Oh, the havoc that is wrought, and the tragedy, the misery, and the wretchedness that are to be found in the world, simply because people do not know how to handle their own feelings! D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones
I grew up playing sports, and basketball in particular has always been a favorite. Though I turned fifty last year, I often remind my younger friends and playing partners that “I still have game.” I keep insisting that my quickness and three-point shot are as prime as ever—though I see in their eyes they don’t entirely buy my self-assessment.
There’s one thing, however, that I have to admit is particularly different from my younger days: I’m much more conscious of the importance of warming up before a game. I know from long experience that my muscles work best when they’re prepared—stretched and warm instead of cold and tight.
We often need a warm-up just as much for our spiritual and mental muscles, and I think that’s especially true in this book. Before we push forward in the demanding spiritual exercise of more deeply experiencing Gethsemane and Calvary, we need to limber up our spiritual and mental faculties by exploring the whole matter of our feelings, and how they affect our view of reality and the way we live in response to reality. This is a critical conversation I need to have with you…and it can make all the difference in how much this book means to you.
If we want our hearts to be moved by the cross, if we want our emotions engaged, if we want to be truly amazed…we have to start by putting our feelings in their proper place. So we need to slow down for a moment and contemplate God’s order for truth-based living and thinking, an order which we have a sinful tendency to disregard.
Have you ever considered how thoroughly most of us live by our feelings today—how feelings-focused we are? In a typical day, how often do you make decisions and evaluate reality based primarily on your emotions at the moment?
Take the process of reading this book, for example. My guess is that you’ve already encountered statements here and there that made you think, “How do I feel about this?” Perhaps without even being consciously aware of this reaction, you were judging the merit of my words according to the subjective feelings you experienced while reflecting on them.
If so, you’re not alone.
We let subjective impressions determine what we’ll accept as objective fact.
Our common tendency is to habitually begin with the internal, the subjective, the experiential, then use those feelings and impressions to determine what we’ll accept as being objective fact. We let our feelings tell us what’s true, instead of letting the truth transform our feelings.
For most of us, this isn’t something we practice only while reading a book or hearing a sermon. It’s the fundamental mindset with which we approach practically everything. It’s how we live, and we even explain our daily choices by saying, “I feel good about this,” or, “I had a bad feeling about it.”
We’re conditioned to this approach not only by our sin but also by our culture, which incessantly entices us to follow our “heart” and do whatever makes us feel good—along with the flattering assurance that nonstop feeling good is something we absolutely deserve!
It would be fine to follow our feelings if we could always be sure they’re faithful to reality. But they aren’t; their perspective on reality typically has huge blind spots. As a result, our emotions are flighty, fickle, and far too easily dominated by any number of influences—spilled coffee at breakfast, a traffic stall when you’re running late, a cutting comment from a coworker. Our feelings simply cannot be trusted.
Even when it comes to our spiritual life, at any given moment we direct and locate our faith in our emotional state rather than in clearly objective truth. We tend to ask God for more “experience,” then assure Him that if He’ll give it, we’ll acknowledge and believe His truth. And one of the tragic results is that we’re seldom amazed by the reality of the cross and of the gracious disposition of God toward sinners that the cross reveals.
It happens frequently, for example, in our corporate worship. As people around us sing words expressing profound gratitude to Jesus for His death on our behalf, we may disqualify ourselves from truly entering into this adoration of our Savior because our “passion” this morning is absent.
It can happen also when we open our Bibles. Before us is a passage with words like redemption, Savior, gospel, justified. But for now those words evoke little response in us, and unthinkingly we pass them over to find something else that might light our fire. And if the enthusiasm doesn’t come quickly…well, we may just forget the whole thing. After all, who wants to spend the mental energy it takes to think carefully and intensely about the Scriptures? Who has time to study? Who has time to meditate?
In our arrogance, we invest our feelings with final authority.
And this is how serious it gets: In our arrogance, we invest our feelings (or lack thereof) with final authority rather than recognize that our emotions are unstable and unreliable, often hopelessly controlled by selfish pride, and riddled with lies—lies that “feel” like the truth.
I’ve watched people yield to such lies repeatedly. It’s a frightening experience to sit with individuals who actually insist that what they feel is ultimately more authoritative to them than what’s written clearly in Scripture. They even somehow assume God is sympathetic to this attitude. But He is not. He would, in fact, identify it as the height of prideful arrogance—and God is unalterably opposed to the proud.
That’s the bad news. The good news: He gives grace to the humble.1 Who are the humble? The humble are those whose first response to objective truth from God’s Word is not to ask, “How do I feel?” but to say, “I’m not going to let my faith be determined and directed by the subjective and the experiential. Instead I confess openly before God that I will believe the objective truth of His Word, regardless of how I feel.”
Bible teacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones2 once issued this warning: “Avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch upon your feelings. Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.” Anyone making this mistake, he adds, is “doomed to be unhappy,” because of the failure to follow “the order that God himself has ordained.”
When we focus on truth, reliable feelings follow, anchored in truth.
And what is that order? Lloyd-Jones reminds us that “what we have in the Bible is Truth; it is not an emotional stimulus…and it is as we apprehend and submit ourselves to the truth that the feelings follow.” When we focus first on truth, lo and behold, feelings follow! And they’ll be reliable feelings, because they’re anchored in truth. That’s the divine order.
Lloyd-Jones then proceeds to this profound application: “I must never ask myself in the first instance: What do I feel about this? The first question is, Do I believe it?”
He’s exactly right. It doesn’t mean we never evaluate how we feel; that’s just not where we’re to start when we encounter truth. The starting place is determining what we truly believe. Otherwise, we end up actually shortchanging ourselves emotionally and experientially, since deep and profound feelings are the inevitable effect of Scripture rightly understood and believed, and of worship entered into properly.
As you read and meditate and think seriously about what’s in your Bible, and believe and accept it, then ultimately you will indeed experience it, and you will feel the effect of it. There’s heart-transforming truth in the Scriptures, but you won’t encounter it by first trying to feel it.
Knowing and wholeheartedly believing the truth will always bring you eventually to a trustworthy experience of the truth. But if you trust your feelings first and foremost, if you exalt your feelings, if you invest your feelings with final authority—they’ll deposit you on the emotional roller coaster which so often characterizes our lives.
Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating a complete ignoring of our feelings. Nor am I criticizing genuine spiritual experience, the kind of vibrant passion for God that Jonathan Edwards referred to as “religious affections.” Quite the opposite! I am in fact a passionate advocate of genuine spiritual experience and religious affections—it’s just not where we’re meant to begin. Our feelings are an essential part of our right response to reality, but they should never in themselves be the determiner of reality.
Let me ask you: Where do you consistently direct your faith? What does it rest on? Is it your emotional state…or the objective realities that the Word of God and the Spirit of God have revealed? When you read or hear biblical truth proclaimed, what internal conversation takes place in your soul? Is your first reaction, What do I feel about this?
If so, do you plan to continue submitting everything ultimately to your feelings? Or will you instead trust in God’s testimony, so that whenever you encounter biblical truth, your initial question will always be, Do I believe it? That’s the only reliable way to transform your emotions…and to take them into a realm of love and adoration for the Lord that you’ve never before experienced.
The divine order begins not with ourselves, but with God. And in this book we’ll see how putting God and His objective truth first, and our feelings second, is never more applicable or valuable than when we draw near the cross, which is the hinge and center of human history. It presents an unfathomably stunning reality that we do well to return to again.
One Sunday morning, Charles Spurgeon was the guest preacher at a church in a country town in eastern England. Seated behind him was his grandfather, who was also a preacher. Spurgeon was speaking that day on Ephesians 2:8—“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
As Spurgeon carefully explained this glorious gospel of grace, now and again he would hear the encouraging voice of his grandfather behind him, saying gently, “Good! Good!” At one point, he even heard this gentle prod from the old man’s voice: “Tell them that again, Charles.”
And of course, Spurgeon did indeed “tell them that again.”3
Most likely you’re not a stranger to the gospel of grace and the basic truths of the cross of Christ. This book, however, is an opportunity for us to follow the wise exhortation of Spurgeon’s grandfather and to see and hear these wonderful things again, more clearly than ever, so God’s grace astounds us as never before.
Thank You, Father, for directing my attention upward and outward to objective truth, and away from self-centeredness and enslavement to subjectivity.
I turn away from self-focused arrogance and toward You—to receive forgiveness for that arrogance. I direct my faith toward You and Your Word, for You alone are worthy.
As my faith is built up and strengthened, transform my emotions so that I more truly love You with all my heart and all my mind and all my soul and all my strength.
1. James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5
2. Quotations from D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in this section are from an excellent chapter on “Feelings” in his book Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cure (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965).
3. Spurgeon recounted this story years later in a sermon entitled “All of Grace,” given at London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle.