Tough Questions - Great Answers
- Is Our Fear Of Death Stopping Us From Really Being Able To Live? (1)
- How can we find hope in a fearful world? (2)
- How can we find equality in an unfair world? (3)
- What’s wrong with following my feelings? (3)
- How Can I Thrive In A Post-Pandemic World? (5)
I was recently speaking at a university on the topic of ‘freedom’. In the talk I suggested that to know real freedom we sometimes have to go against our feelings. At the end of the talk one student asked, ‘But what’s wrong with following my feelings?’
As a question, it revealed a lot about our contemporary western culture, which places great emphasis on listening to and following our feelings.
Of course, in some ways, there is nothing wrong with following our feelings. Often our feelings correspond with reality and it’s good to listen to them. Think on the most basic level: I feel thirsty, so I drink; I feel hungry, so I eat; I feel tired, so I sleep. Ignoring those feelings indefinitely would not be wise; indeed, it would be fatal!
However, there are times when it’s not good to listen to my feelings. I may feel like staying in bed, when I actually need to get up! I may feel like eating seconds or thirds of dessert, when I really should stop, and so on.
Indeed, there is a liberating power of achievement that can come from not listening to our feelings. This was brought home to me when I cycled from Land’s End to John O’ Groats a number of years ago. I had made a commitment to complete the epic journey for charity, despite no training! In fact, I had only bought the bike a couple of weeks beforehand. Thinking back, there were many moments on the journey when I didn’t feel like keeping going. Lying in my tent, wet, cold and tired, if you had asked me what I felt like doing, the answer would have been to get on a train and go straight home!
Towards the end of the trip I found myself cycling through a remote Scottish glen. The early rain had cleared, revealing a stunning landscape illuminated by a glorious golden light, and a vibrant rainbow arced over the distant mountains. Tears of joy filled my eyes as I cycled on. I was so thankful to be there, and the sense of achievement was overwhelming. Yet, if I had followed my feelings, I wouldn’t have even got there! I would have missed the whole reward.
Choosing to override (no pun intended!) our feelings can be incredibly liberating and lead to some of life’s greatest achievements. Conversely, always following our feelings can, at times, be debilitating and destructive. An extreme example of this would be the person suffering from anorexia nervosa. In such disorders an individual’s feelings become so out of step with reality that to continue to act upon them could be fatal. Someone with anorexia nervosa doesn’t need their disordered feelings and thoughts to be endorsed, but for them to be challenged.
Indeed, this idea of challenging one’s feelings and thoughts is the very basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is widely accepted as being effective in helping people who are struggling in a whole number of different ways, to change certain destructive behaviours.
In their brilliant book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff suggest that the idea that we should follow our feelings is doing massive damage to our present generation. They talk about the ‘untruth of emotional reasoning’ and show how, far from liberating us, such a practice is enslaving us.
So why are our feelings sometimes right and sometimes wrong? Why should we sometimes follow them and at other times not? How can we tell the difference?
Good or evil?
Christianity’s foundations help us to respond to these questions by giving us a deep understanding of human nature. Many people fall into two equal but opposite errors when they think about humanity. We are either too optimistic, assuming that we are intrinsically good, or we are too pessimistic, and assume that we are intrinsically evil. In contrast, the Bible teaches us that we have the propensity for both in each one of us.
The Bible teaches that each one of us is created in the image of God himself and so can reflect something of God’s goodness. However, the Bible also teaches that humans have become disconnected from this God who so marvellously made us, and have become flawed and corrupted. We are marred masterpieces, or, as Francis Schaeffer, the Christian philosopher described, ‘glorious ruins’.
This goodness and brokenness affect every aspect of our being – our feelings very much included. Therefore, sometimes my feelings can be an accurate reflection of reality and correspond with what is best for me, for society and for the world; but at other times my feelings can be out of step with reality and can lead me to do things that could be damaging to me, to society and to the world.
The reality is that, in different ways and to different degrees, we have all done things that are harmful. We have hurt others and hurt ourselves through wrong choices we have made. Though our choices may have felt right at the time they were ultimately destructive.
This is why the Christian faith is such extraordinarily good news. At the heart of the Christian message is not some demand for moral self-improvement, but the offer of forgiveness. Through Jesus’ death and his resurrection it is possible to have a totally fresh start and a ‘clean sheet’. We’ve all failed, and we all need God’s forgiveness, which is freely available to any who will accept it.
The God who loved me enough to die for me is a God whom I can trust. If he created me and loves me, then I can trust that he also knows what is best for me in each area of my life. He has revealed many things through the Bible about how life is to be best lived. We see this fleshed out most clearly in the life of Jesus. God also gives us the wisdom of his unseen self, the Holy Spirit, to help us as we make decisions. On top of this he provides other people to give us wise advice.
Being a Christian can mean we are set free from being controlled by our changing and sometimes unstable emotions, so that we can choose what will ultimately be for our best. This won’t always be easy, but as one Bible-writer explained, God’s grace teaches us to be able to say no to the stuff in our lives that is destructive and wrong (Titus 2:11).
The path to real life and joy is often a counterintuitive one as it often means going against our feelings. Thankfully, in Jesus we have someone who is more powerful than our feelings, who we can learn to rely upon.
Indeed, the counterintuitive nature of Christianity is seen from the very start as we become ‘new creations’. Jesus said that, if we want to save our lives, we will lose them; but if we are willing to lose them, we will find real life. Many people don’t feel like becoming Christians; there is something within us that resists the offer of God’s kindness and new life.
Someone who understood this was the Northern Irish writer and professor, C. S. Lewis. When he became a believer later in his life, whilst living in Oxford, he described himself as the most ‘dejected and reluctant convert in all of England’. He didn’t want to become a Christian. Yet he wrote those words in his autobiography which he entitled Surprised by Joy; a title with a double meaning. His wife was named Joy, but he also discovered, in Jesus, a deep sense of joy that he didn’t expect!
What’s wrong with following our feelings? Our feelings are not always a good guide to what is real, true or even best for us. In Jesus, we can find an objective basis for life, feelings and behaviour; and he not only offers us forgiveness for all the times we have failed, but also gives us a unique power to be set free from our feelings and to be able to live life in all its fullness.