by John M. Frame
Is it wrong to hurt people’s feelings? Most of our mothers thought so. But where does Scripture address this issue?
I recently had an email exchange with another teacher of theology, and I suggested at one point that he had been insensitive to the feelings of someone else; I won’t go into details. He replied to me that he didn’t want to get into that. He said, “I don’t play the pathos game.”
This particular theologian is well-known for his insistence that the Gospel is objective, not subjective: that it is a message about what happens outside us, not what happens inside us. He criticizes the evangelical church for being focused on inwardness, on feelings. My own approach, in contrast to this, is that salvation (and therefore the Gospel in the broadest sense) is both objective and subjective. It proclaims objectively that Christ has atoned for our sin, granting to us divine pardon, and it also proclaims that by trusting Christ we become new creatures. Christ grants to us what John Murray called a new “dispositional complex.” We come to love righteousness and hate wickedness. We come to delight in God’s law. We pant for God like thirsty deer for the water brooks. We gain new affections, new emotions. This is my “existential perspective.”
But this message has not always been accepted in Christian circles; hence my dialogue about the “pathos game.” Christian theologians, following Plato and other Greek philosophers, often saw emotions as something dangerous. Greek philosophy was hardly monolithic, and theologians have often exaggerated the agreement among the thinkers of this movement. But the one thing all the Greeks agreed on was that the good life is the life of reason. Reason should dominate human life, including the emotions. When the emotions rule, all goes askew. When reason rules the emotions (in some views, virtually extinguishing them), human life gets back on an even keel.
Music is particularly dangerous in this respect, since it rouses the emotions to such a degree. Plato warned us about it. Ulrich Zwingli, arguably the founder of the Reformed branch of Protestantism, eliminated music from worship, turning the weekly service into a teaching meeting. In this, it should be noted, he differed from Martin Luther, who said that music is the greatest thing next to theology.
We can be thankful that the other Reformed leaders, such as Bullinger, Bucer, and Calvin, did not follow Zwingli in this decision. But they were much more restrictive than Lutherans were about the type of music deemed appropriate for worship. Calvin had his congregations sing mostly (not exclusively) Psalm versions, and that became the rule in the Scottish churches (though not in the church of Cologne, for example).
The Reformation in general was a movement of scholars. Luther’s view of justification began as a scholar’s insight, a new view of the meaning of righteousness in Rom. 1:16-17. The event we celebrate on Oct. 31 was Luther’s invitation to an academic disputation. The academic emphasis of Reformation, and, even more, Reformed theology continues to the present. Reformed worship continues to be centered on preaching, and preaching of a rather academic sort. To supply churches with pastors able to preach with such academic rigor, Reformed theology has emphasized the importance of a “learned ministry.” Pastoral candidates must have college degrees and at least some post-graduate training. They must know the original languages of Scripture and the fine distinctions of technical theology. The Reformed Confessions are not basic summaries of faith like the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, but closely argued miniature theological treatises, to which aspiring clergy are expected to subscribe in some detail, if not exhaustively.
The result is that Reformed churches have appealed mainly to those who have had some university or college study, and who therefore come from families economically able to provide such education. So Reformed church members tend to be educated and relatively wealthy.
Among Reformed theologians, among them J. Gresham Machen and Gordon H. Clark, one often hears the view known as “the primacy of the intellect.” What this seems to mean is that God’s revelation addresses first of all the human intellect. The intellect, in turn, applies the truth to the will and to the emotions. At least this is what God originally intended. One result of the Fall on this view is that the hierarchy of intellect, will, and emotion was overturned, so that the intellect is now dominated by the will and the emotions. Salvation, then returns human nature to its proper balance. The Christian life is, like the ideal life of the Greek philosophers, a life of reason, though of course it is a reason based on God’s Word rather than on autonomous philosophy.
I disagree with Machen and Clark on this point, but I do sympathize with them. In the period following the Scopes’ trial, American evangelicalism went through a period of rather extreme anti-intellectualism. Many rejected scholarship in general, particularly science, as contrary to Scripture. Machen and Clark wanted to affirm that Christianity was rationally defensible, that it had nothing to fear from learned detractors. They were right to affirm intellect, but not, in my judgment, at the expense of the will and the emotions.
I evaluate similarly contemporary Reformed attempts to repress the passions. When Christian counselors tell people not to live by their feelings, they give good advice as long as they are talking about momentaryfeelings, feelings without meditation. But feelings do play a positive role in the Christian life, as we shall see.
Other traditions have thought the Reformed emphasis to be one-sided. Anabaptists, Arminians, and Charismatics of different stripes held a more positive view of the emotions and a less positive view of academic attainment. This gave them a greater appeal to the poor, the uneducated, the minorities of society.
Scripture on the Emotions
Scripture does warn us against being driven back and forth by waves of immediate emotion. Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, but to pray (Phil. 4:6-7). Psalm 1 tells us to meditate in God’s Word day and night, rather than being blown around like the chaff.
But Scripture does not warrant “the primacy of the intellect.” For one thing, Scripture does not even distinguish between intellect, will, and emotions, as distinct “faculties” of the mind. It talks about our thoughts, our decisions, and our feelings, but it never presents these as the products of three competing organs. Therefore, it never exhorts us to bring our decisions and feelings into conformity with the intellect.
For another thing, Scripture teaches that we are totally depraved, and that includes our intellectual, as well as our volitional and emotional aspects. Yes, our feelings sometimes lead us into sin, but the same is true of our intellects. If we seek to remedy our emotionalism by bringing our emotions into line with depraved intellectual concepts, there is no net gain.
Similarly, Scripture teaches that God’s grace saves us as whole persons. Our thinking, acting, and feeling are all changed by regeneration. God’s grace leads us to seek conformity with God’s Word. The important thing is not to bring the emotions into line with the intellect, but to bring both emotions and intellect into line with God’s Word.
I have set forth in Doctrine of the Knowledge of God a “perspectival” model of intellect, emotions, and will: that these are three ways of speaking of the whole person thinking, acting, feeling. I have argued that each of these presupposes and influences the others, so that the three are not really separable or even distinguishable. If it is important to bring our feelings into line with godly thinking, it is also important to bring our thinking into line with godly passions: our passion for God, his Word, and his righteousness.
Scripture on the Pathos Game
So Scripture also tells us that we should care about our own feelings and those of others. On the broadest level, Christian faith is a grand passion. If our faith embraces all of life (“Whether you eat, or drink, or whatever you do,” 1 Cor. 10:31), then it embraces the emotions as well. If we are to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, that covenant commitment will certainly be our greatest passion, as well as our most basic intellectual commitment and the dominant motivation for our will.
The Bible appeals to all these aspects of personality. It presents reasoned arguments to the mind, but it also exhorts the will (“Turn! turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” Ezek. 33:11) And it is full of godly passion. That’s all through the Psalms. Hear this from Psalm 42:
As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me continually, “Where is your God?” 4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival. 5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation 6 and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
The Psalmist’s grief at being away from the presence of God is an example to us. We too should pant, thirst, cry for the presence of the living God. It is not enough to make intellectual theological observations about the different senses of his proximity and his absence. Nor is it enough to express voluntary resolution to seek God’s presence again. Rather, our emotions should desire God’s nearness. If we don’t desire him with such passion, there is something wrong.
The Psalmist’s anguish anticipates and reflects the agony of Jesus. As Warfield wrote in “The Emotional Life of Our Lord,” Jesus was and is a man of passion. He felt deeply about the Jews’ desecration of his Father’s house, about his rejection by Jerusalem, about the cup of suffering that the Father had set before him. And he felt compassion on the multitudes (Matt. 15:32, 20:34), reflecting God’s own “tender mercies” (splanchna, bowels) to his people (Luke 1:78). He expresses a “strong desire” that his disciples will eat the Passover with him before his death (Luke 22:15). This language is highly emotional.
The apostle Paul speaks often of the “affection” (splanchnon) he bears to the churches. In Phil. 1:8, he says, “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.” Like God himself, the apostle has “bowels” of compassion and affection for his brothers and sisters. He calls them to have the same compassion toward one another (2:1, also splanchna). Compare Col. 3:12, Phm. 1:7, 12, 20.
Hear him again:
For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Cor. 2:4)
1 Thessalonians 2:7, 8 but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.
1 Thessalonians 2:17 But, brothers, when we were torn away from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.
1 Thess. 3:6-10 But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love. He has told us that you always have pleasant memories of us and that you long to see us, just as we also long to see you… How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of the Lord because of you?
Philemon 12 I am sending him (Onesimus)— who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced.
Again and again, Paul pours out his heart, expresses his own emotions and expresses his deep care for the emotions of the people. Surely this is a model for us. Paul is playing the pathos game, if we are even permitted to so trivialize what is happening here. He feels deeply for his people and wants them to feel deeply for one another.
Paul is grateful for those who “refreshed his spirit” (1 Cor. 16:18). He rejoices when a church longs to see him as he longs to see them (2 Cor. 7:7, 11). He rebukes the Corinthians at another point for being “restricted in their affections” (2 Cor. 6:12), and he counsels them to open their hearts wide (verse 13).
The apostle John also urges emotions of compassion:
But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart (splanchna) against him, how does God’s love abide in him? (1 John 3:17)
He addresses the will: meet your brother’s needs. But the lack of will is rooted in a lack of compassion, a lack of feeling.
Emotions also enter into the theology of the Bible in important ways. Consider Paul’s hymn of praise to God’s incomprehensibility:
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments,
And his paths beyond tracing out!
Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Who has ever given to God that God should repay him?
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be glory forever! Amen.
Can you feel the emotion pulsing through that passage? That passage is not meant only to inform you, but to make you feel differently. The emotional content is part of the meaning of the text. If a preacher doesn’t communicate that feeling, that emotion, he’s depriving his congregation of an important element of the text. Imagine somebody reading this text in a monotone. That is a distortion of the text as much as a theological error would be.
Again and again, Paul pours out his heart, expresses his own emotions and expresses his deep care for the emotions of the people.
So the Reformed community needs to look at emotions much more positively, as the Bible does. We need to play the pathos game. There is no reason for us to disparage or try to dampen emotions in the Christian life, or even in worship. And if we don’t have the resources in the Reformed tradition to express the extreme emotions found in Scripture itself, then should be humble enough to go beyond the Reformed tradition to use resources from our non-Reformed brothers and sisters.
We should counsel people not to act on momentary emotions. We should also counsel them not to act on every idea that pops into their heads, or on every volitional desire or impulse. But ideas that are tempered and refined and prayed over to the point of cognitive rest (an emotion! See DKG.) ought to be acted on. And emotions refined by thought, maturity, and good habits of decision-making may well be reliable guides.
Hurting People’s Feelings
And it is wrong, as your mother said, to hurt people’s feelings. That is true in many cases, at least. I grant that often it is impossible to avoid bringing grief to someone. People are often offended emotionally by the righteous actions of others. Not all emotions are regenerate. People are often too thin-skinned, too self-centered to respond with proper emotions to the events of their lives.
Paul knew that he would have to cause some pain to some members of the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 2:1-5). In context, the “pain” is clearly emotional. But he is very reluctant to cause such pain, and he speaks of his own emotional pain in carrying out this duty. The duty was to discipline a member of the church. But in the passage, the offender has repented, and Paul calls the congregation to forgive. But not only to forgive, also to “comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow,” verse 7. Paul wants the church to carry out its work so as to guard the feelings of one another.
The writer to the Hebrews urges his readers to obey their leaders (13:17) “so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” There are, of course, a variety of reasons why we should obey the leaders of the church. But the reason mentioned here is emotional. We obey our leaders for the sake of their emotional well-being, so they will be joyful, happy. And, of course, their emotions are contagious. The writer implies that when they are unhappy, we will be unhappy too, and similarly when they are happy. A church with happy leaders is a happy church! To many that sounds like a trivialization of the work of the church; but that is what the text says.
God wants us to care about how other people feel. He wants us to weep when others weep, rejoice when they rejoice (Rom. 12:15). He sends us, as he sent Jesus, to bind up the brokenhearted (Isa. 61:1).