The influence of today’s ‘feelings culture’ has overshadowed the biblical principles of obedience.
If someone were to design a banner to represent the (late 20th century) in western civilization, it would be emblazoned with the twin slogans, “Do your own thing,” and “If it feels good, do it.” Popular music, the movie theater, and commercial advertising all bleat the same refrain: Do only what feels “free,” what feels “natural,” and what is self-gratifying.
Advertisements tell us we can “feel free” if we drink a certain brand of soft drink, that a certain make of car will “set you free.” In general, we’re encouraged to “grab for all the gusto … because you only go around once in life.”
Being immersed in a feelings-oriented society has produced a more profound effect on the average Christian than one might realize. This was highlighted to me a few years ago at a Christian conference where I was speaking.
One of the conferees said to me, “Pat, I know we’re supposed to go out witnessing tomorrow as part of this conference, but should a person force himself to go out witnessing if he doesn’t really feel like it? Isn’t it true that the Holy Spirit is supposed to give us a new set of desires, a new set of want-to’s, when we become Christians? If I force myself to do something that the Holy Spirit hasn’t given me the desire to do, isn’t that legalism?”
I knew there was a core of truth in what he said, and yet his reply bothered me. What does it mean to be led of the Spirit? What is legalism, and how does it differ from a healthy discipline? And just what role should feelings play in the Christian life?
Not long after that the feelings issue was brought to my attention again. A Christian whom I was counseling tried to rationalize some obvious sin in his life, something the Bible clearly labeled as sin, by saying, “I really have peace about it. The Spirit just hasn’t convicted me yet that it’s wrong.
It’s becoming clearer that, for many Christians, feelings have become the final judge of what’s right and what’s wrong. The whole decision-making process is thus made hazy and subjective. Seeing this tendency in others has only made me more aware of the same tendency within myself.
Recently I found myself on a crowded bus on the way to the New York airport. I was bone-weary from a full week of ministry activities. All I wanted to do was vegetate and extend myself as little as possible. And yet I sensed the Spirit convicting me to share Christ with the fellow sitting beside me. The war between my feelings of weariness and the Spirit’s promptings raged most of the way to the airport.
Finally, I turned to my seat mate and initiated a conversation about the Lord. He turned out to be a Christian, and a citizen of a middle-eastern country. He was in the U.S. for treatment of a serious disease and was very much in need of some encouragement. God had obviously wanted me to talk to him. Though I was finally obedient in that situation, there are far too many other situations where I let my surface feelings totally dictate my actions.
One thing that encourages me is that Paul faced the same problem we face. In Romans 7:19 he says, “For the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish.” Paul is describing the way our new Spirit-led desires are quenched by our surface feelings, whether it’s by fear or some other inhibition.
How do we break out of the prison of our surface feelings? First, by realizing that God has given us a new set of godly desires as Christians. Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:17 that if anyone is “in Christ,” he is instantaneously, point in time, a “new creation.” Hebrews 10:16 repeats the same truth: “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, and upon their mind I will write them.”
God previously wrote His Old Testament laws on tablets of stone; now He inscribes His laws on our very hearts the moment we accept His Son.1 In one sense we could say that at the point of salvation we have inscribed within us the desire to obey every command in God’s Word. The written Word is merely a reflection of the character of Jesus Christ, the living Word. And Jesus Christ is living within us. It’s as if God has plugged His Word into our lives just as one might plug a cassette into a giant tape recorder.
So God has given us a new set of desires. But where are these desires? 1 Thes. 5:23 and other passages indicate that man is a three-dimensional being: spirit, soul and body. It is his spiritual dimension that is “100% converted” at the point of spiritual birth and implanted with a whole new set of godly desires.
His soul (“psuche” in the original Greek, from which we get the word “psychology”) is his personality – the mind, emotions and will. The new desires implanted instantaneously within a person’s spirit may take a lifetime to work themselves out through his personality. This explains why the personality is still programmed with many sinful habit patterns and impulses held over from the old life outside of Christ.
The result is that each of us as Christians is bombarded all day long by two sets of impulses: those surface feelings which are often manipulated by the world (the sinful/self-centered values, goals, thinking, priorities, activities, etc.), our sinful flesh/nature and Satan, and our new godly desires implanted by the Holy Spirit. Those godly desires can be a constant source of motivation to those who are able to recognize them. “For it is God who is at work in you” Paul says in Phil. 2:13, “both to will (to give you the desire) and to work for His good pleasure.”
Are feelings valid? You bet! God wants us to experience feelings. But feelings were never intended to motivate us to do anything; they were intended to be byproducts of a life of faith and obedience. Heb. 12:11 says it clearly: “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
The Christian puts his faith in the fact of God and His Word. Right feelings often follow as a result.
CHECK THOSE FEELINGS
Begin to train yourself to recognize and respond to your godly desires and not to your surface feelings. How do you tell the difference? Let me suggest a formula that’s been helpful to me and to a number of others with whom I’ve shared it.
(1) Compare the impulse you’re getting with the objective commands and promises in the Word of God. Let’s say it’s 6 a.m. and you’re resting comfortably in your warm, cozy bed – the world’s most perfect environment. Suddenly your alarm clock goes off. As you click it off, a war immediately breaks out within you. A whole set of seemingly spiritual rationalizations present themselves. “Should I get up and spend some time with the Lord?” “Oh, if I just had a little more sleep, it would be so much easier for me to obey God today.” Etcétera, etcétera.
At that point, you need to compare your impulse with the objective commands and principles of Scripture. In this case, you might remind yourself of the high priority God places on time alone with Him in prayer and Bible reading and meditation, of how much He desires our fellowship and worship. Then move on to step two.
(2) Reject those impulses that are in conflict with the Word of God. This step will always be a battle. On the one hand, your feelings will be strongly urging you not to do anything that doesn’t feel good. And on the other hand, the Lord will be quietly prompting you through your godly desires.
(3) Realize that your true desires are in line with God’s commands. Remember the question my friend asked at the Christian conference? Should a person force himself to do something he really doesn’t want to do, that the Spirit has not given him the desire to do? Remind yourself that according to Philippians 2:13, God is constantly at work within you, giving you the will, and then doing it through you.
This is not forcing yourself to do something you don’t want to do. Acting in accordance with Scripture is following your new godly desires. Your surface feelings will try to tell you this is just double talk, but God says differently. Your godly desires may be crusted over with several layers of surface feelings, but they are there. The “real” you (i.e., the converted, Christian you – 2 Cor. 5:17) does want to step out and be a whole, righteous, obedient person.
(4) Claim the power of the Holy Spirit by faith and do it. This becomes the key to avoiding legalism. To attempt to obey the commands of Scripture in the flesh (i.e., the sin nature) is an impossible burden. Honestly acknowledge to God your inability to be obedient in your own strength. Be honest with God about how you feel. Christ certainly was honest with the Father in the garden. “Father, if it’s possible,” He said, “let this cup pass from Me. But even so, not My will, but Yours be done.”
Then claim the power of the Spirit to work through you in that situation and do it. Don’t wait for the feelings. Being filled with (controlled by) the Spirit is not a feeling. It’s an empowering.
(5) Right feelings usually come after we step out in faith and obedience. In John 15:11, Jesus says, “These (commandments) I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”
Why does Christ want us to obey? It’s the only way that we are going to be joyful Christians. The most miserable people in the world are Christians who are being disobedient to the Lord. If you want a real experience with God, if you want to be liberated from the prison of your surface feelings, tie everything you’re doing to the objective Word of God, the Bible. Bring your actions in line with what your real (i.e., new nature, Spirit-controlled) desires from God are. Claim the power of the Spirit and step out into a new life of faith and victory. Today is not too soon to begin.
- 2 Cor. 3:3.
Pat Means, Worldwide Challenge