". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


Living in Light of God’s Truth, ‘Our Feelings Are Real, but Not Reliable’

March 17, 2024

The human experience often reveals that feelings and emotions are both a blessing and a curse. Emotions can be so wonderful sometimes, but can also make life feel unbearable in other circumstances. And there are countless ways in which people deal with the sentiments we face. Analyzing emotions can fall simply under the category of basic human psychology and apply to anyone.

As Christians, though, perhaps the conversation should have a different approach.

Is there anything wrong with probing the topic of feelings through a psychological lens? I don’t believe so. Indeed, it can be positively effective. However, I would argue that we’re not truly helped by any advice or counsel until we probe the question, “What does the Bible say about it?”

In her study, “When We Pray,” Christian author Jen Wilkin wrote, “Our feelings are real, but not reliable.” Whether you’re a therapist, counselor, or a random person off the street, this is advice nearly anyone could suggest. Many can at least recognize that feelings aren’t reliable. However, why feelings aren’t reliable isn’t always as easy to articulate. Considering numerous speculative answers could be offered, my conviction is no answer will truly satisfy without being tied directly to biblical truth. The matter of feelings comes down to the human condition, which no worldly rationalization will correctly convey.

So, what does the Bible say about feelings? Well, it doesn’t say much. Actually, it hardly addresses it directly at all. But don’t fret, because I trust what the Bible does say is all we need.

We know feelings aren’t inherently evil as they were created by God. Ecclesiastes 3, verses 4 and 8, say there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,” “a time to love and a time to hate.” There is “a time” for human emotions. The shortest Bible verse, “Jesus wept,” shows that Jesus exhibited emotions (John 11:35). But in our case, feelings, left unbridled, can easily become sinful.

Ephesians 4:31 reads, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” This is one of many examples warning against these types of behaviors. As Christians, we should be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3), and these emotions hinder that call. Moreover, they cause us to be bad witnesses for Christ who told us to put on love (Colossians 3:14). But why is it we frequently wrestle with feelings we know aren’t fruitful?

As Jeremiah 17: 9 communicates, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; Who can know it?” That’s quite the statement. It’s almost off-putting to read our own hearts are “deceitful” and “desperately wicked.” But if you’re a Christian who understands your need of a Savior, then you can also understand what this prophet is asserting.

We need a Savior because we are sinners. As Genesis 3 details, sin entered the world and tainted everything — including our hearts. Sin stained our understanding of God and ourselves. Ephesians 2:1-3 outlines we were all once “dead in … trespasses and sins,” and “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This can be a hard verse to stomach, but true believers know what makes the good news so good is our understanding of the bad news. That is, our previous bondage to sin.

It’s also quite beautiful when compared to Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:1-39, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 6:6, and countless other passages that proclaim we’re no longer slaves to sin and counted among the wicked. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” we cry out, knowing the battle is securely won in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55). The good news, then, is despite being born into sin, our Savior washed us clean with His precious blood.

But this truth, worthy of every ounce of praise, doesn’t mean we’re free from the temptation to sin. By putting faith in Christ, we received new hearts now affectionate to Christ and His truth (Ezekiel 36:26-27). But we’re still living in a fallen world. Because of this, our hearts are still ultimately unreliable on their own.

Being finite beings, there’s much we don’t know. Often, we assume the worst-case scenario as it relates to others (and ourselves). Our emotions get the best of us, and we make decisions not based in reality, but based on an emotional bias. These are consequences of having feelings in a broken world. But this is why 2 Corinthians 10:5 says to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” Additionally, Ephesians 4:26a says, “In your anger do not sin.” You will experience unfavorable emotions. And yet, taking every thought captive enables us to better control our emotions, rather than letting emotions control us.

Ultimately, our ability to feel comes from God. In their truest form, emotions are meant to reflect the communicable attributes of God, sometimes referred to as “the fruits of the spirit,” which is in Galatians 5. Some of these fruits include love, joy, peace, and patience, and these are what the Bible instructs us to pursue, while rapidly condemning emotions like anger and bitterness. But I wonder, which of these emotions do we most effortlessly display in the heat of the moment?

Do we swiftly turn to patience or impatience? Kindness or harshness? Self-control or a lack of control? Love or anger? We all have weaknesses, and some weaknesses are far more prominent than others. But I would be skeptical of anyone who claims their innate reaction is always love, always joy, always peace, etc. While emotions aren’t inherently evil, our hearts are deceptive, and so we know that our responses will not always be what they ought to be. As such, Scripture repeatedly reminds us to stay focused on Christ as our perfect and trustworthy standard.

Unlike our feelings, Christ doesn’t change. Malachi 3:6a says, “For I the Lord do not change,” and Hebrews 13:8 asserts that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

Unlike our feelings, Christ knows all things and has absolute understanding. 1 John 3:20 states, “For whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.” Psalms 147:5 says the Lord “determines the number of the stars” and “gives to all of them their names. … His understanding is beyond measure.”

Unlike our feelings, Christ isn’t impaired by sin. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He faced temptation while He was in the wilderness, but 1 Peter 2:22 (and all of Scripture) declares, “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”

We’re humbled by Romans 3:23, which says we will always fall short of the glory of God. But Scripture also indicates we must still strive to imitate Him (1 Corinthians 11:1). But this cannot be done if, rather than focusing on Christ, we focus on our fleeting and undependable emotions.

We were never meant to depend on our feelings, but on the Lord who gifted us the ability to feel. My encouragement for us is that we go forth thanking God for the ability to have emotions, good or bad, because they truly can be quite beautiful. But as we experience them, let us always look to Christ, asking for His guidance through this fallen world so that in all things, including in our feelings, we may glorify His name.

Sarah Holliday is a reporter at The Washington Stand.