The Language of Feelings

The Language of Feelings
To feel is to be fully human, fully Christian, and indeed, like Christ.

The Reformed tradition has often been accused of being overly cerebral and intellectual. But more than anything else, the Reformation was concerned about our hearts—our feelings and emotions. Martin Luther was driven by a concern for a certain feeling, and that feeling was an assurance of our salvation. Following suit, the Heidelberg Catechism also begins with a feeling—namely, comfort. Our experience of God’s grace proceeds from the feelings of comfort and assurance that the Holy Spirit produces in our hearts.

Despite this history, I’ve often run into disparaging comments and suspicion about feelings and emotions. Critics argue that feelings are too personal and therefore too subjective to be of any objective value. Recently I read a suggestion that feelings are our modern-day idols: Because they are fickle, they are not a “reliable measure of our relationship with God.” “We sometimes have the idea that our feelings and our faith go together like Frank Sinatra’s horse and carriage,” wrote one author. “The fact is, they often don’t.”

Because the realm of feelings has remained suspect, we don’t really know what to do with them. We tend to be afraid of feelings, and we certainly do not have an explicit theological understanding or language for them. In fact, I wonder if we have effectively outsourced the interior world of feeling, affectivity, and emotion to the sphere of psychology. Since we can’t seem to make sense of the emotional life from a faith perspective, we refer the inner life to psychology. Thus the heart of the Reformation becomes secularized, medicalized, and psychologized.

To counter that, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of a rich tradition that not only affirms the emotional life but gives it theological meaning.

First, to have an emotional life and to feel things is to be both fully human and fully Christian. This affirmation is woven throughout the Christian tradition. “Bearing the cross patiently does not mean that we harden ourselves, or do not feel any sorrow,” writes John Calvin in his Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. He goes on to say that we are not to be like the Stoic who tries to lay off his humanity. Jonathan Edwards, writing two centuries later in The Religious Affections, looks to Jesus as a true human, a man “who was remarkably tender and affectionate of heart. . . . His virtue was expressed very much in the exercise of holy affections.” To feel is to be fully human, fully Christian, and indeed, like Christ.

Feeling is also the language of prayer, the language of the heart. The first criterion the Heidelberg Catechism gives for true prayer is that “we must pray from the heart” (Q&A 117). True prayer, in other words, utters the feelings of the human heart: adoration, gratitude, and joy, but also sorrow, regret, confusion, and helplessness. This, of course, is what led Calvin to describe the prayers of the psalms as an “anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” He writes, “Prayer itself is properly an emotion of the heart which is poured out and laid open before God” (Institutes 3.20.29). To pray is to feel.

The intensification of feeling is also a key dynamic in our sanctification and conversion. Psychologists who research the dynamics of how people change affirm the necessity of some kind of emotional arousal. But they are only reiterating what the Christian tradition has always known: In order to change, we must first feel sorrow for our sin (Q&A 89) as well as the consolation of righteousness. When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4), he was essentially saying, “Blessed are those who feel their losses, for they will be converted to a different emotional state.” To feel is to change, and it is no wonder that earlier Christians connected the emotional life of the soul with the will.

Many of our emotions are produced directly by the movement of the Spirit, by proximity to Jesus, and by the wonders and work of God. Calvin notes that the feeling of being forgiven is really the feeling of acceptance. In the New Testament, the kingdom of God is described as joy and peace in the Spirit (Rom. 14:17). To have a spiritual experience—that is, some kind of God experience—is to have an emotional experience. We cannot separate the two.

A key element, then, to discerning the work and movement of the Spirit is to pay attention to our feelings and to inquire after the source of those feelings. One of the more wonderful questions posed by followers of Jesus in the New Testament comes in the Emmaus Road account in Luke 24. After the fact, after they have seen Jesus for who he is, the two followers look back and wonder, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?” (Luke 24:32). The followers were talking about a spiritual experience, about something they were feeling in their hearts. And that feeling was caused by the presence and teaching of Jesus. Among other things, the passage invites us to discern and pay attention to the burning in our own hearts. Feeling is produced both directly and indirectly by the action and presence of the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As Reformational Christians we have always been concerned for orthodoxy (right belief and thinking), and we have been concerned for orthopraxis (right action and how we live). But I wonder if we have forgotten or are losing our attention to something akin to orthokardia, a right-heartedness that includes the cultivation of a full and fitting emotional life—in the words of the the New Testament, “to rejoice with those who rejoice [and to] mourn with those who mourn” (Rom. 12:15). We are not only to think and act Christianly; we are to feel Christianly. Feelings, then, are not of secondary importance. Neither are they are inherently untrustworthy. Instead, feelings are integral to the life of faith, integral to being human and Christian, integral to prayer, integral to the dynamics of conversion, integral to spiritual experience and discernment.

How does that slogan go? Head, hands, and heart—and yes, the feelings of the heart. Orthodoxy, orthopraxis, orthokardia: a perfect Reformational trifecta.


Read More Online

  1. Do you agree with the perception that the Reformed tradition is overly cerebral and intellectual? Why or why not?
  2. How have you viewed the role of emotions in your life—especially in your spiritual life?
  3. Have you had something “burning in your heart” that may be traced to the Holy Spirit? What holy passions do you have that can be of service to God?
  4. “We are not only to think and act Christianly; we are to feel Christianly.” What are some ways we can incorporate all three elements into our Christian discipleship?


About the Author

Rev. Ron Klok is pastor of Centrepointe Community Church in Edmonton, Alberta.

See comments (5)


Thanks for this, Ron! I found it helpful. I've wondered how the Western European cultures of the Reformers influenced the Reformation--did the Dutch and German tendency to "soldier on" (despite how one may feel) affect the theology we inherited from them? How was that theology culturally contextual? It was thought-provoking to read the quotes you shared from people like Calvin about the importance of feelings. 

Hi Ron:  Are you going to correct your description, as Jerry VanderMeer is now pastor at Centrepoint Community Church.

I totally agree with you, Ron!  Love is a feeling, and also Jesus' greatest command.  It's feelings that elicit responses in us, and thereby motivates us to Christ-like action.  I don't think it is the Reformed tradition that is so cerebral.  My experience is that the immigrant mentality of the people was more responsible.  Parents of my generation came to Canada and immediately put their nose to the grindstone to make successful lives for their families.  Although church attendance was an essential element in that development, they didn't allow themselves time for acknowledging and responding to feelings.  I feel so blessed to be part of a church that readily acknowledges the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and motivates us to love God, each other and our neighbours that need us all around the world.  It is the basis for all of the ministries that our church is involved in, both near and far.  The bonus?  God blesses us by increasing our faith in Him!  Praise God! 

I agree with Danielle, Western theology was affected by the Enlightenment period to put a high priority rational thought and logic over emotional experiences. When contrasted to other cultural expressions, this is a very white (though not very Christian) way of being in the world. Holding logic above emotion historically allowed Europeans to justify the exploitation of people of color and allow modern voices to discredit the emotional and embodied experiences of pain and suffering that continue among people of color.

I think that it is also worth noting that in our modern world, men especially are socialized to eschew our feelings. These are a few of the ways that whiteness and mysogyny dehumanize us all. 

I'm glad for this article's reminder that our Christian--and even our Reformed--roots there is an acknowledgement of humans as integrated persons who experience the world through head, heart and hands. Thank you, Rev. Klok!

Thanks for all the helpful comments above.  In addition to this, I think that not only reformed Christians but also those from the Catholic tradtion, especially introspectve types, carry a heavy burden with the emphasis on non believers going to hell for eternity and another emphasis on personal worthlessness, guilt, and sin that can never be fully repented of.  (Consider the writings of Henri Nouen, a catholic priest, Brennan Manning, a former Catholic and NT Wright, an Anglican.)  We had no choice but to ignore our miserable feelings and believe.

For me, grace broke through with the thought that I am accepted as I am, not as I should be (thanks to Brennan Manning for  words that helped me feel better) I was happily surprised to read in your article that  "Calvin notes that the feeling of being forgiven is really the feeling of acceptance".   And what a good feeling it is, a feeling that you are so grateful for that it frees you up to look outside yourself to repentance and doing good works.  God loved us first!