When I’ve been in discussions and debates with people in the past, a frequent “argument” people use when they are backed into a corner is this apparently unassailable standard of truth: “That’s just the way I feel!” Um… thanks for that. That may be fine when we’re discussing our favorite color or flavor of ice cream, but when the discussion is about moral principles, right behavior, or biblical interpretation, you will forgive me if I don’t find your feelings to be above criticism. Yet, when people have their very emotions criticized, they bristle as if this is somehow off-base or enormously insensitive.
Am I some sort of Vulcan who thinks emotions are only for the weak and who advocates that we should transform our society into a collection of logical robots? I admit I’ve joked along these lines before, but no, I of course believe that emotions are an important part of the human experience. Still, I want to ask this: Since when are emotions infallible? Most reasonable people believe that we can critique people’s logic (on second thought, most people don’t even handle that well) because we will all admit that nobody is perfect in their reasoning. However, whens somebody gets their feelings hurt, the trend these days is to immediately come to their defense. It’s hurtful. They are offended. Due to this, whatever was said to cause this hurt is immediately judged wrong or, at the least, too insensitive or careless.
When I critiqued the Christian arguments in favor of homosexuality, I saw a pretty blatant example of this. Matthew Vines tried to argue that the hurt feelings of homosexuals from traditional biblical teaching on homosexuality is “bad fruit,” and Jesus in Matthew 7 argued that you know false prophets by their bad fruit. Thus, it is allegedly obvious that the traditional teaching is bad and wrong. The problem is that “bad fruit” in that passage refers to the prophet’s own deeds and character and whether or not he follows right teaching; it most certainly has nothing to do with hurting other people’s feelings. As I wrote there:
Clearly, this passage does not equate “fruit” with “how it makes other people feel.” “Fruit” in this passage concerns the personal conduct of the teacher. This is made all the more clear when Jesus discusses the fact that not everyone who claims him will enter the kingdom of heaven but “he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.“ To make it even more clear, verse 24 states, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” The passage, then, does not even concern itself with the consequences of a particular teaching but rather the fruit of the life of a teacher, which is his deeds.
Jesus hurt people’s feelings and made people angry. So did Jeremiah. So did Paul. So did a host of others in Scripture when they taught and spoke truth. Why? Because fallen human beings often do not react well to it. It is incredibly irresponsible to make people’s hurt feelings a standard of truth, and to do so is to threaten objective truth with all sorts of shaky and inconsistent feelings from emotionally immature people.
Ironically, comedian and atheist Ricky Gervais made a good point on this (even though overall he was probably wrong in his actions). When he was interviewed about his daring and offensive jokes when hosting the Golden Globes a few years ago, he stated that just because someone’s feelings are hurt does NOT make them in the right. For example, if someone is angry or offended by an interracial married couple, the problem is not the couple, the problem is that person’s feelings. Their feelings, quite simply, are wrong. While one can understand why Gervais grated on the celebrities’ nerves that he made fun of, this point was well-made.
Somehow, saying this these days, even in church, is met with a lot of resistance and anger, and because of this, many Christians are more concerned about sparing feelings than speaking truth. For sure, we do not go out of our way to beat people down, and we are commanded to speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). However, speaking the truth “in love” for many people means “avoid hurting anyone’s feelings at all costs,” as if that is true, biblical love.
I remember reading a story that a young teenager, struggling with homosexuality, committed suicide when he attended a PTA meeting where different parents voiced their disagreement with homosexuality. Predictably, many people reacted as if the main problem was the people who disagreed with the homosexual lifestyle, causing so much hurt that this teenager killed himself. Of course it is sad that someone took his own life, but it is odd that the blame is placed on people voicing their own views when there was no indication that they spewed hatred or advocated that homosexuals actually go kill themselves. There was another story where a young Christian boy, upon reading Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, killed himself because he had no idea how to answer Dawkins’ vitriol. I did not hear a single person blame Richard Dawkins for this, and you know what? Nobody should, because as horrendously argued and silly The God Delusion is, Dawkins never expresses a desire that theists should go commit suicide. The real problem in both cases is that two boys, unfortunately, were unable to handle their emotions and the disagreement of others in a mature manner and resorted to taking their own lives. Blaming others solves nothing.
In Scripture, it is interesting to see that when when people are instructed to teach, preach, or prophesy truth, they are rarely, if ever, instructed to keep in mind other people’s feelings. To be sure, rebuke should be done gently and people should be restored gently (Galatians 6:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:5-11), but when Paul tells Timothy to stand for the truth, he does not give him the caveat, “Oh, but be sure not to hurt people’s feelings.” In fact, God pretty much tells several prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel that the people will not like what they say, but their duty is still to speak truth. Why? Because feelings, just as other parts of humanity, are afflicted by sin and are imperfect. If you are confronted with biblical truth and you get your feelings hurt, the problem isn’t the Bible or the speaker, the problem is your feelings. If someone simply disagrees with you and you can’t handle it, the problem is your feelings. If someone points out that you are angry/upset over something that you should not be and you get even more upset, the problem is your feelings. If someone calls someone you like a name and you go on a violent rampage, maybe he shouldn’t have said it, but seriously, the problem is your feelings. When that knucklehead pastor in Florida wanted to burn a bunch of Korans, that was stupid; it was even stupider that many Muslims around the world threatened violence over it because they couldn’t handle their own rage.
Christians need to have way more maturity than that and way more emotional security in Christ. If someone calls us out when we’re doing wrong and we get offended, you know what? We need to get offended in those situations because we need a wake-up call. I’ve offended many people in careless ways, and when I do, I try to apologize. However, when I hear I’ve offended people for calmly pointing out that it is exceptionally unwise and immature to date a nonbeliever, that it is a sin to get drunk and/or lose control at a club, or that pursuing money and position over all else is idolatry, I honestly don’t give a flying crap. Insensitive? No. I’m concerned about truth, and as long as I am convicted that I delivered that truth in a responsible way, I am not going to worry about some random person getting huffy-puffy with me because they have serious sin in their life they are unwilling to examine. And neither should anyone else who wants to speak God’s truth and love into the world. We should want to talk to offended people, reason with them, and assure them that our aim was not to make them cry or tick them off, but at the end of the day, we should not apologize for standing for what is right. If a Christian dates or even marries a nonbeliever and defiantly tells me that they love the person, I won’t necessarily doubt their feelings; I will merely point out that their feelings are unjustified and sinful.
How can Christians avoid letting emotions and feelings run amok in church and in our lives? Here are some steps:
1. Always allow Scripture to examine every part of your life, and that includes your feelings.
2. Always allow God, in prayer, to show where you are defending your emotions over truth.
3. Critique your own feelings with reason, and allow others to do the same. This is not pleasant, but it is essential in keeping control. Is human logic infallible? Of course not. But if we are to love God with everything we have, including our mind, we need to use reason as a check on sinful and immature feelings; in turn, mature emotions, through the Spirit, can alert us to human reason gone wrong or can bring gentleness into a situation where reason clearly shows someone screwed up.
4. As you do the above three, develop thicker skin. Your feelings aren’t the most important thing on the planet, as difficult as that is to hear for a lot of folks for some bizarre reason.
Many people, including Christians, advocate this idea of “feel your feelings and express yourself!” While we should of course encourage people to be honest with themselves and not bottle up emotions in a passive-aggressive manner, such advice is grossly irresponsible without also teaching people that many of their feelings can be immature, reactive, and even plain unjustified. In those cases, then, it is wrong to “feel your feelings” and we certainly don’t want people expressing them in action. To teach otherwise is to elevate human experience and emotion over truth and right behavior, and such an idea is nowhere found in Scripture and is absent of reason.