Feelings Can Take Over

As we continue to think about Re:Formation, we come to the subject of reforming our feelings. This is a very complex area of life where clarity and light is needed. And philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard, in his book Renovation of the Heart, brings profound clarity and wisdom. This week, I’ll be posting some excerpts from Willard to help get us thinking about what it means to be transformed in the area of feelings.

Much of the great power of feelings over life derives not just from the fact that they touch us, move us, but from the fact that they creep over into other areas of our life; they pervade, they change the overall tone of our life and our world. They spread like an unstable dye or a viral form or a yeast. They may take over all else in us, even that to which they have no relevance. Things and people around us then look different, take on a distinctive tone or meaning. And that can even determine the tendency and outcome of our life as a whole.

This explains why it is so hard to reason with some people. Their very mind has been taken over by one or more feelings and is made to defend and serve those feelings at all costs. It is a fearful condition from which some people never escape. We have noted how thoughts generate feelings. If we allow certain negative thoughts to obsess us, then their associated feelings can enslave and blind us—that is, take over our ability to think and perceive.

Here, for example, is a woman (it could just as well have been a man) who has taken in the thought that she has been treated unfairly for years in her marriage and her job. Rather than sensibly addressing the circumstances or just turning her mind away from this thought, she receives it and broods over it—for years—developing a tremendous sense of injustice and outrage, which she also welcomes and cultivates with the aid of sympathetic friends. This “root of bitterness” (Hebrews 12:15) gradually spreads over her whole personality, seeping deeply into her body and her soul. It becomes something you can see in her bodily motions and actions and hear oozing though the language she uses. It affects her capacity to see what is actually going on around her, to realize what she is actually doing, and to think thoroughly and consistently. She is in what Bob Mumford has called “the prison of resentment,” though she thinks she is perhaps for the first time acting freely.

Beyond the individual level, poisonous emotions and sensations often take over entire social groups, blinding them and impelling them on terrible courses of destruction. This is nearly always what has happened in cases where repression of ethnic groups or genocide occurs. Thus, to the onlooker the participants (Nazis, and so on) seem to be deaf, blind, and insane—which, in a sense, they are. They, too, are imprisoned.

Feelings can be successfully “reasoned with,” can be corrected by reality, only in those who have the habit and are given the grace of listening to reason even when they are expressing violent feelings or are in the grip of them. A feeling of sufficient strength may blot out all else and will invariably do so in one who has not trained himself or herself… Those who are wise will, accordingly, never allow themselves, if they can help it, to get in a position where they feel too deeply about any human matter. They will never willingly choose to allow feeling to govern them. They will carefully keep the pathway open to the house of reason and go there regularly to listen.

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  1. I have ascertained by reasoning 🙂 that this is such practical, helpful insight, Bob! Thank you so much.

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