Feelings, Reality, and Jesus
Is what we feel real?
We live in a world where feelings reign supreme. And why not? Our feelings are the closest thing to us. Oftentimes, our perception of reality is more important to us than the actual reality. If you are in a cold room, you don’t really care unless you feel cold.
Usually our feelings correspond to reality. If we feel happy, it’s usually because something in reality caused us to feel happy. And if we feel sad, it’s usually because something in reality caused us to feel sad. This is good. This is the way God designed our bodies and minds to function.
But sometimes our feelings become disconnected from reality. Sometimes we feel happy for no apparent reason. Sometimes we feel sad for no apparent reason. Sometimes we feel like something is true, even when it’s false. And sometimes we feel like something is false, even when it’s true. This is not the way God designed our bodies and minds to function. It is a result of the fall into sin.
Sometimes we even use “I feel” to preface a statement of reality, because we are unsure of the accuracy of what we are about to say. Millennials (the generation I belong to) are notorious for this. We say things like, “I feel like Abraham Lincoln was the 15th President of the United States” (he was really the 16th), or, “I feel like we had tacos yesterday.” Then your wife says, “No, we had tacos on Tuesday.”
The “I feel” preface is kind of goofy, because the facts of history do not depend on our feelings. How can you feel the Lincoln administration? It’s a goofy thing to say, but it illustrates that we have learned to interpret reality through our feelings. This is okay when our feelings interpret reality accurately, but we need to realize that sometimes they do not.
This is especially true in matters of theology and our standing before God. We tend to trust our feelings too much here, because we can’t just walk up to God and ask him where we stand with him. If you feel like your neighbor is mad at you, you can ask him. And then he can say, “Yeah, thanks for asking. I was a little miffed when you blew all your snow onto my driveway.” Or he can say, “No, I’m sorry I gave you that impression.” And then, based on how he answers, our feelings can start to move toward reality. But we can’t really do that with God, at least, not in the same way we can with our neighbors. So we listen to our hearts.
This is especially troubling, because our hearts always seem to give us the wrong answer. “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Our own hearts deceive us. This happens in two basic ways: first, regarding the Law, and, second, regarding the Gospel.
Regarding the Law, our hearts may tell us that we are okay with God when we’re really not. Our hearts may deceive us to make us think that we are actually good people. We compare ourselves to people whom we consider to be worse than us, so we must be okay. Or we focus on our good deeds, while our hearts push our evil deeds toward the back of our minds. Our deceitful hearts tell us we are okay so that we will not see our need for a Savior. The antidote to this is God’s Word, specifically his Law. This is the voice of reality that comes from outside of us and shakes us out of our delusion.
And regarding the Gospel, our hearts may tell us that we are not okay with God when we really are. Our hearts may deceive us to make us think that Christ’s forgiveness is not enough for us. We consider the many times we have abused God’s grace—those times when we really did feel sorry about what we did, but the next day we fell back into the same sin. Our deceitful hearts tell us we are not okay and that Christ’s forgiveness is not really for us. The antidote to this is God’s Word, specifically his Gospel. This is the voice of reality that comes from outside of us and assures us of Christ’s righteousness for us.
Whatever the truth may be, the devil would like us to believe the opposite, and our hearts are inclined to follow along. These two kinds of deception have one significant thing in common: they both lead us away from Christ and his righteousness. But we will not find righteousness in our own efforts, and we will not find it in our feelings. We will only find righteousness in Jesus Christ and his sacrifice for us.
“Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20).