The Peril of “Deciding by How We Feel”

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.

We now live within the life form called “modernity…” In the “modern” condition, feeling will come to exercise almost total mastery over the individual. This is because people in that condition will have to constantly decide what they want to do, and feeling will be all they have to go on. Here lies the secret to understanding contemporary Western life and its peculiar proneness to gross immoralities and addictions. People are overwhelmed with decisions and can only make those decisions on the basis of feelings.

More than a century ago, Leo Tolstoy experienced the effects of “modernity” in the circle of wealthy, upper-class Russians who made up his world. In that world, he relates, “My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable.”

…In the course of events, however, Tolstoy became involved in the life of the Russian peasants.

I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labor, and that they were content with life….And they all—endlessly different in their manners, minds, education, and position, as they were—all alike, in complete contrast to my ignorance, knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good.

The peasants whom Tolstoy admired so much were not yet swallowed up in modernity. They had solid traditions of faith and community that provided a ritual form of life—and of death. The result was that they knew what was good to do without regard to their feelings. Good was not determined for them by how they “felt” or by what they thought was “the best deal.”

The same was true for the “homemaker” and the “wage-earner” of our recent past. Not to say that all was well with them or with Tolstoy’s peasants. But individuals in their roles knew without thinking about it what to do with their minutes, hours, and days, and only rarely were faced with having to do what they “felt like doing.” The overall order in which they lived usually gave them great strength and inner freedom derived from their sense of place and direction, even in the midst of substantial suffering and frustration.

In a situation such as today, by contrast, where people constantly have—or think they have—to decide what to do, they will almost invariably be governed by feelings. Often they cannot distinguish between their feelings and their will, and in their confusion they also quite commonly take feelings to be reasons. And they will in general lack any significant degree of self-control. This will turn their life into a mere drift through the days and years, which addictive behavior promises to allow them to endure.

Self-control is the steady capacity to direct yourself to accomplish what you have chosen or decided to do and be, even though you “don’t feel like it”. Self-control means that you, with steady hand, do what you don’t want to do (or what you want not to) when that is needed and do not do what you want to do (what you “feel like” doing) when that is needed. In people without rock-solid character, feeling is a deadly enemy of self-control and will always subvert it. The mongoose of a disciplined will under God and good is the only match for the cobra of feeling.

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