The Thought-Feeling Connection
Can we take a step back for a moment to address the unreliability of feelings? They can be influenced by a bizarre array of factors: last night’s taco and this morning’s coffee, the phase of the moon, and the presence of pets. Feelings are not always a reliable indicator of truth or reality. And we all have to learn how to evaluate emotions: which are God honoring, which are not; which are healthy, which are not. We also have to learn how to manage feelings: which to encourage, which to redirect or avoid.
And that leads us to an all-important question: Can we manage our feelings? Do we have any say in which emotions we experience or how intensely we experience them? I say yes. We have a choice in how we think, and since our thoughts affect our emotions, we have a choice in how we feel.
Here are a few observations about how the Bible guides our emotional life:
· The Bible discourages certain emotions—worry, jealousy, and ungodly anger (to name a few)—and encourages others: joy, peace, and righteous indignation (among many more).
· People in the Bible displayed the full gamut of human emotion, and their stories provide examples of how God wants us to handle our emotions.
· The Bible focuses more on directing our thoughts and our mind-sets than on modifying our feelings.
Let’s ponder that last point for a moment: The Bible focuses more on directing our thoughts and our mind-sets than on modifying our feelings. If you think about it, isn’t that a relief? (If you’ve ever had someone tell you, “Just stop being sad! Get happy!” you may have had to restrain your foot from taking aim at their shin!) It just doesn’t work to assume we can flip a switch to change our emotions.
Let’s look at examples of God’s approach:
"You were taught . . . to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God." - Ephesians 4:22-24 (NIV)
"Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." - Philippians 4:6-9 (NIV)
Righteousness (not to mention peace) follows when we set our minds on the things of God. And what kinds of things does God encourage us to focus on? Positive things. When we set the attitude of our minds in a godly direction, godly feelings are far more likely to follow. Our feelings follow our focus.
We can’t anticipate perfect bliss or a personality overhaul—our struggles with sadness or anxiety won’t vanish the moment we experiment with a few positive thoughts. But we can anticipate growth, knowing that as we learn to think the way God wants us to think, our feelings will improve. Again, our feelings will follow our focus. In time, we can see significant forward progress. True change. More joy.