Feelings Are Powerful—Here’s How to Manage Them

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Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot live without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition. In the restoration of the individual to God, feelings, too, must be renovated: old ones removed in many cases, or at least thoroughly modified, and new ones installed or at least heightened to a new prominence.

How are you feeling today?

Our first inquiry as we greet people for the day is likely to be, “How are you feeling today?” Rarely will it be, “How are you thinking?” Feelings live on the front row of our lives like unruly children clamoring for attention. They presume on their justification in being whatever they are—unlike a thought, which by nature is open to challenge and invites the question “Why?”

The term feeling indicates a kind of “contact,” a “touch” that is at once blind and powerful—in allure as well as in revulsion. A “touching” scene is one that evokes feelings, that “touches” us. In feelings we really know that something is “there,” and solidly so. But what it is and why it is remains obscure—though hauntingly present. This aspect of “blind power” has famously led to the description of emotions as “human bondage.”[i] But the quality of blind power equally extends to mere sensations or desires, which, as well as emotions, can be simply overwhelming.

The attraction of feeling to human minds is so great that we project it into angels. One of the most common themes found in literary and artistic portrayals of angels is how they desire to feel what human beings feel and, mainly, what they are capable of feeling because they have fleshly bodies. Of course, the idea is, angels would have to irreversibly give up their angel status to have what they thus desire, and as the stories go, they sometimes do give it up.

When we idolize our feelings

In the movie City of Angels, Nicolas Cage’s character, Seth, actually does make the switch. Asked if it was worth it, he replies, “I would rather have had one breath of her hair, one kiss of her lips, one touch of her hand, than an eternity without it.”[ii] When you only lightly reflect on what is involved, both the blindness and power associated with such feelings becomes obvious. Really now, one breath? One kiss? For an eternity . . . of what?

The movie closes with Seth frolicking in the surf at sunset and the landscape full of angels (now including “her,” Meg Ryan’s character) watching him with either envy or pleasure at his pleasure. The theology (angelology) is pretty weak, but the story correctly conveys the idolatry of feeling that characterizes the human outlook.

Now, one thing quickly becomes clear when you think about the power of feeling. No one can succeed in mastering feelings in his or her life who tries to simply take them head-on and resist or redirect them by “willpower” in the moment of choice. To adopt that strategy is to radically misunderstand how life and the human will work, or—more likely—it is to have actually decided, deep down, to lose the battle and give in. This is one of the major areas of self-deception in the human heart. The very “giving in” can be among the most exhilarating feelings known to man, though it can also be one of complete despair and defeat.

Those who continue to be mastered by their feelings—whether it is anger, fear, sexual attraction, desire for food or for “looking good,” the residues of woundedness, or whatever—are typically persons who in their heart of hearts believe that their feelings must be satisfied. They have long chosen the strategy of selectively resisting their feelings instead of that of not having them—of simply changing or replacing them.

Of course this is just another way of describing the ruined person discussed in chapter 3, the one who makes himself “god” in his world. To such persons, the idea that they should not honor their feelings is an insult. “Their god is [their] belly,” it will be recalled (Philippians 3:19, nrsv). They are enslaved to their feelings—hence “human bondage”—and have no place to stand in dealing with them. Jesus was referring to this situation when he said that “everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin” (John 8:34).

How to keep your feelings in their proper place

By contrast, people who happily let God be God do have a place to stand in dealing with feelings—even in extreme cases such as despair over loved ones or excruciating pain or voluptuous pleasure. They have the resources to do what they don’t want to do and to not do what they want. They know and deeply accept the fact that their feelings, of whatever kind, do not have to be fulfilled. They spend little time grieving over nonfulfillment. And with respect to feelings that are inherently injurious and wrong, their strategy is not one of resisting them in the moment of choice but of living in such a way that they do not have such feelings at all, or at least do not have them in a degree that makes it hard to decide against them when appropriate.

Those who let God be God get off the conveyer belt of emotion and desire when it first starts to move toward the buzz saw of sin. They do not wait until it is moving so fast they cannot get off of it. Their aim is not to avoid sin but to avoid temptation—the inclination to sin. They plan their path accordingly.

[i] Benedict de Spinoza, “Of Human Bondage,” in Ethics, pt. 4, and Somerset Maugham’s novel Of Human Bondage, the title of which is taken from Spinoza. Both books have appeared in numerous editions.

[ii] City of Angels, directed by Brad Silberling (West Hollywood: Atlas Entertainment, 1998).

Dallas Willard

was instrumental in developing the Evangelical Christian movement toward spiritual formation in Christ. He was a professor and director for the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for most of his life. At the same time, he had a vibrant ministry of writing, teaching, and giving informal spiritual direction to pastors and leaders. He was the bestselling author of more than thirty publications, including The Divine ConspiracyThe Spirit of Disciplines, and Hearing God.

renovation of the heart

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