"Don't trust your emotions" - where does idea this come from?
One popular source is a gospel tract
Last week I promised to show you a source of the teaching that you shouldn’t trust your emotions.
One of the most printed origins of this teaching is a wildly popular Christian tract.
The Four Spiritual Laws is a well-known booklet used as a tool to walk potential converts through a basic understanding of the evangelistic gospel, maneuvering them toward deciding to “receive Jesus.” Bill Bright, who founded Campus Crusade for Christ, wrote this tract in 1952. Renamed Cru, the organization still offers the booklet on its website and in print today. The Navigators also use this evangelistic framework. According to numbers from Cru, they have given out 2.5 billion copies of The Four Spiritual Laws.
You can download the pamphlet as a PDF.
While sharing a brief overview of the Billy-Graham-style message of personal salvation from sin by receiving Jesus in faith, the booklet says (emphasis mine), “Just to agree intellectually that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that He died on the cross for our sins is not enough. Nor is it enough to have an emotional experience. We receive Jesus Christ by faith, it is an act of the will.”
At the end of the document is a page that begins, “An important reminder…” then says in all caps, “DO NOT DEPEND ON FEELINGS.”
Below the two paragraphs of text is an illustration of a small train. The engine is labeled “Fact,” the middle car is labelled “Faith,” and the caboose is labelled “Feelings.”
Here’s the text from the page:
“The promise of God’s Word, the Bible—not our feelings—is our authority. The Christian lives by faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God Himself and His Word. This train diagram illustrates the relationship among fact (God and His Word), faith (our trust in God and His Word), and feeling (the result of our faith and obedience). (Read John 14:21.) The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, as Christians we do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith (trust) in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of His Word.”
If this has been printed billions of times, how many people got the message? “Do not trust your feelings” is literally one of the first things someone is taught about the Christians life in this approach. Anyone who came to faith through The Four Spiritual Laws was taught: 1. God loves you, 2. you are sinful, 3. Jesus forgives your sins and helps you access God’s love, 4. you have to receive Jesus by faith, and (5.) don’t depend on your feelings. As if that message is the fifth spiritual law.
When I was working on my master’s thesis, I conducted a small survey about lessons Christians learned from their churches about emotions, and the most common answer was, “My emotions cannot be trusted.” Given the wording of this tract, is it any wonder that the most pervasive message Christians reported learning about their emotions is not to trust them?
The more I have learned about the origins of this message, the more convinced I am that it was never intended as an anti-emotion campaign!
This didn’t start with Bill Bright. My friend Heather Griffin has dug into American and English church history to find references to “Fact, Faith, Feelings” sermons and articles going back to the late 1800s. She and I are working on a podcast that will launch this spring talking about church teaching on emotion—good and bad—and our first episodes are about the 3Fs and the preachers who popularized them.
For example, here is a Billy Graham sermon on the topic:
Graham actually talks about the importance of emotion in the Christian life! He believed Christians should “feel our faith.” (Source: an excerpt from Billy Graham: American Pilgrim in Christianity Today)
As Heather and I have researched and discussed and pondered, we’ve come to some tentative conclusions about the Facts, Faith, Feelings idea. (I’ll let you know as soon as we launch the podcast, and you can listen to our pondering in real time.)
It started out of a sincere desire to give people assurance of their salvation without needing to have any particular affective experience
What they meant by “feeling” wasn’t necessarily what we mean by “emotion” today
The message was not intended to be a blanket condemnation of the importance of emotion in the human experience nor to sow wide distrust of emotions among Christians
The 3Fs message is still being printed and repeated today, with virtually the same words as Bright used in the 1950s. Do a YouTube search for “fact faith feelings,” and you’ll find sermons even in the last few years with that title. However, the message has shifted away from assurance of salvation and toward a blanket distrust of emotion in the Christian life.
Given what we understand today about how emotions are made in the mind and body, and their importance in human lives, I suggest that preachers stop repeating this message that is now far distanced from its origin and context. It means something different to hearers today, and instead of being an assurance, it is damaging.
More to come.
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