“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” (Luke 6:27-28)
In 2012 a study by psychology researchers in Sweden concluded that people who go into engineering are less caring and empathetic than those who enter other professions such as medicine. Having studied engineering as an undergraduate, I concur. Engineers, in my experience, are laser focused on their practice area and generally unconcerned if not unfeeling about things outside their sphere of interest. Case in point – spring of 1970 during the height of the Vietnam anti-war movement when I was an engineering student at the University of Maryland. On May 1, violent demonstrations erupted across the sprawling College Park campus, fires were set, buildings occupied, and U.S. Route 1, which ran by the university, was blockaded by protesters. The National Guard was called out and the soldiers stormed the campus using tear gas and other riot equipment. Was the University shut down? Well, yes, except for the engineering school. We engineering students had lectures to attend and final exams to prepare for. Somehow we remained untouched and unmoved by the chaos all around.
I will leave it for those readers who know an engineer to decide whether or not the study is sound. My apologies to any engineer who feels misdiagnosed. For what it’s worth, my informal questioning of several engineering friends met with blank stares when I described the survey. They saw nothing remarkable in its conclusion other than perhaps that other people might find it remarkable. It was almost as if they were thinking, “Caring and empathetic? What’s that?” But we must move on.
I write this month about the importance of feelings in the pursuit of virtue. In my experience there is not a lot of teaching in the church about the role of feelings in our spiritual growth. And this is strange given the fact that Jesus teaches extensively about our feelings. In the Sermon on the Mount alone Jesus addresses feelings of: anger, lust, revenge, love, hatred, pride, self-righteousness, stinginess, worry, and being critical and judgmental. He speaks elsewhere about feelings of fear, unforgiveness, compassion, and defensiveness. Paul and other New Testament authors write about many of these feelings and others such as joy, discouragement and guilt.
For, in truth, our feelings are at the epicenter of the great struggle of our spiritual life – the struggle between good and evil – the seminal human struggle recorded in the Biblical record from Genesis to Revelation. And so, I offer a few thoughts about the importance and role of feelings in the pursuit of virtue: 1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions; 2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts; and 3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life.
1) Feelings are a primary mover of our actions
Does anyone doubt the extent to which we are moved by our feelings? Is there anything more empirically verifiable than the power of our feelings? We humans are feeling creatures. In the physical realm, we feel hungry and so we eat, we feel tired and we sleep. So too in the emotional/spiritual realm – we feel loving and so we serve others, or we feel angry and we retaliate. Not every time nor in every situation, but our default response is to act in accordance with our immediate feelings.
Dallas Willard observed that, “A great part of the disaster of contemporary life lies in the fact that it is organized around feelings. People nearly always act on their feelings, and think it only right. The will is then left at the mercy of circumstances that evoke feelings. Christian spiritual formation today must squarely confront this fact and overcome it.” (Renovation of the Heart)
How then do I proceed when my feelings would lead me to actions that are antithetical to the kingdom of God? For example, what do I do when someone hates me, or curses me, or mistreats me, and my feelings towards him or her would lead me to return tit for tat? Am I simply to override my feelings with a simple act of the will? Is this what Jesus is asking when he says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you?” (Luke 6:27-28) Does he expect us to ignore our feelings and simply “tough it out” by dint of our will? And if we are able to do this, what does it mean for our spiritual growth if we act loving towards others while we are hating them on our inside?
The answer is to consider first how our feelings can be changed. For, in truth, they can be.
2) Feelings can be changed by changing our thoughts
Because feelings have such power in our lives, the obvious question is how do we change our feelings? I have heard it said that “you cannot control your feelings,” and in terms of trying to will myself into feeling a certain way, I suppose this is true. For while I might be able to will myself into actions that I don’t feel like doing, I find it nearly impossible to directly will myself into different feelings. For example, when I am worried, I am unable to simply will myself to be at peace. When I am angry, I am unsuccessful in turning my feelings into compassion. Or when I am depressed, to instantly stir up feelings of joy.
Yet, it turns out that our feelings can be controlled indirectly, because feelings are always associated with and emerge from our thoughts. For example, unpleasant thoughts about the future can lead to feelings of fear, anger, or depression. Similarly, thoughts about our past can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or depression.
When our thoughts change, our feelings do as well. Again, this is empirically verifiable. Who among us has not been angry or depressed and suddenly received a good piece of news that changes our dark feelings to light? Have you ever had a medical problem that caused you to worry, and then have a doctor tell you that it is minor and easily treated? If so, you understand how changed thoughts lead to changed feelings.
The idea here is that while we may not have direct control over our feelings as such, we do have some control over our thoughts. And as we take control of our thoughts, our feelings change. I believe this is revealed in the wisdom from Paul when he writes about controlling our thoughts, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)
That said, controlling our thoughts to control our feelings is difficult when those feelings are caused by deep hurts and/or ingrained habits in our lives. These present matters that can be challenging and complicated to overcome – often involving healing, repentance and other spiritual resources. Nonetheless, there is much spiritual progress possible as we learn to, “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5b)
3) Feelings are transcended in a virtuous life
Feelings can be powerfully productive or depressingly destructive. For example, compassion can lead us to heroic acts of love; whereas anger can move us to kill and destroy. Dallas Willard writes that, “Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot live without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence, they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition.” (Renovation of the Heart) As long as we are alive we will have feelings, indeed they are a gift from God. Yet, ironically, true virtue in the Christian sense of the word involves transcending our feelings so that we are able act for the good without reference to our feelings or for that matter even our thoughts. Consider the following mind experiment.
You are tired from a long workday, annoyed at having to stop for groceries, and impatient to get home to relax. As you are standing in the checkout lane, you see a woman struggling with two small children and a cartful of items. Your thoughts are to let her go in front of you. Your feelings are to ignore her. And so your will is at the mercy of an internal struggle between your thoughts and your feelings. We might say that if you accede to your thoughts, and let her in line in front of you, that you have done a virtuous act – and so you have. But the goal of Christian spiritual formation and the pursuit of virtue is not so much a choice between your thoughts and feelings as it is a natural response that transcends both. In other words, true virtue is revealed when you see the struggling woman and automatically let her in line in front of you without reference to what you think or feel at the moment.
N.T. Wright puts it this way, “None of these things [virtuous actions] come naturally. … The point of virtue, is that eventually, as a person’s character becomes more fully formed, such things may indeed begin to ‘come naturally.’ But the steps it takes to get to that point involve hard decisions and hard actions, choices that run counter to the expectations, aspirations, desires, and instincts with which every human comes equipped.” (After You Believe – Why Christian Character Matters)
Lord, thank you for creating us as a people with feelings. Grant us today feelings of love, peace and joy to enrich our lives and move us into actions that build your Kingdom. Protect us from feelings of anger, lust and pride that enslave our souls and separate us from You and other people. Give us wisdom and strength to take every thought captive so that we may follow the paths of righteousness everyday. All blessing, glory and honor be unto You. Amen