It wasn’t a formal survey, by the way. It’s just that when I asked 25 friends, 22½ of them agreed.
(So, to be clear, that survey part was a little joke.)
It seems that this belief is seen as true especially for those who have been influenced by so-called “Biblical counseling,” even if they don’t know they’ve been influenced by it. That would be the majority of people I speak with.
My own experience with this teaching
When we moved to Greenville, South Carolina, in 2005, I longed for some advice on how to help a family member suffering from severe discouragement (or depression, I wasn’t sure which and didn’t know if there was a difference). I had suggested to him that the things that discouraged him were in the past and couldn’t he put it all behind him and move forward and just be happy because of all the good things in his life, which were significant.
Yeah, no. I had a lot to learn.
But I was glad to be moving to the “Christian” land of Greenville, SC, from the spiritually barren wasteland of upstate New York. I had heard about a man who was the head of the counseling department of a local Christian university, that he was clever, funny, and a really good teacher, so I thought he would probably have some good advice for me when it came to helping this family member.
So I wrote to him asking for advice about how to help a family member suffering from what seemed to be depression.
He responded to me along these lines: “Your [family member] should be joyful because the Bible commands us to be joyful. Depression/discouragement is a sin and if he isn’t joyful he is living in disobedience.”
I remember as I read that email, my face screwed up and I muttered, “What kind of stupid advice is that?”
I wrote him back, protesting that joy can’t just be manufactured on demand, by a decision, but his reply insisted that to be otherwise was to be living in disobedience. And that was the end of our correspondence. I didn’t tell my family member about it at that time (and not till years later), because I was sure it would cause his depression to spiral down even further.
The Biblical basis for this teaching
In essence, that counseling teacher was saying that “reason”—or as some people label it, the “mind” (informed by certain Bible verses and their specific teaching of the written Word of God)—should hold sway over “emotions”—or as some people label it, the “heart.”
And in the Western evangelical world especially, it seems to be an unquestioned premise for most that the “mind” is more reliable than the “heart.” It’s common in evangelical circles to use two specific Bible verses to support this line of thinking.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
See? The mind can be renewed (by the written Word of God, they will say), leading to transformation.
And Jeremiah 17:9:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?”
See? No more need be said about the heart, right?
So the conclusion is, you “can’t trust your emotions,” and you need to be led by your reason. Because apparently reason is very trustworthy, and the heart is obviously a terrible mess.
And some women even believe that men in general are more capable of living in harmony with God’s will than they (women) are, because “women are more ruled by our emotions,” and “men are more level-headed.”
But is it true?
I’ve come up against this in conversation with women a number of times. They might be talking along and say something like, “And of course I don’t want to live by my emotions, so . . .’ and eventually I might have the opportunity to ask, “What did you mean by that?’
“That part where you said you didn’t want to live by your emotions. What did you mean by it?’
I find that sometimes people might be a bit discomfited by a question that challenges a basic underlying assumption.
“Are you saying you think reason is more reliable than emotion? That you should ignore your emotions? That reason should trump emotion?’
Well, yes, of course.
I might even receive a kind of blank look as if to imply that it was a weird question.
What the Scriptures say about the mind and the heart
But you see, the fact of the matter is that “the heart” isn’t the only thing that can be faulty. “The mind” can be faulty too.
“For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit [set their minds on] the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.”
And . . . actually, the heart can be renewed, just as the mind can be.
Ezekiel 36:26 “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.’
Psalm 51:10 “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.’
Phil 4:7 “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
Ps 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.’
Ps 119:10 “With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments!’
Ps 9:1 “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds.’
Luke 6:45 “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.’
Psalm 119:11 “Your word I have treasured in my heart that I may not sin against You.’
Romans 10:10 “For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.’
Matt 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’
Jeremiah 17:9, the favorite proof text for the wickedness of the human heart, is certainly not describing the heart of the child of God born again through faith in Jesus Christ by the power of His Spirit. Why in the world does it get to be the Bible verse that defines the Christian’s heart?
The implication of this teaching: “negative” emotions should be ignored or beaten back
So let’s say a woman feels overwhelming shame and a sense of hopeless despair when she approaches the front of a church, where the communion table is. She goes for counseling for these negative feelings and is given Bible verses about hope and joy to memorize (in her “mind”) and told that her despair (a “negative emotion”) is a sin and she needs to repent and simply believe (in her “mind”) the truth that there’s no reason to have these feelings at the front of the church by the communion table.
But as it turns out, the woman as a child was molested at the front of a church by (or even on) the communion table, and because it was an overwhelmingly traumatic event, she dissociated it and doesn’t remember it and instead simply feels a nameless shame and despair. That problem is what actually needs to be addressed, to process that experience and receive truth from the Lord in her spirit.
Yes, there are almost always embedded lies within a traumatic memory. But there is also truth: something terrible happened to cause this feeling of shame.
The emotions act as a flare to lead to what is really wrong. They must not be ignored.
Or, to use a more common and less sensational example, say a certain woman experiences low-level anxiety all the time and goes to counseling for that. She too is told to memorize Bible verses, is told that she needs to “believe” the Word of God, and is warned that she must stop falling prey to her deceitful emotions.
She tries to tell the counselor that she does believe the Word of God and she wants to understand how “perfect love casts out fear,” but for some reason she is almost always anxious. It is eventually revealed that her husband often makes jokes about killing her and goes into sudden rages and gives the silent treatment for weeks on end. She feels unsafe and anxious.
But the woman is told not to live by feelings, but to live by the truth of the Word of God, which commands her not to be fearful, which she is to receive through her “reason” or her “mind” and then “inform her heart” with this truth.
But the emotions cannot be ignored. They are a signal to help expose what is really wrong, in this case, the truth of the danger in which she and her children are living.
Is it “strong” to be unemotional?
In our culture, a person who shows no emotions is usually considered “strong.” This, even if they have experienced losses and trauma which in other major cultures would be mourned by the strongest people, and that in community with each other.
It is not “strong” to refrain from showing emotion. It is unrealistic and ultimately unhealthy. The Psalms and the book of Lamentations both serve as excellent examples of healthy expression of strong emotions.
Emotions need to be acknowledged, received, and understood. They can be a very important part of engaging in the spiritual warfare we all face and understanding the nature of the enemy we fight.
Trumping both emotion and reason
Those who walk in the flesh will have minds controlled by the flesh (selfish desires). This means they will misinterpret the Scriptures, sometimes on purpose, in order to further their selfish ends. (This misinterpreting of Scripture—according to someone’s “reason”—is much of what I seek to untwist on this blog, as do other capable writers.)
So when I talk with my friends, I’ll say something along the lines of, “Just as you shouldn’t be controlled by emotion, neither should you be controlled by reason. By faith, both reason and emotions need to be submitted to the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
As one friend said to me,
We often think of wisdom as coming from the mind; the ability to decipher, analyze, reason, apply logic and rational thought and things learned from past experiences to a situation are all equated as wisdom. When spiritual wisdom is referenced, we are often led to believe that the mind is then controlled by the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom from God. It is still considered to be an intellectual exercise, only this time it is spiritual in essence.
But I do not believe that spiritual wisdom only comes from mind knowledge; spiritual wisdom is a heart understanding that can engage the mind, but that first comes from the Spirit of God, giving the heart of man a knowledge that far surpasses what the mind by itself can comprehend.
My desire is to walk in the Spirit by faith according to Romans 8. When I read the Bible, and when I write, as I’ve described here, by faith I want to seek the leading of the Spirit over my mind. (This is also true when I talk with people who come to me.)
When I sense an emotion within me that needs to be addressed (which is common), I’ll often ask, “What’s going on, Lord? What do You want to show me with that emotion?” By faith I seek the leading of the Spirit regarding my emotions.
In this way, my “mind” can inform my “heart,” and my “heart” can also inform my “mind,” both of them under the direction of the Spirit, by faith.
Here’s the joy for the people of God. Walking in the Spirit by faith, as Romans 8 tells us to do, trumps both reason and emotion. Both the mind and the heart can go astray, and both can help each other return. Both the reason and the emotions of a Christian need to be submitted to His leading by faith, and in this we will find our greatest delight and strength.
Note: When I posted this blog on Facebook, one of the commenters mentioned that when we get emotional, that might be an indication to some that we have “idols.” In response, I linked to another blog post there and thought it might be good to do it here as well. It’s “Rethinking the idol factory: challenging the ‘idol’ construct as the explanation for all sin in the lives of Christians,” here.