Here’s an email from longtime listener named Sharon: “Dear Pastor John, I have listened to every episode of Ask Pastor John and countless sermons over the years at desiringGod.org, and I love what the Lord has done through you in my life and the life of my children. Thank you. My question: What role do feelings and emotions play in the decisions of the believer? I desperately try to lead my heart with my mind, but the heart holds so many feelings and emotions that inform us and seemingly drive us in different directions through life — on things like career choice, attraction to a spouse, etc. So what role should our feelings play in our decision making?”
Thank you, Sharon, for your trust. I mean, it makes me tremble to think we have given you five hundred pieces of counsel through Ask Pastor John. How many times must I have gotten things a little bit skewed. I hope I don’t mess her up too much.
Abundance of the Heart
Here is my effort. The answer to the magnitude of the role of the emotions in our decision making is this: massive. Emotions play a big role in our decisions, whether we want them to or not, and whether we know it or not. And here is something even more: even more significant, I think, than the fact that our emotions play a role in our decision-making about what to do, they play a role even more powerfully in the thousand things we do every day that we don’t make a decision to do. Yeah, maybe ten times during the day you step back and have a hard decision and think it through in the pros and cons. And then there are ten-thousand facial expressions and tones of voice and gestures and things that really make a moral difference in the world that you didn’t give any premeditated thought to whatsoever.
Where are those actions coming from? Well, they are coming out of the abundance of the heart. The mouth is speaking, and the eyebrows are going up, or the mouth is frowning, or the gestures are acting, or the body language is leaning away or leaning in. We are who we are quite apart from premeditated decisions. If I could devote energy to becoming the kind of person whose spontaneous acts were godly and loving and up-building and kind, I wouldn’t worry too much about my decisions, because that is such a small part of my life. People tend to feel like their decision are the big parts of their life. They are not the main parts of your lives. We are who we are by the spontaneous overflow. So out of the abundance of the heart the mouth is speaking, the face is smiling, frowning, or gesturing, the tones of voice and on and on and on. The point of all this is we had better focus our attention to becoming a kind of person, not perfecting a kind of list or a kind of rational set of criteria by which we will hone our reasoning skills and make all of our important decisions. That list will never be long enough to cover everything and the heart acts before we could consult it anyway on most of the things we do and before we engage in any reasoning process. That heart is a profound set of feelings and commitments and convictions and preferences. So Proverbs 4:23 says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” And that heart includes emotions, big time.
Renewal of the Mind
But Sharon is not asking mainly about that. She is asking about decisions where we do think over what we should do. What role do feelings play there? So let me go to the most standard text and draw out a couple of things. This is Romans 12:2:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
What does the renewal of the mind for the sake of decision-making involve? And verse 2 says that the effect of this renewal is that we “approve [dokimazō] what is the will of God.” Now the Greek word dokimazō never means merely do something; it means approve it — that is, you do it because you assess it and you approve it. And that concept of approving is a valuing. This is more than mere rational response to an act. This is a moral weighing of an act by virtue of the preferences, the approval capacities of your soul. The word always includes a measure of approval, not just discernment. It means to recognize and prefer or approve, want, more than other things — treasure more than other things.
Which means that the renewal of the mind that produces that kind of refining of rational processes is more than that. It is the renewal of our preferences, our desires, our longings, our deepest wants. That goes into the renewing of the mind. And the confirmation of that for me is over in Ephesians 4 where Paul says, “Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.” I always wonder: What is that? Being renewed in your mind sounds intellectual. Being renewed in the spirit of your mind makes me think: “Oh, when Paul talks about the mind and the renewal of the mind, he has got more in mind than merely rational capacities.” This mind has a spirit. It has a bent. It is like what Paul says in Philippians 2:5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is your in Christ Jesus,” who made this massive, approved decision to humble himself.
Now why does that matter? In Ephesians, five verses earlier, Paul tells us why it matters that we be renewed in the spirit of our mind. Here is what he says:
They [Gentiles] are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
So if you walk with Paul down, down, down deep into the root of things, you might have thought he would end by saying, “They are alienated from God and they are darkened in their understanding because of the ignorance that is in them” — period. “So let’s get about changing ignorance.” And that is not where he stops. He says, “Because of the ignorance that is in them, due to the hardness of their heart.” Beneath the intellectual problem of ignorance of God is the moral problem, the emotional problem, of the heart: it is hard against God.
So the reason the mind must be renewed so that it can decide good things in the spirit of the mind is not just rational or factual. That is not our deepest problem. Our deepest problem is feelings and preferences, not reasoning. Reasoning is affected by sin, for sure. But the deepest problem is our hard hearts.
Delight Yourself in the Lord
So my conclusion from this is not that we check our minds at the door when we enter the house of wisdom — like, “Oh, thinking doesn’t matter here; I have got some emotions to deal with.” No, that is not where I am going. But I want us to realize that every decision, the ones that she mentioned, every decision is a complex response of heart and hand, or this spirit of the mind. And that is okay. I want her to feel okay about that, because she seems to be worried that if her emotions are involved that might mess things up.
We are to be renewed in both. Neither is perfect. The rational faculties are not perfect, and the emotional faculties are not perfect. And neither is useless. When the mind has done what it can do in discerning the pros and the cons of a situation — so I think that is what you should do. Weigh the pros and cons of job possibilities and, by all means, who you are going to marry, and so on. That is not wrong to weigh the possibilities with your mind.
The psalmist says, however, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). So when you have done all the rational weighing you can, the renewal of your mind, being deep, is centered on delighting in God, and therefore, those desires that go up, they are not negligible. They should be paid attention to as they accord with God’s will.