Years ago, when I was an IT guy, a friend introduced me to a desktop operating system that was streamlined, efficient, and unforgiving. It was called Linux — pronounced “linn-ux” . . . unless, of course, you were in the know.
You see, the creator’s name was Linus, and so it became the personal, moral responsibility of a select few to make sure no one ever pronounced the name “Linn-ux” without correcting the speaker: “It’s pronounced ‘Lye-nux,’ like Linus with an X.” Debate was understandably passionate on both sides.
Then late one night I got a message from a friend, which simply said “FINALLY!” The attached file was a recording of Linus Torvalds himself, saying, “Hello, this is Linus Torvalds, and I pronounce Linux as Linn-ux.” What had been a silly, yet contentious dispute among hundreds of colleagues came to a halt in a matter of days as the sound of Torvalds’s voice made its way through the IT ranks. No one could argue with the creator! He was the ultimate authority.
And so it is with all of us. There is an ultimate authority in our lives. Some voice which defines what is true and against whom argumentation seems futile. There are two common alternative ultimate authorities, and both are blind guides.
In our current cultural context it should come as no surprise that emotions predominate our perception of reality. If a thing brings joy, go for it; if it brings pain, avoid it. This Epicurean way of living is not new by any means, but it has strengthened its position in literature, academia, and common thinking over the past century.
For example, before the rise of the baby boomer generation if one wanted to communicate that they were unsure of a particular topic or position, the common refrain would be “I don’t know what I think about that” whereas since the 1960s it has been largely replaced by the phrase “I don’t know how I feel about that.” In many ways, our culture is tossed to and fro by the waves and winds of emotion and fickle hearts (Ephesians 4:14).
Christians should understand better than anyone how our hearts are flighty and fallen, far from infallible. Our hearts often yearn for sinful things; our emotions may turn true loneliness into false feelings of isolation (2 Corinthians 1:22); our passions constantly require correction (1 Peter 1:14; 4:2–3).
Scripture is clear that our hearts are not fit to rule us. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” As Jon Bloom has said, “Don’t follow your heart; our hearts were not made to be followed, but to be led.” Affections should not be treated as the plumb line of reality.
So, what then? If our hearts aren’t meant to rule, we should follow our minds, right? Ditch Epicurean hedonism for Socratic logic. Many Christians have reached for this stoic solution — rightly skeptical of affection-driven Christianity, they try to drain all emotion from the Christian life and buy into the idea that our thoughts, rather than our emotions, are the definers of reality. Yet this conviction is no less dangerous or any more biblical than the other.
First, right thinking doesn’t always lead to right affections or right actions. This was Christ’s repeated rebuke of the Pharisees: “Woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42). The Pharisees were like ancient Harvard Law graduates regarding the Mosaic law. They knew the law so well that they even tithed the herbs from their gardens. But their understanding and knowledge was irrelevant. Because their knowledge didn’t translate to love of God, Jesus asked the scribes —unrivaled Bible experts of the time — an unbelievably offensive question: have you ever even read the Scriptures (Matthew 21:16; cf. John 5:39–40; Mark 12:24)?
Our minds are not safe from the ravages of sinfulness any more than our hearts. There is no part of our human nature that is not perverted by sin — including the ways we think, not just the ways we feel (Ephesians 2:3). Indeed, our thoughts are as depraved as our hearts, and just as cunning (Psalm 64:6; Rom. 1:28; Ephesians 4:14).
Again, certainly as believers we know this to be true. How many times do our thoughts wander and drift to stoke the fires of passion for our idols rather than provoke our affections for the Lord? Our minds themselves — not just our hearts or our emotions — must be renewed before God (Romans 12:2). Therefore, we should not simply let reason have the final word on what is right and true. Even if our logic is right, it falls short of what God requires — namely, love and delight in God’s righteousness and truth.
If then one can feel, but not understand and think, but not be moved, where does that leave us? It leaves us where all believers have been throughout the ages. God’s word is the ultimate authority in our lives.
When God makes a promise that he will never leave nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), it is true. We can know we have communion with God even when we feel lonely, and we can feel a genuine sense of peace even when our mind perceives isolation. Thoughts and feelings may help to inform our reality, but it is only God’s word which can define it.
So think godly thoughts, feel godly affections, but let them both be ruled and defined by the Bible. Do it all in reliance on God’s help to show you the truth of his word and to let it take hold both in your mind and your heart (Psalm 119:105). When the Creator speaks, no one can argue; he is the ultimate authority — both the one to whom we will give an account of our thoughts and deeds (Romans 14:12), and the one who promises to show us the way in his word (John 16:13).