The Power of Listening to Your Heart
Reviewed February 13, 2011
Tyndale House Publishers, 2008. 266 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2010: #3 Other Nonfiction
My home Bible study group leader picked out this book for our group to study for several weeks, and I thought it had some beautifully revolutionary things to say.
I don't know how many times I've heard it preached: "Love is not a feeling. Love is a choice." Or I've heard sermons about the Fact-Faith-Feeling train -- that "Feeling" is supposed to be the caboose in our Christian lives. Matthew Elliott says that such teaching is missing out on a full and rich Christian life. God wants us to feel.
Here's what he says in the first chapter:
The second thing that has gone terribly wrong is that we have become indoctrinated in the belief that emotions are unreliable, dangerous, and bad. Philosophy, psychology, our scientific culture, and the church have taught us that logic and reason must reign supreme, while feelings are trivialized and seen as something to be suppressed or ignored. Many successful contemporary writers have brainwashed us into believing that we must stifle what we feel in favor of what we think.
The messages I have read recently in popular inspirational books include the ideas that emotions leave us in a fog and cloud our thinking; the notion that in order to live a godly life, we must control our emotions; and the belief that following our emotions often leads us to sin.
I've heard nationally known speakers assert that anger, sorrow, and jealousy are signs of spiritual weakness; that our feelings cannot be trusted; and that God cares about what we believe, not what we feel.
These are all myths. None of them are true; none of them hold up to good science; and none of them are from the Bible....
I have come to believe that our emotions were given to us by God to drive us to our best.
I have come to believe that emotions are among the most logical and dependable things in our lives.
I have come to believe that emotions give us a window to see truth like nothing else.
I have come to believe that the true health of our spiritual lives is measured by how we feel.
Those surprising assertions (Emotions? Among the most logical and dependable things in our lives? Really?) are all supported convincingly in the pages that follow. I came away with completely new ideas about what constitutes a growing Christian life.
The author spoke from the same kind of Christian background I'd grown up in, teaching that love in the Bible is not really a feeling, but more of a duty. He points out:
There is no special category for "Christian love," that agape kind our Christian leaders like to talk about -- intellectualizing an emotion into a philosophical ideal. Love, hope, joy -- and even hatred -- in the Bible are not lofty ideas and concepts; they are feelings and emotions, just as we know them in our own lives and talk about them with our families and friends....
It occurred to me that our spirituality is all about how we are feeling -- whether we are feeling life or are numb to it. If we are not feeling as we should, something is really wrong with our relationship with God.
Paul takes no time to explain what he means by love and joy and hope and hate and sorrow. He doesn't try to tell us that joy is not a feeling or that love is just a choice. He speaks in plain language and assumes that emotions are simply recording our feelings -- the stuff of life that God has given us. Paul assumes we will know what joy and love feel like, and he exhorts that if we live by God's standards, there are certain kinds of feelings that will fill our lives.
There's so much that's so good in this book. Most of it, I had not thought of before, but how it rings true! I like this part about obedience and duty:
One of the things we sometimes get confused is the difference between being duty driven and obedient. God calls us to obedience, but somehow we make that into a rote thing. It's as if we don't consider it real obedience unless it feels hard and tough and bad....
Having positive emotion for doing what we've been asked to do makes all the difference in how we obey the command. When we see the reason for it, when we enjoy doing it, or when we want to please the one giving the instruction, we are much more likely to obey, and to obey with energy and enthusiasm....
As we grow in our faith, we will be driven more and more to obey God's commands, not because they are things we should do, but because they are what we want to do, and we desire in our deep places to do them. As we learn how good they are for us and those we love, we will see how it is a joy to obey. As we grow closer to God and know more of his great love for us, our desire to please him will grow deeper and wider and all-consuming in us....
Not only will it be easier to obey, but we will obey more fully with greater passion and results.
Another thing Matthew Elliott points out which I'd never thought of that way is that, far from being irrational and illogical, our emotions are often ahead of our thoughts in judging a situation correctly.
Emotions are a complex judgment or evaluation of someone or something in light of the past, present, or future. Hope, for example, is the expectation that something good is going to happen in the future to something or someone we love; whereas joy is felt when something good has happened in the past or the present.
Emotions can do what a wise counselor does, what a veteran mentor does, or what a spiritual advisor does -- help you make right decisions from complex information. Emotions carry truth and wisdom, just as a good friend does....
To say that emotions are connected to thinking does not mean they always come from conscious, intentional thoughts. Rather, emotions have a wisdom all their own, which is naturally informed by our circumstances, situations, and relationships. They speak to us about truth that we cannot always know rationally or even think thoughts about....
It's not uncommon for people to feel fear when they enter their house while it is being robbed, even when they have no direct knowledge that someone else is in the house. They step inside, and all of a sudden they're afraid. They know something is wrong. This feeling has saved many a person from harm, as they have acted on that fear.... That is the realm in which emotions operate, which can make it difficult to figure out exactly why we are feeling what we feel.
Our tendency when emotions surface is to decide that we shouldn't feel them, so we dismiss them, ditching them in the first mental trash can we can find. But our emotions often tell us things that our rational processes cannot get to, things we desperately need to hear.
I don't want to write out every great point the author makes in this book. I hope this review has given you a taste of all the rich and revolutionary thoughts found in its pages. Here's a paragraph that sums up some of the ideas:
God wants us to be emotionally mature with emotionally full lives. Becoming emotionally mature is not, as many teach, about becoming emotionally controlled. It is about becoming emotionally adept, emotionally wise, and emotionally skilled. It is about having lives that are chock-full of wonder and feeling -- and then having the ability and practiced skill to live well and wisely in a richly emotional world.
I'll close the review with a line I just love:
God wants you to soar. He wants a 'you' more full of vitality and spirit than you've ever imagined.