Q&A: How do you distinguish between your feelings and what God is saying?
How would you distinguish between the words in your head and what God is saying?
I’m sure the Bible says not to act in feelings but if it’s a feeling God is giving you how can you know it’s from him?
[This is a Q&A question that has been submitted through this blog or asked of me elsewhere and posted with permission. You can submit a question (anonymously if you like) here: http://briggs.id.au/jour/qanda/]
I really appreciate this question. It’s an honest question. I think many of us ask (and answer it) without noticing, particularly when we are uncomfortable. It’s when we find ourselves confronted by or disagreeing with something we read in the Bible, for instance, that these questions arise: What is wrong here? What doesn’t sit right with me? Why doesn’t it sit right? How do I wrestle with it?
Too often, rather than wrestle with it, we put the niggly thing aside so that we can simply feel comfortable again. It is rarely the best way forward.
So how might we explore your question?
Firstly, let’s look at things in general:
Your question is what we call an epistemological question. Epistemology is how we think about knowing stuff, particularly how we know what is right and what is wrong.
It the words in my head say something is true, is that enough or do I need something else? If it feels right, does that make it right? That’s the sort of thing we’re talking about here.
Our answer is affected by historical and cultural differences:
- Some cultures emphasise tradition as more important than individual feelings or realisations. If you feel something is wrong, but the cultural tradition says it’s right, then the individual gives way to the collective wisdom. The internal process is like this: “I recognise that my experience is limited. Our tradition reflects the shared experience of generations of people, and is therefore less limited. Besides, I want to continue to fit in, so it is therefore more likely that I am wrong and the tradition is right.”
- Some times in history have emphasised reason as more important than feelings or individual intuitions. The so-called “Age of Enlightenment” from the 1600’s through to the 20th Century picked up on this. “Truth” is determined by logic, and science, and cold hard calculations. This is an aspect of what we call modernism.
- In the “post-modern” era (20th Century into the present day) we have elevated the value of individual feelings and thoughts. “Truth is experience” is our catch-cry; if we can’t feel it, it is not true. There’s value in this. Cold, hard, abstract theory, is not enough to guide and shape our lives. Our lives are also full of creativity, mystery, and the delights of the senses. We are also aware that beneath traditions and logical frameworks there are often hidden emotions and prejudices and unspoken power dynamics; we deconstruct these so-called truths as the self-serving assertions they actually are. “Going with your gut” rather than arguing yourself into subservience is a virtue in this worldview.
What does this tell us? That the “words in your head” and your “feelings” are not without value, but neither do they solely determine what is true and what is right. I know from my own experience, that my emotions are often broken. For instance, I have had a break down and depression; during that time my feelings about myself did not match the reality about myself and I had to learn to realise that. There have also been plenty of times when I held a view fervently that I subsequently came to realise was wrong. It is impossible to learn or grow without agreeing with the possibility that I’ve got something to learn.
Secondly, how do we approach this from a Christian perspective?
Our faith in God introduces something else into our epistemology. We belive in a God who is not distant and aloof, but is involved, not only in the history of the world, but in our lives. We therefore belive in a God who speaks, through word and action. What he says is a revelation; it reveals truth about who he is, about who we are, and about what this world is like.
So how do we know what that truth is? How do we know what is being revealed? What is God’s revelation to us?
The beauty of it is that God’s revelation is objective and external to us. God’s truth doesn’t depend on us. This is a good thing! If it did, our sense of truth and of right and wrong would be self-defined. The truth is that God loves the world, and loves me, whether or not I feel it or “know” it. The truth is that there is right and wrong in God’s perfect justice, even if my heart has been hardened and my mind has been dulled, and I am either justifying myself or falsely tearing myself down.
This sense of God’s revelation is found in two forms:
It is found in what we call “general revelation”; there is truth to be found within creation and from looking at what is in front of us. “The heavens declare the glory of God”, the psalmist says. “Since the creation of the world”, Paul says, “God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.” This is how Christian belief embraces and recognises the value of the scineces; it is a study of creation and of humanity that reveals much truth.
It is also found in what we call “special revelation.” That is, if God is close, and interacts with his creation, then God reveals himself in history. The written accounts of that history will then also reveal him. From looking at that written history we also see how God speaks through inspiration. He speaks to his people. Sometimes (but not often, it usually freaks people out), this is a direct “voice from heaven” (Exodus 20:18-19, Matthew 17:5). Often it is through the inspiration of a prophet who is set apart by God to speak to the people on God’s behalf. It is also through the giving of the Law, and in the inspiration of songs and poetry. The Bible is full of these things: history, law, prophetic writings, wisdom and creative writings, the accounts of Jesus’ life, and letters from his followers.
When we say “The Bible says” what we mean is that “God has revealed himself, in history, saying.” God has even spoken about how he speaks. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:216). The Bible is therefore an authoritative objective revelation for us.
The beauty of it is also that God’s revelation is subjective and personal to us. God isn’t relegated to speak to us in dry and dusty texts with dogmatic formulae; he whispers deeply and personally into the deepest parts of our heart. He calls us by name. He knows us. Jesus revealed himself to others in this way. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit who is our Advocate and Counsellor. Sometimes the whispers in my head are prompts by the Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes my feelings are the way in which God is waking me up to his truth, a light in the darkness around me.
So how , then, do we know?
We can be certain of something when it all lines up and there is agreement in our epistemology. When our own feelings and logical thoughts agree with the traditions around us… when those things line up with what we read in the Bible and how we feel the Spirit is speaking deeply into our souls… then all is well and good. We have a sense of being sure.
When there is disagreement between these epistemological sources, however, we have some wrestling to do.
In particular, when I find myself wrestling with a part of the Bible that doesn’t “sit well” with me, I churn it over.
- I look to myself. What I’m trying to do is to work out what is happening within me. I name up the feeling: Am I feeling angry, guilty, annoyed, fired up and frustrated? What’s going on in me? Are those feelings associated with experiences in my life that I haven’t resolved yet; is there some pain and trauma that is getting poked? How is this Scripture offending me or moving me? I don’t pass judgement and soothe the feeling, I consider myself and work out what the problem is. I recognise that my heart is often fickle, I don’t quickly agree with it, but I acknowledge the reality of my feelings.
- I apply some reason and look to logic and tradition. Am I reading this part of Scripture correctly? Do I actually understand what is being said? Have I properly got into the world of those who first read it, and understood what they were hearing? Have I shoved my situation into the text and reacted to something that was never intended in the first place? How have other people understood it over the years? How have they applied it? What can I learn from them?
- In all this, I pray for the Holy Spirit to help me. I ask for the Spirit to illuminate my wrestle – to give me insight into the Scripture, or an insight into myself. I trust that the Lord has something for me in the revelation of himself. Sometimes I’ve had a sense of words “jumping out at me” from the page, or stuck in my mind while I dwell on them. Sometimes the Spirit of God works through these things. But! Just because I feel it, doesn’t mean that it’s the Spirit at work. In particular, the personal revelation of God to my spirit will never be at odds with his objective truth in Scripture.
- I do it in community. I share all this wrestling with others, even it’s just one person like my wife or a friend. I explain to them what I’m feeling, and how that’s colliding with the words in the Bible. We pray together. We reflect on it together. We wrestle together. And sometimes there’s a prophetic word within that community that sheds light and makes things clear.
- I allow God to be God. In the end, I entrust myself to God. It’s nice to have our feelings resolved, and to be comfortable with the Bible and God’s word, but it’s not always the way that leads to growth. Sometimes God is drawing us deeper, and we need to give it time. I can avoid the pain of that growth by setting God’s word aside by either judging it to be wrong, or subjectifying it as irrelevant to me. But, if I want to grow, I need to allow the wrestle to remain. I fall back in confidence on the things that are sure – e.g. God’s love and truth and the beaty of Jesus – and trust God with the rest. Even, and especially, when we cannot see, we acknowledge our blindness, and reach out for God even more.
I hope that answers the question. How we wrestle with our feelings and our own understandings is key to our discipleship and our caring for one another. Thanks for asking. Hope these thoughts help.