Matthew Elliott is the author of two fine books on emotions and the Christian faith, and he has agreed to offer this post today for our conversation. I’m grateful for his work and I hope we can have a good discussion of his ideas today. For his books, see his more accessible study Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart
and his more intense study called Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament

Feeling Your Faith 

Matthew Elliott


I was with a woman this morning who lost her son to tragedy three years ago. This intense, strong, vibrant follower of Jesus told me that she had almost left the church because people spoke theology and empty Christian platitudes to her instead of feeling and weeping with her. It was terribly empty. She found comfort from those who would share her pain. That is the way God made us.


And yet, so often we fail to enter into one another’s heartaches. 


Why are we so afraid of emotions in the church? 

We think our job is to control our feelings and in our church culture we are uncomfortable when people feel deeply. In our desire to distance ourselves from feelings, we do great damage to souls and our own ability to feel love and compassion.

I read the end of 2 Corinthians this morning
in bed. What does Paul say for his final words, the last things he wants to
leave in his readers’ minds?


I close my letter with
these last words: Be joyful.
Grow to maturity.
Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace
will be with you. Greet each other with Christian love.”


I thought, “What would I have naturally
written for my final words to beloved people? What would we have heard in my church?”
I am afraid it would have been very different.


I think it might have been a list of good works. 

Maybe something like, “I close my letter with these last words: Be
diligent in reading the Word. Pray each day, in the morning before anything
gets going in your day. Memorize Scripture, so it is hidden in your heart. Serve
in your church and then go out to tell others about Jesus. Then God will be
with you.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in the doing we forget that, to God,
the core issue is the state of our hearts. Feelings have much to say about the
true state of our hearts, that is why they are so prominent is Scripture.

My friend this morning told me another story. She said she came
from a formal religious background that, to her, was only about works and
ceremony. Then she became a genuine follower of Jesus and became so alive. A
year later she was in a strong evangelical church and woke up to realize it was
no different to her than the church she had left. She was DOING all this stuff
to please God and was losing the vibrant emotional life of Christ.

These are the things I feel guilty about not doing enough – praying,
reading my Bible, doing works of service and memorizing Scripture. Rarely, do I
get down on myself for not feeling right.
But to Paul, the doing comes after,
flows out of the being. Being is totally integrated with how we are feeling. What
is the last thing Paul wants people to remember? “Rejoice!” “Encourage!” – and
does anybody give good encouragement without feeling it genuinely within?  “Live in peace!” – can you be peaceful
if you are feeling angry toward a brother or fearful about the future? There is
strong emotion in all these.

And what is the last thing Paul wants us to remember about God?
How he feels for us – his great love. When I think about all this I wonder if “Greet
each other with Christian love” must mean more to Paul than a handshake and
asking “How are you doing?”

I wonder what it should mean for me.

We so often have our goals all wrong. The NIV translates “Grow to maturity” as “Aim for perfection.” But what
is perfection to Paul? He shows us it is not my “church-taught” definition of
getting up at 5:30 AM instead of 6:00 in order to get in a quiet time, but
rather, it is how we love and are loved, how we rejoice, how we live in peace.

We cannot grow to spiritual maturity without growing in emotional
maturity. We need less talking about what we need to do in church and much more about how we are to feel.

We think of Paul as this great theologian, this great thinker and
he was certainly that. But how about Paul the great feeler? How about the Paul
that would not have given any theological answer to my friend when she lost her
son, but the Paul that would have gone to her, put his arms around her, and
wept. “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”

A final thought as well, what about our witness to the hurting
world? Are people around you looking to follow someone that can recite lots of
Scripture by heart, someone who can win a debate on Jesus being the son of God?
Would that turn them on to the LIFE Jesus offers, would that get them to come
to church with you? Sure, sometimes that is the turning point and that is

But, more often, I think people around us are looking for someone
who knows how to love, feels compassion, someone who knows joy – the kind that
shows on their faces.

What is going to show people that God is real, what is going to
draw people to truth? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that the greatest of
actions, like giving your body to be burned, without love is devoid of
godliness and value.

Our most powerful witness is often not what we say but how others
see we feel our faith. 

The world is not asking us for perfect answers and ultimate logic.
What people are asking Christians is: “Do you love me? Does the life you say
you have in Christ bring you the joy and hope I want in my life? Can I see it
on your face?”

I think if I aim for a little less doing and a whole lot more
feeling I may be a little closer to where God wants me to be.

Bio: Matthew Elliott is on a
journey to understand how God created us to feel.
This has led him to study emotion in the New Testament for his PhD, write
books and articles on emotion, including Feel:
The Power of Listening to Your Heart,
and work to develop the Feel Seminar to teach people what it
means to love God and others from the heart.

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