Having been brought up in the evangelical church, there are a great many things that were ingrained into my understanding of the world at a young age that have continued to serve me into adulthood. On the other hand, there are things that I have needed to unlearn. Among them is the idea that I shouldn’t trust my gut.
I don’t know about you, but I can often feel that something is true before I know that it’s true. Whether it is how I am feeling about a difficult decision, a sneaking suspicion that I shouldn’t trust someone, or a general sense I have about a particular idea or situation, I can often feel a certain reality before I have the ability to articulate or explain it.
As I get older, I’m learning to trust those feelings more.
Nevertheless, in the tradition in which I was formed, which leans Reformed and Cessationist, trusting your feelings is an absolute no-no. Word it any way you like—following your heart, trusting your instinct, going with your gut—many evangelicals have long taught and been taught that we cannot even begin to trust ourselves.
When I was younger, I was often advised not to do anything in my life unless I had a Bible verse to back it up. “Feelings” were to be distrusted.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
Of course, most Protestant Christians are well acquainted with the doctrine of total depravity, whether by name or by inference. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other Protestant Reformers spoke at length about the corruptness of human nature, which resulted from the fall of humanity as described in Genesis 3.
Working from biblical passages like Romans 5:12-21, Romans 7:15-25, and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, Protestant theologians have long argued that humans are sinful not only because of our actions, but also by way of our disposition. That is, we are fundamentally oriented toward sin and thus sinners even before we commit a single wrongdoing.
And all of that is true. But it’s not the only thing that is true about humanity. What’s more is that part of the issue is context.
Whenever we delve into the works of the Reformers, what we must understand is that no theological system is created in a vacuum. Theology, when done well, is always responding to the issues of its day.
For Luther and the other reforming theologians who followed him, the issue of their day was widespread corruption in the medieval Roman Catholic Church, especially regarding the sale of indulgences. At the time, the church was enriching itself by literally selling the promise of heaven. The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone had been completely lost.
In order to get it back, the Reformers needed to remind us that humanity is so sinful that the only possible means salvation is the work of God incarnate himself. In other words, the Reformers had to convince people who thought they were moral and righteous that they were actually sinful and depraved.
Nevertheless, when we look at the whole of Scripture, sinfulness is only part of the picture when it comes to humanity. While fallenness and depravity are clear and present realities for humanity, they are not its totalizing characteristics. We must remember that before sin entered the world and corrupted human nature, God described humanity as very good. In so many ways, we still are.
In the centuries before the scandal of indulgences and the loss of clear teaching about Christianity’s most central message, theologians understood that while humanity is sinful, it is also still fundamentally beautiful because we are created in God’s image.
Saint Basil of Caesarea, a fourth century theologian, once wrote in a homily regarding the human condition, “Do not despise the wonder that is in you. For you are small in your own reckoning, but the Word will disclose that you are great.”
Basil later writes,
Learn well your own dignity. [God] did not cast forth your origin by a commandment, but there was a counsel in God to consider how to bring the dignified living creature into life. “Let us make.” The wise one deliberates, and the Craftsman ponders. So did he lose his skill, and did he deliberate in anxiety as he created in his masterpiece completion and perfection and exactitude? Or rather did he intend to show you that you are perfect before God?
By contrast, Martin Luther once wrote, “Human nature is like a drunk peasant. Lift him into the saddle on one side, over he topples on the other side.”
To a certain extent, both theologians, separated by nearly a millennium of context, were right.
While your heart is desperately sick and you are in dire need of a Savior, there is something still fundamentally good about you—as is the case for all humans. This is how non-Christians are able to be great leaders, philanthropists, artists, and engineers. While we have fallen from our original state, we have never lost the beauty that makes us human.
So while we can’t trust ourselves completely, there is no reason to believe that it is inherently wrong or sinful to allow your gut to take the lead. Of course, your gut must be sanctified and discipled in order to be rightly trusted, but this is a process that has been undertaken through the power of the Holy Spirit and with the guidance of wise spiritual leaders since the earliest days of the church.
The fact that we need to refine our ability to rightly discern what our guts are telling us does not invalidate our guts as a source of truth.
In fact, while it is true that Jeremiah 17 warns that ruin ultimately comes to those who place their hope for salvation and security in humanity, Jeremiah later prophecies that God will renew the hearts of his people. God promises, “And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). Of note is that when Jeremiah spoke about what we would describe as “the heart,” his Hebrew readers took him to be speaking about the gut.
Thus, by virtue of the New Covenant of Jesus, your gut is being renewed. So it stands to reason that you should learn to trust it—even if doing so means going against certain practices or beliefs within your theological tradition.
Here’s where this got real for me.
A number of years ago, when certain evangelical leaders whom I respected told me that people who believed in the use of charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit were not real Christians, something felt off.
When they told me that women needed to be treated contrary to their human dignity at home and in the church because “the Bible clearly says,” I knew their interpretation wasn’t quite right.
When they told me that I needed to support certain political candidates because “biblical values” demanded it, I found their claims highly suspect.
And when they told me that God stood opposed to furthering economic and racial justice, I just about fell out of my chair.
At the time, I didn’t necessarily have a Bible verse to back all these feelings up. But I knew that if the God of the Bible was real, and if he really meant what he wrote in said Bible, then what many of my leaders were telling me just couldn’t be true.
I have a much better ability to articulate why that’s the case today (I have lots of Bible verses), but I might not have pursued it if I hadn’t trusted my gut.
That goes doubly for the situations in which I trusted my gut by maintaining suspicion about certain church leaders who were respected and even adored by others but whose unhealthy and spiritually abusive character I glimpsed in brief moments behind closed doors.
Certainly, the judgment calls your gut inclines you to make are not infallible, and those inclinations shouldn’t be accepted uncritically. But, at the same time, they’re not nothing. We would do well to listen to them, hold certain things in tension, be patient, and keep a weather eye.
You can trust yourself, even if not ultimately. You should listen to your gut, even if you aren’t sure what it’s telling you. And you should submit these things before God, knowing that he has planted beauty within you that he wants to see come into full bloom.