Balancing Intellect and Emotion for a Fully Orbed Faith

Balancing Intellect and Emotion for a Fully Orbed Faith

Recently, I’ve become intentional about staying away from the phrase, I feel, instead trading it for I think. It’s surprising how this shift in vocabulary has granted me more credibility in many conversations. And that’s because being emotional or making any decision based on an emotion is seen as a negative trait.

Feelings are known for being unreliable and changing with the wind. Women are often described as more emotional beings, contrasting with men, who are seen as more rational. I’m not denying the biological differences between men and women and the rippling effect they have in many aspects of life, but the trouble we run into is when conveying, trusting in, or expressing anything related to your emotions is seen as inherently negative and unreliable. A negative view of emotions has seeped into the church and can have harmful effects on a person’s faith. Emotions are not a sin, yet they are often treated that way.

Emotion is part of what makes us human. When a loved one dies, we feel deep sorrow or even anger. When a baby is welcomed into the world, we experience excitement or even fear about becoming a parent. Emotions are the way we respond to the world around us. And that’s a good thing. 

In fact, it’s concerning and even deeply unhealthy when someone shares that they don’t feel anything during a life altering moment. Emotions are not something we need to rid ourselves of or push down at all costs. 

Have emotions been tainted by the Fall? Of course. But we lose part of what it means to be human when we wage a war between intellect and emotion. 

Certainly, our emotions can’t lead every decision we make. But neither should our thoughts. There are many thoughts I have that should never leave my mind. Emotions are no more irrational than many of the thoughts we have on a regular basis. 

There is a place for both emotion and intellect to work together. For one to thrive, it doesn’t mean you must be void of the other. In our spiritual life, we need both.

Our Pursuit of Jesus Is Intellectual and Emotional.

Throughout the New Testament, the Pharisees are described as experts on scripture. Yet, this is the group of people for whom Jesus had the strongest rebukes. If the Christian life were all about right doctrine and correct theology, then we would be called to look to Pharisees as models of the faith. 

Yet, Jesus harshly speaks against the Pharisees in Matthew 23. Essentially, the Pharisees used doctrine as the gatekeeper for who would get into heaven and who wouldn’t. But all of their righteous thinking and knowledge was worthless, because it hadn’t actually changed who they were. They just wanted to tell people how they ought to live, having no compassion or empathy for those they taught.

This is the opposite of what the Christian life is supposed to be. We are not called to be stoics. Our faith can’t be so entrenched in having perfect doctrine that we view emotion as sinful, as weakness, or even as a lack of faith.

To be sure, there are some Christians who are more at risk of living by unhealthy emotionalism. And defining your faith by the presence of or lack of an emotion is equally as harmful as stoicism. Christians often define highly emotional experiences in their faith as “mountaintop experiences,” and they are trying to get back to that moment. 

The Apostle Paul had a mountaintop moment when he was on the road to Damascus and his life changed forever. It’s safe to say the Apostle Paul had more than a change in his thought process. He didn’t go from wanting to murder anyone who called themselves a Christian to being a Christian merely based on his intellectual opinion changing. He went from hating Christians to loving them and caring about them to the point of his own death. 

The transformation was intellectual, emotional, and certainly spiritual.

Faith Can’t Survive on Intellect Alone.

The Israelites went from being enslaved in Egypt to wandering through the wilderness, entering into the Promised Land, and then being exiled in foreign lands. This is the timeline of the Old Testament. Based on a rational assessment of the history of the people of God, things didn’t look good. If they were looking at their situation from a purely intellectual standpoint, there was only a small season that merited rejoicing. 

Against this backdrop, the people of Israel were told to have hope and rejoice. These are emotions. Hope is an emotion that envisions a better future. To rejoice is to feel an emotion of joy or happiness.

The trust we have in Jesus evoking an emotional response is a good thing. 

We need hope in order for our faith to survive. We see way too much pain, sorrow, and tragedy every day. As we wait for the full redemption of Jesus to cover the earth, we aren’t to grow weary and discouraged but to rejoice and have hope.

Hope Is Not the Only Acceptable Emotion.

That being said, within the discussion of faith and emotions comes the question about which emotions are allowed. The door to allowing emotions in is only slightly cracked, because surely not all emotions are allowed in. Our sound doctrine will allow hope and joy. But that’s all.

Things like guilt, anger, bitterness, hopelessness, fear, and jealousy are not welcome. We know these are not the fruit of the Spirit and shouldn’t be present in our lives. So what do we do when they are? They get pushed down or buried underneath the emotions we are allowed to express. Or we recite all of the verses that speak to how anti-Christian these emotions are.

However, it might be more helpful to read about the people in Scripture who brought these emotions before the Lord. The Psalms are packed full of situations where the people of God brought ugly and unacceptable emotions before him. Just as importantly, some emotions that we categorize as negative can actually move our faith forward.

We are told to hate what is evil and to fear God. There is a place for a varying array of emotions in our spiritual lives. That might mean dealing with them and knowing that God can handle whatever they are. It might also mean allowing yourself to truly hate what is evil to the point of seeing change in your community and personal life, rather than merely holding the right doctrine in your mind. Emotion ought to have a place in our faith rather than being something we’re constantly trying to get rid of or suppress. 

God created us with both intellect and emotion. Neither is meant to triumph over the other, but actively work together to pursue the heart of Christ. 


This Post Has One Comment

  1. Aaron B

    Thanks for this. The balance is difficult. In the circles I’ve found myself in most over the years, the balance has mostly tilted the other way: toward anti-intellectualism. It takes many subtle forms like the assumption that the Holy Spirit only speaks in unexplainable ways (because clear thinking is ‘leaning on your own understanding’ cf Proverbs), that God mainly leads through feelings of peace, constant warnings against knowledge and education, innate hostility toward science, the incorrect assumption that ‘heart’ in Scripture is an alternative to intellect rather than including it. What these have common is a strong preference for intuitive ways of knowing over conscious, disciplined reasoning. It’s… irony… sad.

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