkenness impairs our perception, our judgment, our reaction times. So the opposite of drunkenness is an alertness, a clarity of mind, a steadiness. So roll up the sleeves of your mind, get clear and steady, and then what?

The final phrase calls for a particular affectionate response. Hope is a future-oriented affection. It is a glad-hearted expectation of something good that is coming. We don’t yet possess it; we don’t hope for what we already have. And Peter knows it is far too easy to be distracted by the cares and anxieties of this world, to look to the future with fear rather than faith. And so he exhorts us: Roll up the sleeves of our mind, get clear and steady, and then set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you. You’ve been born again to a living hope, an imperishable inheritance (1 Peter 1:3–5). Now set your hope fully on the tidal wave of coming grace.

What Are Passions?

Now, why is setting our hope in this way so necessary? The next verse expresses the danger. “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14).

Passions are the immediate and intuitive and impulsive exercises of the soul that are closely tied to the body. Passions can be good. Paul desires to depart and be with Christ (Philippians 1:23), using the same word translated as passions in 1 Peter 1. However, frequently the word passions in the Bible refers to sinful and ungodly passions. Elsewhere in 1 Peter, they are called “passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). They are linked with vices like sensuality, sexual immorality, drunkenness, and lawless idolatry (1 Peter 4:3). As human passions, they are opposed to the will of God (1 Peter 4:2). And these passions want to lead. They want to take us somewhere. If we follow them, then we indulge or gratify our passions, and they begin to conform us to their image.

So Peter depicts a conflict between an affection (hope) that requires serious mental effort, and the fleshly passions that wage war against our soul. And this is where Lewis is so helpful.

Blitz Against Belief

Lewis knows that the human mind is not completely governed by reason. There’s often a conflict between what we know to be true and what our emotions (or passions) and our imaginations tell us is true. He says once someone has accepted the gospel, here’s what will inevitably happen:

There will come a moment when there is bad news, or he is in trouble, or is living among a lot of other people who do not believe it, and all at once his emotions will rise up and carry out a sort of blitz on his belief. Or else there will come a moment when he wants a woman, or wants to tell a lie, or feels very pleased with himself, or sees a chance of making a little money in some way that is not perfectly fair: some moment, in fact, at which it would be very convenient if Christianity were not true. And once again his wishes and desires will carry out a blitz. I am not talking of moments at which any real new reasons against Christianity turn up. Those have to be faced and that is a different matter. I am talking about moments when a mere mood rises up against it.⁠ (Mere Christianity, 140)

Lewis knows that our moods pose a real danger to our faith. Elsewhere he says,

Our faith in Christ wavers not so much when real arguments come against it as when it looks improbable — when the whole world takes on that desolate look which really tells us much more about the state of our passions and even our digestion than about reality. . . . When once passion takes part in the game, the human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gained as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace. (Christian Reflections, 43)

In the grip of passions, all sorts of dubious and preposterous arguments begin to seem plausible. Our moods really do affect our faith, and our moods are frequently influenced by our bodies — what we’ve eaten, how well we’ve slept, whether we’ve exercised — as well as by our circumstances or even the weather. In my own life, I’ve regularly had to face these kinds of unbelieving moods, these foggy clouds of vague unbelief that seem to settle over my soul.

Steering Elephants

How do Peter and Lewis help me in the face of these moods? First, by enabling me to recognize them as passion-driven moods. This sort of unbelief is a fog that clouds thinking. That’s why we have to roll up our sleeves and clear our heads in order to set our hope.

Second, they encourage me to pray for the gift of faith, for “the power to go on believing not in the teeth of reason but in the teeth of lust and terror and jealousy and boredom and indifference that which reason, authority, or experience, or all three, have once delivered to us for truth” (43).

“Faith is the art of holding on to what we’ve believed in the face of our changing moods.”

Now faith, or what Peter here calls “setting your hope fully,” is the art of holding on to what we’ve believed in the face of our changing moods. There’s a kind of rebellion of our moods against our real self. Our sinful passions wage war against our souls. Our lower, superficial, and immediate feelings seek to grab the steering wheel, leaving our higher faculties to trail along behind.

To use an image from Jonathan Haidt, it’s a bit like trying to ride an elephant. The elephant (our passions and moods) is strong and powerful and lurches left and right. But if we roll up our sleeves and stay clearheaded and steady, we can, by grace, learn to steer the elephant. We can tell our moods where they get off.

Stubborn Faith

Lewis calls this “practicing our faith.” Repeatedly engaging in the practice of our faith turns that practice into the habit of faith, a kind of persevering dedication and affectionate commitment to the truth that we’ve received. True faith is a stubborn thing.

Cultivating this habit is no easy task. It requires ongoing effort. It’s why we daily seek to bring the truths of Scripture before our minds. It’s why we labor to pray consistently and constantly, thankfully and humbly calling on God as our Father for help. It’s why we gather with other believers to encourage each other in the faith and stir one another up to love and good deeds. These habits of grace are ways that we roll up the sleeves of our mind and soberly set our hope on future grace.