We live in a fallen world, which means that we ourselves have been negatively impacted by that Fall. We know this in our bodies, as we experience aches and pains and diseases. It happens in our minds too as we encounter disordered thinking, brain diseases, and incomplete brain development in some. We experience the fall in our emotions too. The very presence of anxiety is evidence of this. Because of the Fall our emotions can lead us to experience things that are not true. We must be careful, then, that we do not base our decisions and draw conclusions on unexamined emotions.
The power of our emotions can make it difficult to discern between what is true and what is just an emotional reaction. Emotional reasoning, the psychological term first coined by CBT founder Aaron Beck, refers to the “cognitive process by which a person concludes that his/her emotional reaction proves something is true, regardless of the observed,” or lack of observed evidence. The mere presence of the feeling is enough to validate the concern. So, for example, if I feel guilty for something then I must be guilty. If I feel fat, then I must be fat (even if doctors and friends say I am not). If I feel like God has abandoned me then it must be true. If we feel it then we believe it, and the more intense the feeling the more factual it must be!
King David had this struggle and he reveals it in Psalm 31. Throughout the psalm David is pleading for God’s rescue and intervention. He is reminding himself, at various points, of who God is and of the reality that God can be trusted. He says:
In you, O Lord, do I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me!
2 Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily!
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me!
3 For you are my rock and my fortress; (v. 1-3)
At the same time, the number of his adversaries is such that it tempts him to doubt and despair. In verse 22, he says:
I had said in my alarm, “I am cut off from your sight.”
He was “hasty,” as some translations say. He spoke too rashly and quickly and reacted to his feelings instead of what He knows to be true about God. In the psalm he acknowledges this emotional-based reasoning and instead, seeks to preach the truth to himself. The rest of verse 22 says:
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
when I cried to you for help.
He was too hasty in his assessment of the situation because God was already answering his prayer and plea for mercy.
We need this example. David is prone, like all of us, to emotional reasoning, but he also able to see the truth and point his heart in the right direction towards belief. We want to do a similar thing. We must evaluate our emotions, preach to ourselves, and respond to what is true.
When fear arises we want to slow down and ask questions about what we are feeling. We want to analyze the cause of our fear, the likelihood of it, and the truth behind it. What do I fear? Why do I fear this particular thing? Is this fear rooted in any observable data? We also want to challenge our fears with the knowledge of God. Even if some fears could be found to be reasonably grounded in reality we ought to ask if knowing God changes how we respond to that fear. Knowing God certainly changed how Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego responded to a real threat in Daniel 3. Knowing God changed how Paul faced all kinds of persecution, hardship, and suffering in Philippians 4:11-13. Even if my fear is “justified,” I want to wrestle with how knowing God helps me to respond differently to even intense fears.
I want to preach the truth to myself as well. Just as David corrected his hasty response so we want to correct our emotional reasoning. What is true in this situation? What about this situation is just an emotional reaction and what about it has substantive fact to it? What does God’s Word have to say about this situation and how to navigate it?
Lastly we want to respond to what is true not simply what we feel. God’s Word establishes what is true and so we ought to look to Scripture to help clarify how we respond. Our emotions do not establish reality, they do not change truth, they are not more powerful or supreme than God Himself. Therefore, we should respond to life based on who God is and what He says in His Word. Emotions are great gifts and useful to us, but they don’t define us or our world. God does, so respond to Him. So we may ask: what does God want me to do in this situation regardless of how I feel? How can I honor God in my response to this situation? How can I serve others in response to this situation? What does it look like to believe God more than my feelings in this situation?
Emotional reasoning is dangerous because our feelings are impacted by the curse of sin. We want to draw conclusions and respond to life based on the solid rock of God’s Word and character. We want our emotions to conform to God’s Word, instead of trying to make our world conform to our emotions.