Another dangerous cliche dispensed regularly in Western Christendom with the authority of a biblical proverb is “just follow your heart.” This is an encouragement to trust in our feelings, hunches, and emotions.
I once sought godly counsel for a long bout of spiritual depression. When I began emptying my internal angst all over one of my seminary professors desks, he interrupted me with this question: “Do you hear what word you keep using?” I was stopped mid-sentence, upset that my fervent monologue was so truncated.
I had no idea how to answer his question, so he helped me out: “You keep using the word ‘feel.'”
It was spoken as some sort of an indictment. And then it suddenly occurred to me that I regularly assess spirituality on the basis of emotions and feelings. If I did not feel God’s presence during a ‘quiet time,’ then I assumed it was a bad, unproductive ‘quiet time.’ But when I sensed Him near to me, I deemed myself loved and pleasing to Him, self-congratulatory over the great devotional time I had conducted.
We cannot divide ourselves up tidily into the categories of mind, soul and body. God has intertwined these inseparably in His creation of us as holistic beings. But we must also resist the tendence to equate the emotional with the spiritual. Our feelings are fleeting and rooted in the circumstantial–a good or bad mood can be affected not only by our spiritual state, but by the weather, by hormones, or by what we ate for breakfast. Emotions and feelings fluctuate so much that they are unreliable guides in determining the health of our spirituality.
Even more convincing that we should not just follow our hearts is that the Bible teaches that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”! (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV). God specifically instructs His people in Numbers: “do not follow after your own hearts and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after” (15:39, ESV). A similar command is found in Jeremiah 23:17–“This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own hearts and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them…” (ESV).
It is not that emotions are bad. God Himself is presented as a deeply emotional Being with intense feelings. But we cannot rely on our feelings to determine our spiritual health. We dread and bemoan the experience of what we call “dry times,” but a quick read through several of the Psalms (not to mention a glance at the crucifixion scenes!) will show us that such moments of spiritual despair and the sensation of divine distance are a regular (and even necessary!) part of the spiritual life.
The challenge is that we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, ESV). We must hold to what we believe in and resist relying on the palpable (which could include feelings) to guide us. John’s Gospel strongly discourages faith based the palpable. When Thomas heard that His resurrected Lord has appeared to his brothers, he refused to believe until He had something palpable to hold onto. But when Jesus did appear to Him, He told Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29, ESV).
So we operate not out of what we feel, but out of what we believe. If God seems distant, then I must strain to affirm by faith that His love for me is eternal and unfailing. If I feel high as a kite about myself, I must affirm my belief that only God is worthy of praise. I must walk by faith, not by what palpable sense my emotions give or deny me.