Reason Trumps Emotions? 90% of Evangelicals Say Yes

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.)

Anyway . . .

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.

Romans 12:2:

“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?’

“By what?’

“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.

Romans 8:5-6:

“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.




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4 years ago

Awesome article and very well written. Thank you! Much to meditate on. In my previous marriage my husband (of 25 years) constantly dismissed my emotions in favor of his logic. Even though he was a “Christian” he based his logic on his own background and not scripture. It brought much despair and depression in my own life, unfortunately. Well he had an affair at church and left and married the other woman (1 year ago). I am now re-learning how to think and feel and hear the Holy Spirit in my life. This article is very helpful. Blessings!!

4 years ago

As with so many of your posts, I wish my younger self could have read them. The good news is that other people are speaking the same truths, so I found my way through these tangles anyway.

Emotions are a flare and shouldn’t be ignored — yes, thank you. I’ve heard, similarly, that they’re like pain; they signal that something needs to be addressed.

Imagine saying, “My knee just keeps hurting. But I know I haven’t done any unusual moving or exercise, and I can’t see any swelling or dislocation. So I’m just resting in the knowledge that nothing is wrong with it. I’ll just keep walking on it normally because that’s how God expects me to use it.”

I especially dislike how women are shunted aside as being “more emotional.”

Or if you try to explain the devastating effect of someone’s harsh interpretation of Scripture (for instance, that a woman must never divorce her husband). You get shut down with, “You’re just being emotional. I don’t follow opinion, I follow God’s Word.”

I apparently have LOTS to say about this because I’ve had to cut out practically a whole blog post of my own thoughts. 🙂 I’ll just say again, Thank you for writing this.

Ryan Ashton
Ryan Ashton
4 years ago

This post deeply resonates with me. “Mandatory happiness” inadvertently launched me into a depressive state for most of my Christian walk (first 10 years at least). I felt like I was a failure and in sin because I wasn’t as happy as other people.

I will venture to say that we must make room for a variety of emotions within the Christian worldview because God Himself has a variety of emotions. It is right to be upset at injustice, sad with sin, or jubilant with another’s success. Just a thought.

Janie Lusher
4 years ago

The Father showed me favor when I found your writings. My 76 year old mind can’t bring up how I found you, but I’m every grateful. Our hearts beat in the same direction. Your clarity when tackling “traditional” explanations of the Word, brings hope to my heart. Thank you! God bless you and continue to give you His strength and wisdom.

4 years ago

Rebecca and others here. Well written! Our savior was well acquainted with grief. For some people, negative emotions were not allowed in their home nor were they allowed to process or discover them. As Christians, how can we not experience a longing to be reunited and brought into the original design~ there’s grief of separation and joy with anticipation too.
I agree fully with Ryan Ashton’s comment of a ‘wide range of emotions’.
This is key and certainly truthful, sadly to many people are ‘one -dimensional’ trying to get everyone else to suppress their emotions so that they themselves can continue in ‘not feeling’. This is such a dysfunctional coping skill that has brought so much damage to our churches and Christian homes!
As for me, I was rejected and an outcast in my family of origin because I wouldn’t surrender to the one-dimensional version that protected those from being vulnerable or uncomfortable.

4 years ago

Ecclesiastes 11:5 is Bible Gateway’s verse of the day and it came to mind as I read your article: “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.”

Would the spirit in this verse refer to the mind, will and emotions of a person? Does that possibly mean that genetics of the parent has nothing to do with the spirit in us …and everything to do with the part of us that is made in God’s image?

And, therefore, how much more of an afront to God and the image of God in us when emotional abuse is inflicted vs physical abuse, though both are perpetuated out of an evil mind? [Remembering that for some the emotional abuse is more damaging than the physical abuse.]

So in reference to your article, would it be true to say that in our spirit, God-given, there is equality in the mind, will and emotions in ALL of us (which is the spirit God puts in us in our mother’s womb)? And therefore (as you state) untrue to say that in men the mind is superior to the heart or that in women the emotions trump the mind.

Thank you SO much, Rebecca!

Gany T.
Gany T.
4 years ago

Excellent explanation of why this VERY prevalent teaching is wrong and crushing. And thank you for giving the true alternative: walking in the Spirit by faith.

I find this teaching usually connected with the equally wrong (wrongly defined) teaching of “the sufficiency of Scripture,” i.e. “all psychology and secular wisdom is anti-God.” Just a ‘spiritual’ mask for more 21st century Pharisaism and legalistic bondage. (And I notice how the Reason-Only celebrities typically are quite unloving, critical, and condemning off stage… often right up until a growing number get exposed for committing or covering up grievous abuse/sin/crime.)

I’ve come a long way in my Christian walk (also leaving the “spiritually barren wasteland of upstate NY” to come to the Bible Belt – lol), and have dumped a lot of wrong teaching, but this post dispelled any lingering doubts or confusion about this unscriptural teaching. Thank you!

cindy burrell
4 years ago

Why do the Christian know-it-alls seek the lazy man’s way out – making people’s lives so shame-laden and formulaic? God has gifted us with both emotions and wisdom born of the Spirit. Both have the power to speak truth to our hearts. And didn’t He give us a our church-family to minister one to another, to bear one another’s burdens “and thus fulfill the law of Christ”? (Galatians 6:2) It seems that the contemporary church has become more Pharisaical than Spirit-led, and people who need emotional and/or spiritual support are harmed as a result. Sad. Thank you for another enlightening piece, Rebecca.

4 years ago

You may like to read this Facebook post where I quote in full a recent devotional published by the National Association of Christian Recovery. They begin with this verse: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:10

Then later the authors, Dale and Juanita Ryan, state this comforting teaching: “God comforts us in the way a loving parent comforts a frightened child. God says to us, “I know that you are afraid; but I also want you to know that I am here with you. I will not leave you. I will give you strength. I will give you help. I will hold you by the hand so that you will not fall”.”

God does not condemn our fear, our emotion. Rather he comforts us kindly.

Rachel Nichols
4 years ago

Like love, joy is an attitude. Not a feeling.

You can feel horrible yet still be joyful. Many prophets struggled with icky feelings.

If someone is happy all the time they probably are naive and uninformed–leading sheltered lives. Unhappiness is not a SIN. Happiness is not a virtue either.

3 years ago

This will take a lot of gymnastics to untangle in my soul! Thank you for prodding these important thoughts!!!!!!

1 year ago

“But I was glad to be moving to the “Christian” land of Greenville, SC, from the spiritually barren wasteland of upstate New York.”
Dang. Another one bites the dust.
Thanks for this article. I’ve had to walk that same road. Hearing Jeremiah 17:9, all the talk about reason and logic over emotion. “feelings are fickle, feelings lead you astray, don’t trust your feelings.” I beat down my negative emotions for years, until I couldn’t stuff it anymore. You are right, there’s a normal healthy sense in which we can feel our feelings, bring them to the surface.
I also learned that often times, people who’ve been through trauma, experience a disconnect between logic and emotion. They know in their heads that something is wrong, but they can’t connect what they know with what they feel. As Bessel Van Der Kolk says in his book, “everything just seems unmanageable” (The Body Keeps the Score). It’s so true. Part of healing truly is “connecting that 18″ between the head and the heart.” I think that healthy, loving people have these things in alignment.

1 year ago

I’ve just come upon your blog and am reading this post, 3 years after you posted it. It is just so helpful! You’ve put words to my newly forming intuitions — 1) that the mind also needs regenerating and “reason” isn’t always reliable and 2) that it’s possible to live and make wise decisions out of a regenerate heart and its healthy emotional responses.

My other related intuition is that these concepts in your post are connected to subconscious views on the differences between men and women and their roles in the church. It was also interesting that you said in the post, “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.”

Pondering it more, I do wonder how many men in my life believe (subconsciously or otherwise) that women are less capable than men of wise decisions. Hmm. However, I am fortunate and blessed to be married to a man who trusts my intuitions and wisdom. We share decision-making, and I am so thankful for him as many of my friends don’t have that experience in marriage.

These are wonderful topics for me and my husband to talk through with our teenagers too, so thank you for helping me form words around it all.

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
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