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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Nothing More Than Feelings”?

Published Saturday, September 1, 2018 By Brian Borgman

“Feelings, nothings more than feelings,” so sang Perry Como. For my wife’s sake, I’ll throw in the Bees Gees as well: “It’s just emotion that’s taken me over.” We could go on—and on. In our pop culture, emotions are really nothing more than strong feelings we basically cannot control. On the other hand, they are often presented as the best part of life. Yes, “I’m hooked on a feeling.” “Hooked on a feeling…” That that sounds good, I think. Nevertheless, our culture also recognizes the toxicity of emotions (Emotions Anonymous is actually a real organization).

Emotional health is the goal for many people, and it is frequently seen as crucial for attaining success. From our culture’s perspective, we love emotions, even when they seem to be tossing us around like a Ping-Pong ball in a windstorm. We also blame emotions as those villainous feelings that cause us pain. Frankly, since nothing helpful emerges here, perhaps the church can provide some helpful perspective on the emotions.

Unfortunately, what the church has often said about emotions isn’t much better or more helpful than what culture says. When I was a new believer in the early 1980s, it seemed I was in a constant tug-of-war. I read and heard that emotions are just the caboose; the engine is fact. The coal car is faith, and the caboose is feelings. The train will run fine on fact and faith; feelings are optional. But feelings never felt optional. On the other side of the rope, emotions were a requirement. If you were “touched by God,” you would feel it. And you should want to feel it. You were supposed to feel God’s presence and power. After all, we would sing, “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place; I can feel his mighty power and grace.” Even more amazing: “I hear the brush of angel’s wings; I see glory on each face”! Doctrine and the mind were on one side; emotions and experience were on the other.

To say I was confused is an understatement. If my emotions could not be trusted, if they were optional, nonessential to faith, and yet God’s presence could be, indeed should be felt, then what was I to do? Faith needed to be felt. After all, wasn’t assurance simply feeling saved? Most certainly, a feeling-driven faith proves unstable, and “feeling saved” is no foundation for full assurance. But then again, a Joe Friday intellectualism that focuses only on “the facts, ma’am, just the facts” falls short of a robust Christianity filled with gratitude, fear, joy, peace, and love. The ultimate answer to the role of emotions in the Christian life needs to be searched out in God’s word. If the Bible addresses the whole person, then the Bible can at least give us a framework for understanding the emotions.

Feelings, Emotions, Affections

There are a few words in the Bible that can convey the concept of “feelings.” For instance, in the Song of Solomon: “My beloved extended his hand through the opening, and my feelings were aroused for him” (5:4 NASB). The Hebrew word mēĕh generally means “belly, stomach, entrails, intestines, or more figuratively, the inner being (seat of the emotions).”1 There is a similar concept with the Hebrew word kilyāh, meaning the “kidneys; or as the innermost, the most secret part of man.”2 An example of this usage is found in Jeremiah 11:20, “But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously, who tried the feelings and the heart.” The ESV says, “Who tests the heart and mind.”

The New Testament also has words that convey similar ideas. Feelings or emotions are sometimes expressed in visceral terms. Jesus “felt compassion [Greek, splanchnizomai]” on the crowds (Matt. 9:36), and Paul longed for the Philippians with “the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:8). Although these are helpful, the Bible does not give us a clinical definition of emotions. The Bible does, however, frequently describe emotions. Some might argue and even make distinctions between emotions and affections. For this article, I will not be maintaining these finer distinctions and will basically use the terms “emotions” and “affections” interchangeably. Matthew Elliott gives a helpful definition of the emotions:

Emotions are not primitive impulses to be controlled or ignored, but cognitive judgments or construals that tell us about ourselves and our world. In this understanding, destructive motives can be changed, beneficial emotions can be cultivated, and emotions are a crucial part of morality.3

Emotions are cognitive: they reflect our values and judgments, and they are vital in relationships. Far from being merely the caboose, emotions appear to be more important than an optional feature to our humanity. But how do we go about understanding them? This is where good, biblical theology can help us.

Emotions and the Image of God

A good biblical anthropology will not allow us to simply relegate emotions to the baser part of our nature. Rather, a biblical anthropology will give us a framework for looking at emotions: first as seen in God himself, and then as seen in the Son of God in the incarnation. We are made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26–28), and our emotions should be viewed as a part of that image of God in us. In Scripture, God has and expresses perfect, holy emotions: God grieves over sin (Gen. 6:5–6), God hates certain things (Prov. 6:16–19), God delights in his Son (Isa. 42:1), and God takes joy in his people (Zeph. 3:17). While there are hundreds of examples, these are sufficient to make our point.

Some people immediately object because the Westminster Confession says that God is “without passions.”4 It is beyond the scope of this article to explore in depth the heated debate regarding the doctrine of divine impassibility (i.e., God is without passions). However, affection in God is not inconsistent with “without passions.” God is never subject to emotions. He cannot “feel blue.” God’s affections are never out of control. He never “loses it.” In a word, when we speak of God’s emotions or affections, we are not referring to them in the same way as our own human emotions. As Michael Horton notes,

God is the transcendent Lord of the covenant who is never a passive victim but is always the active judge and justifier. Even if God is revealed in Scripture (analogically) as responding to the world and especially to human beings in a covenantal relationship, it is not in the same way we respond to each other.5

As Horton and others have pointed out, however, to say that God is not subject to emotions, or that he doesn’t experience them as humans do, doesn’t mean that God does not have real affections, such as love, joy, wrath, compassion, and so on. God’s affections are not only pure, holy, and perfect, but they are also eternal and immutable. They are real affections, but eternal and immutable because ultimately the delight and joy he has is in himself. The wrath he manifests is ultimately rooted in his unchanging holiness. Horton again notes,

God does feel, but not as one who depends on the world for his joy. God responds to our sorrows with compassion, to our sin with anger, and to our obedience with delight. Yet he does so as a generous rather than a needy lover.6

Jonathan Edwards helps us here. Edwards brings together God’s eternality and immutability and his real affections exercised toward his creatures in time, by stating that the real pleasure God receives from his creatures is simply the pleasure he already has in himself:

God may delight with true and great pleasure in beholding that beauty which is an image and communication of his own beauty, an expression and manifestation of his own loveliness. And this is so far from himself, that ’tis an evidence that he is happy in himself, or delights and has pleasure in his own beauty.7

Charles Hodge also affirmed the reality of emotions in God:

The schoolmen, and often the philosophical theologians, tell us that there is no feeling in God. This, they say, would imply passivity, or susceptibility of impression from without, which it is assumed is incompatible with the nature of God. . . . Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear testimony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love.8

Benjamin B. Warfield echoed Hodge’s view in a sermon on God’s immeasurable love:

We shall not stop to dwell upon this somewhat abstract discussion. Enough for us that a God without emotional life would be a God without all that lends its highest dignity to personal spirit whose very being is movement; and that is as much as to say not God at all.9

My point in briefly bringing up this hot topic is to demonstrate that in the Bible human emotions do not simply arise out of our physical bodies, nor are they the result of the Fall. Our emotions are a dim reflection of the image of God. While acknowledging fundamental and profound differences, we can also affirm that our emotions are a legitimate and good part of our nature, because they reflect the image of God.

Our ability to feel—our ability to exhibit love, hate, joy, compassion, awe, gratitude, delight, and even anger—is a reflection of being made in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, far from being the caboose, our emotions are an integral part of what it means to be a human being made in the image of God. While emotions are not all of what it means to be human, they are a significant part of our human nature and our human experience. Matthew Elliott does not overstate the case when he says, “Everything we do, say, and think, is, in some sense, emotional. We enjoy it, we dislike it, or we just don’t care. We describe our experiences and ourselves by describing how we feel. Life without emotions would be in black and white.”10

The God-Man

Another helpful angle from which to think about emotions is seen through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is God in human flesh, the Word who became flesh (John 1:14). The Bible teaches us that Jesus Christ is the perfect reflection of his Father and of the divine nature. The apostle Paul says, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4), and “in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The writer to the Hebrews states the same truth, “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). Our Lord Jesus could say to Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

When the Second Person of the eternal Godhead became man, he became man in a way that reflected his deity: he was God in human flesh. Consequently, when our Lord Jesus showed emotion or expressed his feelings, we can assume he did so in perfect harmony with his deity. In the incarnation, however, Jesus is also perfect humanity, without sin or defect (Heb. 7:26). This means that not only is there a reflection of the divine nature in Jesus’ emotions, it also means that the Lord Jesus had a perfect human emotional constitution and perfect emotional expressions. B. B. Warfield said, “It belongs to the truth of our Lord’s humanity that he was subject to all sinless emotions.”11

If our view of emotions is skewed to begin with, then we end up missing this glorious aspect of our Lord’s person and the rich example he is to us. To say, as one author does, that “Jesus Christ could not control his emotions when he walked Planet Earth” not only blasphemes the flawless character of our Lord, but also robs God’s people of the beauty and example of our Lord’s emotional life. When we fix our eyes on Jesus, we see a variety of emotions that perfectly reflect his Father as well as his full deity and perfect humanity. Therefore, the character of Christ stands as another biblical and theological pillar for understanding our emotions. If Christ, perfect God and perfect man, displayed perfect emotions, then we must pay special attention. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6).

Emotions: Creation, Fall, Redemption

My proposition so far has been that we should see emotions as an integral part of our human nature. Our emotions are a part of the image of God in us. In that primal sense, they were good and holy. Although the Bible does not give us explicit information about the pre-Fall state, it seems safe to assume that Adam and Eve had all their faculties working in harmony. Their minds, wills, and emotions would have been upright, functioning without sin or corruption. Although we don’t know how long that state lasted, what a state it must have been!

When Adam fell, every faculty of his humanity fell; every part of his being became tainted and corrupted by sin. This corrupt state was then passed down to all his descendants. Adam and the whole human race now had “a bad record and a bad heart.”12 The image of God, although still there, became vandalized by sin. The mind was darkened (Rom.1:21, 28; 8:6–7; Eph. 4:17–18). No longer would human beings perceive truth with clarity or with acknowledging God. Rather, intellectual autonomy and mental impurity would plague Adam’s children; the will became infected by sin, stained and enslaved; and our ability to choose became enslaved to a fallen nature and fallen desires (John 8:34; Rom. 6:16). Nor would our affections escape Adam’s fall into sin and death. Our emotions—our likes, our dislikes, our loves, our hates—became hijacked by sin (Jer. 17:9; John 3:19). God’s image became corrupted by sin. Thomas Boston captured this radical depravity of our emotions with unforgettable language:

The natural man’s affections are wretchedly misplaced; he is a spiritual monster. His heart is where his feet should be, fixed on the earth; his heels are lifted up against heaven, which his heart should be set on. His face is towards hell, his back towards heaven; and therefore, God calls him to turn. He loves what he should hate and hates what he should love; joys in what he ought to mourn for and mourns for what he should rejoice in; glories in his shame and is ashamed of his glory; abhors what he should desire, and desires what he should abhor.13

Our emotions received the fatal infection of original sin and a fallen human nature. Like a few drops of dye into a pitcher of water, every molecule of our nature has been colored by the toxic dye of sin. Emotions, which were designed to be good and work in tandem with the mind and will, now either dominate or become dormant. On the one hand, they can dominate our thinking so that what controls us is how we feel, how we determine what is true is based on how we feel, and how we relate to others is based on how we feel about them. The chaos of such life can be painful. On the other hand, trying to ignore or repress our emotions (and be like a Star Trek Vulcan rather than a human) is also a recipe for disaster. Truth and beauty in God and in life become black and white, and we fail to be whole people. What we need in our mangled humanity is full restoration.

Only redemption in Jesus Christ can begin this restoration project and rebuild the ruins caused by sin. This reconstruction begins with the new birth and is carried forward in sanctification. When the gospel comes to us in the power of God’s Spirit, it impacts the whole person: the mind is enlightened to behold the glory of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6), and the will is empowered to turn from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thess. 1:9). But the gospel also impacts our emotions: there is conviction of sin (Ps. 32:3–4), and there is joy in believing in Jesus (1 Pet. 1:8). Jesus is the satisfaction of our souls (John 6:35, 38). The image of God in us, which was corrupted at the Fall, now begins a renovation project. We are being restored to the true image, which is God’s own Son (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10).

This restoration to the image of God’s Son is the ultimate goal of our sanctification. The process of sanctification entails the whole person, which includes our emotions. The Spirit of God through the Word of God is working in us, transforming us, into the image of Jesus. So in sanctification we look to Jesus (2 Cor. 3:18; Heb. 12:1–2).

You Can’t Tell Me How to Feel! Can you?

At this point, if we were to follow conventional Christian wisdom, then we would have to make two faulty assumptions: “I cannot help the way I feel; I am not in control of my emotions”; and “So when the Bible tells me to feel a certain way or to have a certain emotion, those commands can have nothing to do with the emotions.”

I recently did a sermon series on joy and was surprised to see how many Bible scholars and theologians want to eviscerate all affection from joy, since we are commanded to have joy and obviously God cannot command the way we feel. In this thinking, joy is stripped of all its emotional elements and reduced to a quality or an action! This kind of logic must be rejected.

The Scriptures do in fact command our emotions. Scripture commands us to “forgive from the heart,” to “rejoice,” to “love with brotherly affection,” to “mourn with those who mourn,” to “fear,” to be “zealous,” to “yearn,” and to be “tenderhearted.” While obedience to these commands is more than just the way we feel, obedience to these commands is also not devoid of how we feel. As God is sanctifying us, he is sanctifying our emotions. Our emotions come under the authority of his word and the Lordship of Jesus, and sanctification comes through the word and the Spirit. Sanctification transforms the emotions. Martyn Lloyd-Jones explains the process:

Truth comes to the mind and to the understanding enlightened by the Holy Spirit. Then having seen the truth the Christian loves it. It moves his heart. If you see the truth about yourself as a slave of sin you will hate yourself. Then as you see the glorious truth about the love of Christ you will want it, you will desire it. So the heart is engaged. Truly to see the truth means that you are moved by it and that you love it. You cannot help it. If you see truth clearly, you must feel it. Then that in turn leads to this, that your greatest desire will be to practice it and love it.14

The process of sanctification, then, involves putting to death emotional sins that drag us down, while also cultivating Christlike emotions such as love, compassion, joy, righteous anger, grief, and gladness. The cultivation of these God-honoring emotions happens when we are sanctified by big, glorious, magnificent truths that serve as ballast for our hearts and minds. Right thinking leads to right feeling. What I think about God—who he is and what he is like—is the most important thing about me. What I believe about how I am made right with God, and how I am justified as a sinner before God, is crucial to the stability of my mental and emotional life. What I believe about this present age and the coming age, and what is promised now and what is promised only in the future, is foundational for dealing with this life. Bad teaching about God’s character—about justification and about the now and the not yet—can twist us up, turn us upside down, and destroy the emotional ballast in our souls.

As Christians we have a responsibility to handle our emotions through the truth, and we see this repeatedly exemplified in Scripture. For example, how does Jeremiah deal with the devastation and loss in the sacking of Jerusalem? As he doubles over with grief (Lam. 3:19–20), the winds of emotion shift when he says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21–23). Jeremiah is rescued from the pit of emotional despair by right thinking about God! He sets the Lord before him and he is not shaken (Ps. 16:8–9). This is the experience of psalmist, sage, apostle, and saint as truth triumphantly transforms emotions.

As Christians being conformed to the image of the One who redeemed us, we cannot afford to dismiss our emotions as “feelings, nothing more than feelings.” Nor can we afford to be governed or controlled by our emotions, tossed around by every feeling. A biblical view of humanity must reject both the dismissal of the emotions and the undue exaltation of them. Instead, Christians should strive for the restoration of the image of Christ in them, which can be attained only through God’s word and God’s Spirit. The joyful hope of this pursuit is a sweeter and deeper communion with our God.


Brian Borgman (MDiv, Western Seminary; DMin Westminster Seminary California) is founding pastor of Grace Community Church in Minden, Nevada, and the author of Feelings and Faith: Cultivating Godly Emotions in the Christian Life (Crossway, 2009).

  • Brian Borgman

  1. Ludwig Koehler, et al., The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994–2000), 609–10.
  2. Koehler, 479.
  3. Matthew A. Elliott, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 54.
  4. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 2.1.
  5. Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 248.
  6. Horton, 249.
  7. Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 8, Ethical Writings, ed. Paul Ramsey (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 446.
  8. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), I:428–29.
  9. B. B. Warfield, The Saviour of the World (1916; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 117.
  10. Elliott, 12.
  11. B. B. Warfield, “On Emotional Life of Our Lord,” in The Person and Work of Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1950), 93.
  12. This is a sermon title from Pastor Albert N. Martin, published by the Chapel Library.
  13. Thomas Boston, Human Nature in Its Fourfold State (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 127.
  14. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Its Cures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 61.
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