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Ordo Salutis: Spiritual Formation & Feelings

The renewing of the mind means a renewing of both thoughts and feelings. Dallas Willard says that our mind is composed not only of our thoughts, but also of our feelings. Feelings have been neglected by many segments of Christianity as irrelevant. I think of Bill Bright’s pamphlet on the Spirit-filled life that reminds us that feelings are always at the “caboose” while our faith is built on facts. And there is a partial truth there: Our faith in Jesus Christi is built on a “fact,” but the way we react to and engage the fact of Jesus happens at the level of emotions. Our feelings are what motivate us to action or inaction.

Proverbs has several verses that speak about the good and evil of feelings.

  • Proverbs 10:12 Hatred stirs up dissension, but love covers over all wrongs.
  • Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
  • Proverbs 12:25 Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.
  • Proverbs 15:15 All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
  • Proverbs 17:22 A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
  • Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich.
  • Proverbs 22:4 Humility is the fear of the LORD; its wages are riches and honor and life.
  • Proverbs 23:21 …for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.
  • Proverbs 29:25 To fear anyone will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the LORD is kept safe.

Feelings can only be transformed as we recognize that a feeling is derived from an inward heart condition. Willard says,

“When we confuse the condition with the accompanying feeling–peace, for example, with the feeling of peacefulness–we very likely try to manage the feelings and disregard or deny the reality of the conditions…. The person who wants the feeling of peacefulness will be unable to do the things that make for peace–especially doing what is right and confronting evil. So, as far as our planning for spiritual formation is concerned, we must choose and act with regard to the condition, good or bad, and allow the feelings to take care of themselves, as they certainly will” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 123).

Therefore, emotions are not simply a matter of the renewal of the mind, but of the renewal of the heart! Willard identifies major feelings that will characterize the person who has been transformed by the renewing of the mind. They are love, joy, and peace, the first three fruit of the Spirit. The first three fruit are inseparable from the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love.

“Practically speaking, the renovation of the heart in the dimension of feeling is a matter of opening ourselves to and carefully cultivating love, joy, and peace: first by receiving them from God and from those already living in him, and then as we grow, extending love, joy and peace to others and everything around us in attitude, prayer, and action” (Willard, Renovation of the Heart, pp. 136-137).

Feelings are what leads to action, and therefore the road to spiritual formation here is critical. They must not, however, be taken as the basis for action or character change. Christians today who make decisions prompted by feelings of need over insight and understanding of how things are with God and their soul get into trouble. It is why churches make bad decisions and why Christians even with good intentions get things wrong. Satan can use our emotions to captivate us, to guilt us over what we do and do not feel, and to lead us into action or inaction in wrong directions because of them.

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