What To Do With Your Feelings

I have at many times in my life following Jesus been frustrated by my feelings. It is sadly not an unusual thing to go a few days doing very well, and then for no apparent reason the next day is hard, unmotivated, and just lame. I’ve slogged through many days hoping to become more chipper merely as time passes, but to no avail. I try praying and even get very honest with God about my feelings… sometimes it’s helped significantly, other times my prayers seem to lead to more frustrating thoughts. What to do, what to do.

If only there was a doctor who could help us in this situation. Oh wait, there is! Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones is a very helpful resource here in the realm of our feelings – he was a doctor before becoming a pastor (I wonder how many times that career change has happened!) and he understood many things in regard to feelings and temperament. And, he has some words for us regarding our lack of joy and our inconsistency of “feelings”.

Before getting into the details, let’s remember two things. First, we do have a very real Enemy who knows humanity far, far better than we know humanity. As MLJ puts it, “his one great object and endeavor is to detract from the glory of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Spiritual Depression, p. 108). And perhaps his most effective means of doing this is by successfully getting Christians depressed – depressed that they aren’t more holy, they aren’t “feeling” close to God, they keep sinning in the same ways, and so on. The world does judge the power of the gospel by the lives of Christians… they are not wrong for doing so.

Secondly, though each Christian is a new creation, or born again, or “regenerated” to use formal lingo, they are still themselves – they have the same temperament and DNA makeup. They have the Holy Spirit, and yet they have similar inclinations to certain sinful habits, actions, or mindsets. All is not lost by this fact, but it has to be remembered lest we think we should all instantly lose all weaknesses in our personality once a Christian.

So, what does the doctor suggest we do? First, we must remember to engage our feelings. We need to know ourselves, and know what sorts of moods or personality traits tend to rule us. Are you more easily melancholy than most people? Are you more passive, or more aggressive, or more prone to speak before you think? Know this about yourself. But do not let your temperament rule you. We must know and engage ourselves at our weak points, not continue to make excuses like “I just always speak my mind” or “The clouds just make me depressed – it’s just how I am.”

Once you know your tendencies and refuse to let them rule you, make sure you aren’t confusing a downer-of-a-mood with the guilt of sin. When you are unrepentant about sin, or holding in a grudge of bitterness against someone, or bickering often with your spouse and not exchanging in apologies and forgiveness, you cannot expect yourself to walk in the fullness of joy God has for you to walk in. Make sure you are taking an honest evaluation of yourself before you assume that it’s something outside of you that is making you feel un-joyful.

If you know yourself well, and you know you are repenting of any sin and are seeking to love God and others well (i.e. obeying his general will), you also must remember this: rejoicing and feeling happy can be very different things. Happiness is a response to favorable circumstances (great food, a funny moment, watching your baby sleep). You cannot force happiness upon yourself. But you can choose to rejoice. Think about the repeated commands to “rejoice in the Lord” (Phil. 3:1, 4:4, 1 Thess. 5:16). Now slow down and think about rejoicing in the Lord. “Happiness is something within ourselves; rejoicing is ‘in the Lord’” (p. 116). Our joy, our rejoicing, is rooted in God himself as Christians – put simply, our joy should never be stolen because it is no longer rooted in ourselves.

OK, two prescriptions from MLJ regarding engaging your feelings. First, and this one is his major theme consistently, speak to yourself. “Remind yourself of who you are and what you are. You must talk to yourself and say ‘I am not going to be dominated by you, these moods shall not control me’” (p. 116). You wake up surprised at your lack of joy? Speak to yourself words of truth that you can rejoice in the Lord. Even in the dark times – like legitimately dark times of life – your rejoicing cannot be stolen when it’s rooted in the Lord. Know the Truth well enough from Scripture to repeat its themes – themes of deliverance, forgiveness, redemption, God’s presence, eternal relationship with the Father and all Christians, and so on. Pray prayers of thanksgiving about these things, regardless of circumstance.

Second, seek righteousness above a particular feeling or experience. “Seek for happiness and you will never find it, seek righteousness and you will discover you are happy – it will be there without your knowing it, without your seeking it” (p. 117). Even better than speaking to yourself is speaking to the One who has already saved you, who loves you and whose Spirit is within you. Prayerfully ask God to manage your temperament, but go beyond that. Seek his will, seek to love him above all and sacrificially love others. Joy is often found when you are not seeking it; seek him and joy will follow. Rejoice in the Lord always… again I say, rejoice!