Gustave Flaubert, the French writer most famous for his first published work Madame Bovary once said, “One can be the master of what one does, but never of what one feels.”
In other words, you can exercise some control by sheer will over your actions, but feelings? Well that’s a different story. You can’t control what you feel.
And it wouldn’t be a problem, except for the fact that our feelings are not to be trusted, because our hearts will lie to us over and over again.
As Christians, we understand why this is so. We recognize that the heart, like everything else in creation, is corrupted by sin. Because it is, we can say with confidence the words from the prophet Jeremiah: “The heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable—who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
For the Christian, then, there exists a paradox between recognizing that we cannot absolutely control what we feel, and at the same time recognizing that our feelings will lie to us. But while we might not be able to control what we feel, we can control whether or not we bow to the altar of those feelings.
It’s important for us, as we minister in the world of young adults, to recognize that we live in a feelings driven culture. Most of us, whether we are young adults or not, do indeed bow at the altar of those feelings. We eat what we feel like, date who we feel like, do what we feel like – and when our feelings change, we simply move on. We move on to another relationship, another church, another job, another whatever – one that makes us feel a bit better than the last one did for a while.
But as Christians, and as Christians who minister to others, we must always be ready to bring the truth to bear on our feelings. We must be willing to have the altar of our feelings crushed under the greatness of the cross. And the simplest way we do that is through faith-driven action.
As a way of illustrating the place our feelings have in our lives, think about it like a train. In the case above, our feelings are the engine of the train. The cars behind the train are all the other parts of our lives – our diets, our relationships, our exercise schedule, our reading, the movies we watch, and so on. The engine of feelings pulls along the cars behind it, tugging us along to whatever destination we feel like getting to at a given moment.
The problem comes when today (and yes, I mean “today” because it’s going to happen today) when you don’t feel like doing the right thing. Or you feel like doing the wrong thing. You don’t feel like being patient with those around you; you don’t feel like committing yourself to the local church; you don’t feel like choosing holiness; and instead you feel like lashing out in anger, seeking revenge, or gratifying your sinful nature in any number of ways.
What happens then? More times than not, the engine of feelings keeps right on tugging and it goes until you feel like doing something else. Hopefully this time, though, it’s the right thing.
You see, we’ve got the wrong thing pulling us along. The engine of our lives shouldn’t be our feelings; it should be our faith. The driving force, then, in all these situations isn’t what you feel; it’s what you believe. You believe that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit; you believe that Jesus is patient with you and you should therefore be patient with others; you believe that your mind is actually formed by what you put inside it; you believe that the Bible is the Holy Word of God; and so on. You believe all these things, and those beliefs are what is pulling along the cars.
So if faith is the engine, the next car is action, for that’s when faith is truly validated. It does little good to claim you believe that God will meet with you over the pages of Scripture but never read it. Is that faith? Not really. Faith pulls along the necessary action behind it, whether that means saying “I’m sorry,” or saying no to the extra piece of cake.
Then, behind action, comes the car of feelings. It’s funny that it works that way – you often don’t feel like doing something in the moment, but you do it anyway. Your action is pulled by your faith, and then feelings come along behind it, eventually catching up with what your faith has known all along. Eventually you do feel it; you’re glad you made that choice, but it doesn’t happen right away.
Faith. Then action. Then feelings follow. And slowly, by God’s grace, the length of chain that connects all those things together gets shorter and shorter. As we grow with Him, we find that our feelings are actually coming closer and closer to faith.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua, Andi, and Christian. He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.