A good friend recently raised a question in light of my emphasis on the heart as the center of the soul. It was about the role of choosing. “I have heard,” he wrote, “teachers and preachers [who insist] that love is a choice.” He added some quotes from an unidentified devotional piece that I’ll offer in excerpts here:
A Christian writer says, “For many years I lived according to my feelings. It was like riding a roller coaster; one day laughing and feeling good and the next crying and feeling sorry for myself. I was being tormented and controlled. I needed emotional maturity, but I required God’s help to attain it. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing your fickle feelings more than what God says in His Word. It will take a constant act of your will, to choose to do things His way rather than your own. When you do make that choice, you’ll discover that life is more enjoyable when you’re living according to God’s plan.”
Just as you don’t let everybody who knocks on your door come in and make themselves at home, don’t let every emotion that surfaces dictate the direction of your day or decide your responses. …. God is a God of faith and He works in ways that only faith, not feelings, can discern.
It’s certainly an important question, and one that stirs suspicion about anyone who insists (as I do) that the Bible treats the heart as the affective basis for every activity of life. In effect, the claim I make about the Bible witness is that what we love most always defines us. Yet, according to this critic, the affections of the heart—and, yes, the affections mean our “emotions” and “feelings”—are simply too unstable to bear such weight! Choice, on the other hand, represents “a constant act of your will” that is, by comparison, much more reliable.
First, let me agree that the heart is, indeed, unreliable as it expresses our sinful “feelings” and “emotions”. Jesus himself said as much, as reported in Mark 7:21-22, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.” Paul, too, understood that our emotions and uncontrolled desires are traps to be avoided as he spoke about our turning away from the life we “once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” [Ephesians 2:3]
So, according to the devotional we cited above, the solution to this problem is for us to use our capacity to choose. We must avoid “the trap of believing your fickle feelings more than what God says in His Word”.
This seems like a compelling argument, doesn’t it? After all, our choices are what define us and carve out the shelter we need in order to avoid being taken over by other people’s choices that encroach on our freedoms. What we do with our bodies, for instance, is “our choice” and where we go and do in life is “our choice’’—and God will judge us on the basis of what we choose, so we need to practice making right choices! Right?
Maybe . . . or maybe not. As I think of a world that is adamantly “pro-choice” and has, with that devotion to choosing, slaughtered millions of unborn babies at the bloody altar of a “freedom to choose” I get a queasy sense that the argument may not be very sound. Especially as we stand before Christ in that “Day” that lies ahead for all of us. I suspect that it actually represents the mantra of individualism—the claim that we are essentially autonomous beings, “like God,” in knowing and choosing for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
Here’s the issue: according to the Bible we are, indeed, “choosers”. Joshua, for instance, challenged the nation of Israel to “choose this day whom you will serve [among various gods] . . . . But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” [Joshua 24:15] So far we have a “choice-based” model at work. But notice a much bigger question that always rests beneath any choice: “What motivates that choice?” This is where the real battle is to be found: do we hide our motives and pretend that a Stoic self-determination defines us? Or do we realize that we were once enslaved to the Lie that Satan offered Adam, and had once been lovers of self; but now we are set free by the Truth so that we are now “controlled” (to use Paul’s term from 2 Corinthians 5:14) by our new love for Christ? Either way, our choosing is defined by prior motivational sources.
So, to press the issue, do we make choices “ex nihilo” [“out of nothing”], or is every choice based on prior causes—including earlier experiences, fears, desires, doubts, and so on? For Joshua the basis for his choice was his relationship with the God who had called Israel out of Egypt and revealed himself to the nation at Mt Sinai. With that experience Joshua called on the people to “cling to the LORD your God just as you have done to this day” and “to love the LORD your God.” [Joshua 23:8 & 11] Why love God? Because, as Moses had disclosed to Joshua and to Israel on God’s behalf, they all knew “that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples . . . [and] the LORD loves you . . . and redeemed you from the house of slavery”. [Deuteronomy 7:7-8]
Here’s the bottom line that addresses the problem biblically: God made us as dependent beings. And God “is love” so that we, too, were made to love him as responders. We love him because he first loved us! And he pours that love out in our hearts as the first act of conversion that causes me to find him attractive for the first time in my life. Then the fruit of the Spirit’s presence in us is love as we love others with his love pouring through us.
And love is an affection, an emotion, and a feeling in response to the one who loves us. So, yes, I choose God! I choose to obey God! I choose to follow God! Yet all these choices are motivated by love. And, if not a love for God, then a love for the “glory” that other Christians give us for being “good” people. One is a choice with a proper motive, the other with a false motive.
And all “choices” made towards God evaporate the moment I return to the love of self, the love of pleasure, the love of glory, the love of money, and every other deceitful love that beckons for me to respond in a world filled with false loves—all of which Paul labeled as “the flesh.”
So the real battle, as Martin Luther’s disciple put it so clearly on Luther’s behalf, is always “affection versus affection.” Satan rules human hearts by capturing us with the promise of autonomy—of “free wills”—but the reality is that he rules our wills by manipulating our hearts with deceitful desires. God’s love, in sharp contrast, is holy, blameless, and utterly winsome. It will include moments of joy, desire, delight—call these “feelings” or “emotions”—and it will also bring to us more settled affections such as peace, kindness, forbearance, and so on. The question is not the strength or the vigor of these inward qualities, but the object that stirs them. If Jesus wept when Lazarus was in the tomb, let us weep as well—even though we know the resurrection is coming. If Paul called on the saints, again and again, to “rejoice” I think he was calling for us to unleash our emotions in response to God’s providential care for us. Let’s learn to love boldly and dramatically—it may just call others to the love of Christ that surpasses understanding.
What then, will protect us from “fickle feelings”? Certainly not the naïve venue of Stoic self-control! All that offers is a self-centered “will power” that displaces our gaze on Christ. Instead I can “choose to rule my emotions” by responding to the ever-spreading love of Christ who loves me with his stable, eternal, selfless—and “emotional”—love! Please join me, and invite others as well!
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.