Feelings: Neutral?

In a series of recent messages on spiritual formation, I developed the thesis that our feelings must be transformed. Feelings are not neutral; they can be sinful or godly, bad or good, and they can lead us toward sin or righteousness. If we are serious about spiritual formation, we must seek the ongoing transformation of our feelings.

An astute listener, however, has countered my thesis. He writes: “Emotions, in and of themselves, are neither good nor bad. They are amoral… emotions are not sinful. The manner in which we deal with them and express them is what might or might not be sinful.” His proof texts are Ephesians 4:26 (Be angry, yet do not sin) and Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, where Jesus was obviously angry.

I appreciate when a wise brother is willing to disagree with me and to say so. And it seems that this matter is worth some debate and dialogue. That’s what the blog is for, after all!

My take on things: I agree with my friend that anger is not always sinful. But I don’t agree (yet) that emotions are amoral. My thinking on this matter depends heavily upon Jonathan Edwards (The Religious Affections) and John Piper (The Dangerous Duty of Delight). Edwards wrote, “Without holy affection there is no true religion; and no light in the understanding is good, which does not produce holy affection in the heart.” And Piper says, “We must think biblical thoughts about God, and must feel biblical emotions for God.” Proof texts for this point of view include Philippians 4:4 (Rejoice in the Lord always) and Psalm 100:1-2 (Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth. Serve the LORD with gladness). If God command us to feel certain things (such as joy and gladness), then not feeling those things is sinful, because it is a violation of God’s commands. I submit that part of the reason our emotional lives are so un-transformed is because we do not take seriously the fact that God commands us to feel rightly.

What are your thoughts on the matter? Are feelings amoral? I’m interested to see where we end up. This is what communal learning is all about.


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  1. Without having heard any of Bob’s discussion on the transformation of our feelings, I want to respond to the arguments laid out in this post.
    1. Morality is that which we ought to do. Emotions are not actions, they are feelings that we have as a reaction to an event. I don’t just decide to feel angry, something makes me angry (even when I don’t know what made me angry). Also, individual emotions can be both Godly and sinful, depending on the situation. In this light, emotions are amoral in one sense because there is no emotion we ought to have all the time.
    2. Spiritual transformation does effect the emotions. As God transforms our minds, we learn to think right. Right thinking (dwelling on God and his promises) will lead naturally to right feeling (rejoice in the Lord always). However, according to Willard, “the condition of our mind is based on the direction our will is set.” It is our character that determines our thoughts and feelings in future choices.
    3. Feelings can be good or bad, but they cannot be moral because there is no feeling that we ought to have. However, we ought to have a character that thinks, feels, and acts rightly. God’s command is to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; therefore, we sin when our mind does not love God. While we can’t directly change our emotions, God can change the type of person we are. Someone who is angry often can become the type of person who is joyful often. Trying to change emotions without changing character is like trying to stop sinning without changing the desire to sin.
    4. I think it is important to talk about having right emotions, but emotion without action is meaningless. There is little victory in having right emotions if those emotions don’t impel us towards right actions.

    To speak of the morality of emotion is premature – morality is that which we ought to do in light of any emotions we may feel. If you are angry for the right reasons, there are actions you ought to take. If you are angry for the wrong reasons, there are actions you ought not to take. With God working in our lives, we can become the kind of people who have the right emotions for the right reasons, and act correctly in light of those emotions.

  2. Cody, I really like what you’re saying here. You are correct that everything stems from character, and you’re nailing it on the head when you say that as our character changes, what we think and feel will change.

    But I’m confused by the distinction you’re trying to make. You wrote, “Feelings can be good or bad, but they cannot be moral.” But aren’t “good” and “bad” moral terms? How exactly can feelings be good or bad but not morally so?

    And: there IS at least one emotion we ought to have all the time: “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS” (Phil 4:4).

  3. I’m going to side with Bob on this one. Although it seems a bit like the same things are being said and then used to make different points.
    In the above post there are a few statements that puzzle me;

    “Feelings can be good or bad but they cannot be moral”
    . . . . “emotion without action is meaningless”
    “there is no emotion we ought to have all of the time”

    I guess I don’t understand how feelings are not moral if they can be good or bad. And since God appeals to our emotions (see many verses cited above and in Bob’s post) they must have meaning or He wouldn’t appeal to them. The logical outgrowth of right feelings is right actions but feelings themselves are in need of redemption or we are simply left to our willpower to do good. I agree that character guides feelings so we should develop our character, . . . But the Life of Christ should hit us at every level and redeem us right there. Sometimes it’s a deeper character issue, sometimes it’s an incorrect feeling towards something or someone that we’ve just harbored or learned over time, and sometimes it’s action that we need to learn how to take or not take.
    And since there is no feeling we should have all of the time, I think that makes specific feelings moral because there are appropriate and inappropriate times to have said feeling. Yes, God is even trying to transform our sense of “timing” with our feelings. I would go so far as to say, everything is redeemed or in need of redemption. In the area of character/emotions/actions it’s more of a fluid model as we “grow up to Salvation”(I Peter 2:2).
    Bob is right, God commands us to feel rightly, . . .when a feeling exists, it either honors God or it doesn’t. “Feelings in an of themselves” is a funny statement because once feelings exist, they mean something, good or bad.

  4. A point of clarity —

    Basically my four points above were my attempt to put all my thoughts into words. First of all, I certainly think there are emotions that are good or bad without having any ethical value. It’s good to feel joyful in the morning when the sun is hot and the sky is clear, but I don’t think we OUGHT to feel that way. Morals just don’t apply.

    However, I agree there are situations in which we ought to have a certain emotion. When we think about the oppressed, we ought to feel something, and I think it is a fairly universal emotion that we ought to feel. So in a certain sense, I agree that there is a moral element to feelings. But the problem with applying ethical statements to feelings is that we don’t always have direct control of our feelings. While there are remedies for some emotions (cannonball therapy), there are certainly more times when we can’t change the way we feel. That’s why it’s hard for me to say that it’s a sin to feel sadness or anger. I can’t control the fact that I get angry when someone cuts me off on the road. I CAN let God make me the KIND OF PERSON who doesn’t get angry at idiot drivers. That’s why I said the morality of emotion is premature…if we are the kind of person we OUGHT to be, our feelings will be in line. There is a much deeper sin involved if we are not feeling the way we think we ought to be feeling, and there is a much greater victory to be had in becoming like Christ in character rather than only emotion.

    I agree with bob’s submission that our emotional lives are un-transformed because we don’t take seriously the command to feel rightly, but my ultimate point is that struggling to feel rightly without changing the heart is like struggling with our actions without changing our character. Whether or not ethical statements apply to feelings, the only way to experience emotional transformation is to first transform the heart.

  5. Hey my name is Paul O. (This doesn’t have to do with the previous commerts.) I hope this is an encouragement to fellow strugglers dealing with sorrow and grief.I do not mean in any way to put myself above any of you. This is for the comfort of those confu sed by the calling to always rejoice in light of the current reality, because, I deal with this .

    2Cr 6:10
    As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and [yet] possessing all things.

    Jesus loves us deeply t o the point of adoption. The family of God has opened itself up to bring back its own to itself. Christ died for our sins. All those who have listened to the fathers voice know how great a thing this is. God’s voice terrifies the darkness. Yet God’s voice is the strength and life of genuine peace.
    We long to be like Christ in every way. Let us always fan this passion by prayer and unfailing, selfless, unchanging love. The love which we receive from Christ.
    God loves us so much, He died for us while we were still sinners. How can we not break down and cry? Let pride never dam this. if we have any comfort in Christ let us be known by the zealous selfless love we have received. As it is written we are blessed to bless. And are the forgiven not called to forgive?
    “Any man that thinks he is standing strong should be careful so not to fall.” We know that Jesus found delight in God. We know that Jesus always did what he saw the father doing. we know that God delights in the son and the son in the father. We know that Jesus could do nothing on his own we know God has given Him all authority under heaven and earth. We also know that our knowledge puffs up but Love builds up.
    So if we really desire to be like Christ, let us not overlook anything unclean but confess everything to God and thirst for righteousness. The condition of the heart is God’s concern. Our state of desires is transformed when we look to the cross to see the snake lifted up for our sake and see the selfless unfailing unchanging love of Go d and the power in which our faith rest. (the gospel changes what we love)
    But now I know from experience that if we are compelled to say take heart to broken reeds, we should do it gently so not to break them off completely. (Meaning, don’t dogmatically proclaim Joy to one who is terrified of God.) How can we demand that someone know they are loved if the very body of the one we say loves them is not compassionate, or merciful, or kind, or hopeful, or long suffering?
    Do you see the Cross? Can you see yourself in the roman soldiers clothes? Can you see yourself in the jewish leaders? Can you see yourself in israel? Can you see yourself in peter? Can you see yourself in the woman that cried at his feet? Can you see yourself in aaron’s shoes when he ord ered the golden calves made? can you see yourself in david’s place? Do you cry out for mercy? Take as much comfort as you can in this, You see God has done a work in you. Not by what you deserve, no but because of who He is. He has turned a heart of stone into a heart of flesh. (Read the passage Ezekiel 24:16-23 and see that God has turned your heart a different way then those who are still in the darkness.) There is a humility in you not by anything you have done, and this humility is a means by which God swears grace. Be broken until God lifts you up. Search for the answer to the question “what does God think about me?” God will take your eyes off your hopeless estate and place them on His character. He will not let you grow too discouraged. If you can accept this rejoice that God gives you sorrow for the sake of others and joy for others sake as well. The same is true as well. Others face sorrows for your sake and find Joy for your sake. This confusion and sorrow will soon be gone, we all long to be cl othed in immortal bodies. Soon, very soon, so for now share the intimacy of Christ which you know. Forgive and long to please your heavenly father. Christ is raised from the dead! We will be transformed.
    We should be consumed in a selfless love consideri ng others greater then ourselves. The way we love is that Christ first loved us. So pray that God’s love would be revealed and that we would know it in full. It is also for this that we are called to pray without ceasing, For Christ eyes were always on th e father and so ours ought to be on Him, reflecting the grace given us in every circumstance. We are to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
    Its written trust in the lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding but in a ll your ways know him and he shall direct your path. This is why I write about the love of God. For our faith rests in his power not on our own understanding. But we should not lie to ourselves. Pour out your heart to God in reverence. He shall comfort you in truth. Then you know that God directs your path and that He is good.

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