I’m a person with a lot of feelings. Always have been. In a well-meaning attempt to tame my unruly emotions I was often told that “faith is not a feeling.” And it’s true, it’s not. Faith in God is not concocted by emotions. Faith is born of God, gifted by Him to His children, and can’t be taken away—regardless of how we may feel from moment to moment. Applied rightly, this truth is a reminder that just because our feelings are fickle and all over the place it doesn’t mean that God’s are. Faith is built on the unbreakable Word of God, the unchangeable perfection of His character, and His unrelenting gift of grace.
I understood that faith trumped feelings, but what I didn’t understand was what to do with all of my emotions. I began to believe that emotions were a nuisance at best, and enemies to faith at worse. I became “guilty of confusing stoic ideals of emotional detachment with maturity in the Christian life.”¹ It felt like my options were: shut off my feelings and have faith in God OR have emotions and be in constant sin against God.
If removing body limbs didn’t work to keep people from sinning, I wasn’t sure why I thought removing emotions would help me love God better. Feelings matter. They should not be given power of attorney, but neither should they be ignored or dismissed any more than you would ignore the gas gauge level on a cross-country road trip. Our emotions can be our teachers, guides to deeper and more genuine repentance, and instruments for intimacy with God.
Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of our God (Genesis 1:27) who embodies all emotions—delight, anger, sorrow, rejection, satisfaction, and on, and on. Our emotions originated in God Himself. God is emotionally perfect. He delights proportionately in only true things. His anger is rightly aimed at sin and injustice, and is mercifully slow. We see Jesus experience temptation and anxiety, yet not be mastered by it. We see Jesus feel sorrow and compassion, rejection and betrayal, pain and joy.
It’s rare that our fallen, broken emotions immediately line up with God’s Word and will. His “no” or “not right now” to our desperate request: be it for a changed diagnosis, a date, or a dream job, naturally results in sadness, disappointment, anger, or frustration. This emotional response is not necessarily indicative of a lack of faith. Consider Jesus—lying under an olive tree in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating actual blood, praying and begging His Father to come up with another plan, any other plan, that doesn’t include Him being tortured and hung on a cross to die. We get this response. We relate to this anxiety. Where our relatability begins to diverge is when Jesus prays, “My Father, if this cup cannot pass away unless I drink from it, Your will be done” (Matthew 26:42 ESV). Jesus, in the midst of such intense emotions, chooses to trust that God’s will is the best course of action.
For many of us, after too many “nos” or “not right nows” from God, we begin to feel it’s safer, easier, better for our emotional health to simply stop caring. Afterall, we can’t be hurt by what we don’t care for. Our emotions feel too big to get over. Our disappointment runs too deep. Our anger feels too justified. So, we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh, well. It is what it is. God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do.” Stoicism or separating our feelings from faith does not make us look more like Christ, it makes us look less like Him. Theologian John Owen writes, “Sin moves by drawing the mind away from God, enticing the affections and twisting desires and paralyzing the will, thus stunting any real Christian growth.”²
“Oh, well” often masquerades as faith. We mistake the absence of feelings or the ability to subdue them for faith in God. But, as we know, intimacy in relationships is not built on the ability to stop feeling or to push aside complicated feelings. From the outside, a non-dramatic, non-emotive, non-confrontational relationship might look healthy, even peaceful. But those on the inside know that hiding their feelings greatly affected their knowability, trust, and their intimacy with one another.
In Religious Affections, theologian Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Men will trust in God no further than they know Him; and they cannot be in the exercise of faith in Him one ace further than they have a sight of His fulness [sic] and faithfulness in exercise.” Knowing who God is, knowing His character, His authority, and His care deepens our ability to trust God with the parts of us that feel the most tender and weary. God has already proven His love and trustability. It is not up to God to become more trustworthy. It’s up to us to take the step of faith and trust Him for who He says He is.
Horatio Spafford, the author of “It is Well”, penned these lyrics:
“When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot,
thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet,
though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control,
that Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
and hath shed His own blood for my soul.”
The sea billows that rolled over Horatio, the lot that taught him to say, “It is well with my soul,” was the tragic death of his four children in a shipwreck. I cannot imagine the brokenness, the overwhelming pain, and anger he experienced from his loss. No one would have blamed him had he just given up right then and there. Instead, as he flew over the very spot his children were believed to have drowned, he took his pen out and wrote the hymn we still sing today.
“It is well” reminds our soul that whatever trials may come, we have the assurance that Jesus didn’t die for our sins to rescue us from our helpless estate only to leave us to die in a hopeless state. In A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, Eugene Peterson writes,
“A Christian is a person who decides to face and live through suffering … The gospel offers a different view of suffering: in suffering we enter the depths; we are at the heart of things; we are near to where Christ was on the cross.”
We don’t have to fear suffering or the painful and broken emotions that arise from suffering because we have a God who mercifully suffered well.
Emotions are teachers. They are opportunities of grace. Faith is deepened when we heed the biblical education of our emotions. The psalmist begs, “Help GOD—the bottom has fallen out of my life! Master, hear my cry for help! Listen hard! Open your ears! Listen to my cries for mercy” (Psalm 130:1 -2, MSG). When life disappoints us and things don’t go our way, we have the best, most perfect Counselor who cares deeply for how we feel and what we have to say.
Emotions can act as road signs that guide us to ignored areas of unbelief, distrust, or unrepented sins. When we detect an emotional response that sows discord or disunity with our God, we have the opportunity to repent and ask the Holy Spirit to help us line our emotions back up with what is true. Pastor John Piper calls it “acting the miracle.” We choose to walk in accordance with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14), even though our feelings have not yet caught up.
The transformation from “oh, well” to “it is well” is a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward sort of renewal. Trials and temptations, loss and disappointments, pain, and the common insensitivity and meanness of the world is difficult to stand through. “It is well” is not a mantra of coping, nor is it a pretty lyric to get through a rough day. We are able to stand firm because Jesus has made all things well.
Our “it is well” may come in the tiny package of a mere mustard seed or it may be heralding “I believe, LORD, help my unbelief!” But the simple truth is that God is not constrained by the limitations of our faith or our feelings. He transforms our prayers of unbelief to grains of faith, and empowers our grains of faith to move mountains. Our fledgling faith increases when our eyes are set on Him, when our hearts are reminded of Him, and when our minds are renewed by Him.
When you rise and when you fall, when you win and when you fail, when you’re hurt and when you’re happy—remember that Jesus stood for you when you could not stand, won for you when you could not win, and joyfully endured for us so that we can be transformed from “oh, well” to “it is well”.
¹Mortification and Sin (introduction, p.27)
²John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold. 24 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnston & Hunter, 1850-1855; reprint by Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, 1991), 6:97, 167, 245, 252.