I think I first began to be aware of how powerful the idea of feelings had become in our society back in the early '70s. Olivia Newton-John sang, "I love you, I honestly love you" in a breathless voice that seemed so sincere. Then she explained that she knew this was a true and genuine love because "it's comin' from my heart and not my head."
Thus she enthroned the idea that if you feel something really strongly - "honestly", as it were - it must be true. Feelings have become more reliable for many people than even sound reason. Christians are not exempt from this folly.
Matthew Mutter provides a solid overview of the state of thinking about feelings in a review article in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review. In a survey of recent scholarship on feelings Mutter explores the wide range of ideas about what feelings are, how we can assess them, what is the nature of their relationship to reason, and so forth. It's clear that, even at the highest levels of thinking about feelings, we're as confused today as we've ever been.
Mr. Mutter suggests that what would help all this muddle is if we could decide on some moral framework for thinking about feelings. This is what Jonathan Edwards supplied in his work, A Treatise on the Religious Affections - still the best book you'll ever read about emotions, why they matter, how they work, and how to discipline them for godly living.
Simply feeling some way is no valid criterion for acting according to your feelings. The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17.9). We need to keep a close watch over our feelings, in order to make sure that they do their proper part in helping us to serve the Lord (Prov. 4.23). Feelings are important, and the world is confused about them today. So perhaps there is an open door of opportunity for Christians here, to rediscover the proper role of feelings in our lives, and to fine tune our feelings in such a way as to show the love of God to our neighbors. Edwards is as good a place to start as you'll find.
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