In our last letter we finished our discussion of the conscience in the life of man and particularly in the life of the regenerated child of God. We have now to turn to the question of the place of the emotions in man’s life—and again, particularly in the life of the Christian.
This is a very difficult subject to discuss, and we need not, I think, enter into the question in detail. Such detailed discussion would carry us very far afield and would not serve any good purpose so far as I can see. Yet some understanding of the emotions is important.
If one should make an effort to define the emotions, one immediately runs into a problem. The problem has been faced many times in the past, and I do not know a better way to formulate the problem than this way: Are the emotions a separate faculty of the soul? This is really not such a clear way to state the problem because the question immediately arises: What is meant by faculty? Let’s not get too involved in that question for now; let’s be content with saying that a “faculty” is a power which the soul possesses and which power is a particular function of the soul. It is generally conceded that the soul has especially two such powers or functions: the power of thinking and the power of willing; or, the faculty of the mind and the faculty of the will. Now the question which we face is this: Are the emotions. (or feelings, or affections,—whatever you want to call them now) a separate power or faculty in the soul distinct. from and functioning alongside of the mind and will?
There have been those in the past who have taken this position. Dr. H. Bavinck, in his book, Principles of Psychology, discusses this matter at length and points out the dangers of doing this. I will try to summarize what he says about this.
The chief danger which Bavinck sees in making the emotions or feelings a separate faculty is that this causes the feelings “to stand outside the control of the understanding and will, and thus outside responsibility and guilt.” His point is that responsibility and accountability before God rest upon man’s rationality and morality. That is, a man is responsible before God because he has a mind and a will by which he is able to know the difference between good and evil and know that it is his calling before God to do the good. But if the emotions are given independent status, alongside of the mind and the will, then all such actions which arise out of the emotions are also outside the boundaries of responsibility and guilt.
This is an interesting point which Bavinck makes because it is exactly what is happening in our day. The trouble is that not only is it true that emotions are given a place in the life of the soul alongside of (and relatively equal to) the powers of mind and will, but the emotions are even given a position of superiority in the life of men. There have always been those who have stressed the importance of “feeling.” They have said that emotions are the important thing. One ought to live in such a way that his emotions come to full expression, that, as a matter of fact, he is guided by his emotions in all that he does. This sort of position has all but determined the kind of world we live in today. Not only do emotions guide and direct men in all that they do, emotions even determine at last what is right and what is wrong. It is the emphasis which people place upon feeling. Whatever gives them pleasure in an emotional sense is what they do. They seek their pleasure in “fun” because fun makes themfeel good. They go to drugs and alcohol because they give them a lift, give them a high, make them feel good for a time. Whatever feels good one does. And the motto for a hedonistic age is: “If it feels good, do it.”
But this same idea becomes a kind of standard of right and wrong. When people do something which is contrary to God’s Word and this is pointed out to them, then they cannot imagine that anyone would possibly question the morality of their conduct because, after all, it was fun to do and it gave them a thrill and, “Do you want to take all our fun away?” This same attitude is becoming increasingly common among our children. They seem to have the idea that if they feel like doing something, they have a perfect right to do it, and the good feeling which it gives them to do it is perfect justification for doing it. That places the act beyond all criticism and outside condemnation.
This principle is literally taken over in the area of law and jurisprudence. The man may, in a fit of anger, murder his wife. But the very fact that he was emotionally aroused by the anger which consumed him makes him innocent of murder and excuses what he has done. And so the court declares him not guilty on the grounds that he was not responsible for his conduct since he was so emotionally aroused.
How correct Bavinck was when he pointed out this danger. As, increasingly, this idea that the emotions are a separate faculty gained ground, so also did the idea grow that whatever conduct in man is rooted in the emotions is beyond the pale of responsibility and guilt.
Bavinck goes on to point out that when this same principle is carries over into the area of religion, then it becomes mysticism in all its different forms. He writes, “Feeling, released from the discipline of the faculties of knowing and willing, becomes an independent fountain of knowledge; and the balance is broken both in the life of the individual man and in that of the people.” So it is in the area of religion especially in what we call today, Neo-Pentecostalism. Sometimes such mysticism takes the extreme form of making one’s feelings the criterion of truth so that special revelations come through the subjective faculty of feeling. But, more often than not, religion is reduced to feeling spiritually “high.” The knowledge of the faith is spurned and the discipline of the activity of the will is ignored—all to make room for “feeling good.” Religion is not so much what you believe. Religion is what you feel.
There is a great deal of this today also within the church of Christ. It is obvious, though, that this must be avoided like the plague.
On the other side of the coin, however, there has always been a certain tendency to deny the emotions altogether. It is, of course, impossible to do this in any kind of absolute sense. It is impossible to take the position that man has no emotions, or, at least, that man ought not to have any emotions, ‘that emotions are the baser side of man, the more animal side, the lower aspect of his being. Man ought, if at all possible, to keep his emotions and feelings under such total control that he never does anything in an emotional way nor reveals that he has feelings of any kind.
It seems to me that this is sometimes the consequence of taking the opposite position, namely, that the emotions are not a separate faculty of the soul, but are simply a part of the functioning of the mind and the will. To use a figure: is the human person like a chariot pulled by three horses (the mind, the will, and the emotions), or is the human person like a chariot pulled by two horses (the mind and the will)? If the latter is true then what are the emotions? The possible and seemingly ready answer is that the emotions are only another part of the mind. Just as the mind of man thinks, reasons, ponders, understands, remembers, etc., so does the human mind also “feel.” The emotions or feelings are a part of the work of the mind—one function of the mind among many.
But it is this position which, it seems to me, has led to the idea that we ought not really to be emotional people at all. We ought, in so far as we are able, to keep our emotions so rigidly in check that they really never influence our conduct in any respect. We ought never to be angry. We ought never to be sad—no matter how we are afflicted. To show grief when a loved one dies is wrong, and the more we can refrain from showing any grief, the more spiritual we are. We ought never to allow our emotions to show through; then people will never know how we feel inside ourselves or how we react to what happens to us and to others. The less emotional a person is, the more he is to be praised.
It seems that this has sometimes been the position among us, and I wonder sometimes whether this is not, in fact, a characteristic of the Dutch—especially in comparison to other nationalities which are very emotional. We are ashamed to show our feelings quickly, are embarrassed by our emotions, hide them from others when we can, and try to control them in our own lives.
Is this the way it ought to be? Ought we to be such creatures of the mind and will that every part of our life is so completely intellectual and volitional that there is no room for emotions at all?
It ought to be obvious immediately that this is impossible. Even if it were desirable, it simply is not possible. We are creatures who are emotional, and all the theorizing in the world is not going to change that one whit. We may draw up many rules of conduct which, whether written or unwritten, disavow the emotional in man and make any show of emotions a shame; but that is not going to alter the fact that man cannot be anything, else but a creature of feeling, a person with affections, one who came from the hands of his Creator with the power of emotions. He may try to control them, to hide them, to act as if they do not exist; but they are there and they will be a part, an enormous part, of our life whether we will or not.
Even if we succeed in hiding our feelings from others, they are inside ourselves. They are there, uncontrollably there; they are there because we are made to “feel”; and without “feeling” we would not be the kind of creatures God made us.
We want to take a look at the Scriptures and see what they have to say about all this. But we shall have to wait until next time.
Your brother in Christ,