It seems that Christians are often suspicious of feelings. And why shouldn’t we be? After all, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jer. 17:9). We can’t understand our own hearts, so how can we trust anything they tell us?
I’ve suspected for some time that our feelings may be more important to our relationship with God than some people like to admit, but I wondered if my own tendency to favor intuition and feelings in decision-making was coloring my thinking. Then I noticed a verse in my King James study Bible that talked about people seeking the Lord “if haply they might feel after Him” (Acts. 17:27). When you look at the Greek this doesn’t really havemuch to do with emotions, but it did prompt a more in-depth study about how much we can trust our hearts and feelings.
When we talk about our “hearts” in the Bible, the Hebrew word is lebab (H3824). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament by Harris, Gleason, and Waltke describes this word as “the richest Biblical term for the totality of man’s inner or immaterial nature.” It refers to someone’s personality, and primarily includes their emotions, thoughts, and will. Any sort of feeling — positive and negative — can be attributed to the heart.
The passage in Jeremiah 17 which tells us our hearts are deceitful and wicked also tells us that the Lord is able to know, search, and try our hearts (Jer. 17:9-10). As the only one Who can really understand what’s going on in our innermost self, God is also able to effect changes inside us at a heart-level.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezk. 36:26-27)
Our hearts can be changed. They don’t have to stay wicked and untrustworthy. That doesn’t, however, mean we can follow our hearts all the time once we’re in a relationship with God. David walked “in integrity of heart” and God called him “a man after My own heart, who will do all My will” (1 Kings 9:4; Acts 13:22), yet he still sinned by acting on his feelings for Bathsheba.
Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Prov. 4:23)
Even when God is working with our hearts, we still have an obligation to keep and guard our inner selves. We have the Holy Spirit in us, but we’re also still human. While our gut instincts and feelings are more likely to be right when we’re in covenant with God, we could still be deceived by our hearts.
Let’s go back to that verse I mentioned in Acts. It’s part of Paul’s sermon in Athens.
And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ (Acts 17:26-28)
In the Greek, the phrase “grope for” (NKJV) or “feel after” (KJV) is translated from the word pselaphao (G5584). This word is derived from a root that means “to touch lightly,” and here in Acts if means to feel or touch and object. The picture it paints is of us reaching out, searching for God like someone feeling around in the dark to find another person.
By night on my bed I sought the one I love; I sought him, but I did not find him. “I will rise now,” I said, “And go about the city; in the streets and in the squares I will seek the one I love.” I sought him, but I did not find him.” (Song 3:1-2)
Since we’re not going to find God by waving our hands around and reaching for something physically tangible, I imagine this “feeling after” God takes place in our hearts. This brings us right back to the idea of emotions, thoughts, and the immaterial parts of us.
I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a friend some years ago about what role emotions have in our faith. One of the questions that came up was, “What does the Holy Spirit in us feel like, if it’s not a feeling?” It’s an appeal to probability fallacy to , but it illustrates a point — we instinctively sense that the immaterial part of us will be involved in noticing the immaterial Spirit of God.
Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23)
In Acts 17, Paul told those who were “feeling after” God that “He is not far from each one of us.” Here in John, Christ tells us that both He and His Father will dwell with an inside of Their people via the Holy Spirit (John 14:15-18). Talk about being close to someone! We “live and move and have our being” in Them, and They live inside us. That’s the most intimate relationship you’ll ever have with anyone.
For in Him [Jesus] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power. (Col. 2:9-10)
Being in relationship with God makes us complete. He strengthens our weaknesses, makes wise our foolishness, and quiets our anxieties. When we go looking for God and cling tightly to Him, the change He can and will work inside us on a spiritual, emotional, and mental level is astonishing. It transforms us to the core of our being, including our feelings.