Feelings, Faith, Emotions, Doubt, and Assurance

If you’ve been following this blog for a few years now, you’ll recognize this book (and probably remember how much I appreciate it): God in the Dark by Os Guinness.  It’s a book that takes your hand and walks you through doubts – what they are, what the Bible says about them, and how to fight them and grow in assurance of faith.  One of the many helpful points Guinness makes in this book is that sometimes unruly emotions cause us to doubt the truth of the Christian faith or some aspects of it.  Sometimes in the Christian life, emotions take the throne and reason is cast by the wayside.  This can lead to unbiblical hyper-spirituality (i.e. “I feel the Spirit’s presence so much that I have goose bumps!”) , but probably more often it leads to doubt (i.e. “I’ve sinned again; I feel like such a failure – how could God ever love me?).  Here’s Guinness’ great approach to emotions and reason in the the Christian faith.

“Subjective elements play their part in the decision to believe.  But if faith is not to be make-believe, objective considerations must finally determine whether faith is true or misplaced.  Understanding and choice are both essential to genuine belief, and they are always more important than the emotions in conversion.”

“Needless to say, conversion may be profoundly emotional because it is a complete change involving the whole person.  But however emotional it is, the emotions alone do not effect conversion.  This is not because the Christian faith is unemotional but because this is how human knowing works anyway.  The Christian faith, in fact, has a very high place for the emotions, but in coming to believe the place for understanding and choosing truth is primary and the place for the emotions is secondary.”

“…Perhaps the greatest single human factor in explaining why faith does not go on as it began is the explosive power of the emotions subsequent to conversion.”

One way to fight unruly emotions, writes Guinness, is biological – you can fight an emotional roller coaster by getting proper sleep, avoid over-stressful situations, take breaks, etc.  Another deeper way to fight unruly emotions is spiritual.

“The second part of the remedy lies in the long-term discipline of training faith so that it is not overwhelmed by moods and emotions.  …Our faith should dictate to our emotions, not the other way around.  …The quality of our emotions depends upon the quality of our faith, just as the quality of our faith depends on the quality of our understanding.  ‘Feeling must follow; but faith, apart from all feeling, must be there first.’  This is Martin Luther’s understanding of the relationship of faith and emotions, but he also makes clear that this is not our first nature, and it will be our second only if we carefully and patiently learn it.  The lesson of faith is a lesson that must constantly be practiced and rehearsed.'”

Or, as C. S. Lewis said,

“Faith…is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of our change of moods.”

There’s more to this chapter (chapter 8) on faith, emotions, and doubt, of course.  You’ll have to get the book to read more.   Many – most? – Christians who are serious about the faith struggle with doubt from time to time (some more, some less).  In my own Christian life, this book has been helpful as I fight doubt and seek to grow in faith.  I’m sure it will be helpful to those of you who often pray this from the heart: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996).

shane lems