Our actions are influenced by a variety of things around us. If we try to trace back where our actions come from, we would first say that our “decisions” influence our actions – we choose to actively perform that particular action, and we also decide our action is “right” or “wrong”. But where do the decisions for our actions come from? I would like the investigate just two sources which loosely covers where all our decisions and actions come from – our minds and our hearts. When we think of our minds and our hearts together, some of us might instantly think of the notion that what we think and what we feel are opposed to one another; a battle of logic against emotions that rages within us. As Christians, though we already have been saved through Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins, we still need to pay careful attention to the way we live. And if indeed we go by the classic idea that our convictions and our feelings are opposed to each other, then we need to figure out how we’re going choose the right thing to do.
When Feelings Lead
The first thing we have to note about emotions and the way they guide us is that they are subjective. What we feel is different to what another person feels (generally) and vice versa; and so in deciding how we are to act around other people, it won’t always be easy to satisfy both what we feel and what the other person feels. Irrespective of whether our actions affect only ourselves or other people as well, emotions tend to be dynamic in nature. We feel different at different times, and this can be attributed to how our surroundings are dynamic throughout our lives. For instance, if we went for a walk down the road, we might pass by a garbage truck, where the bad smell makes us feel disgusted. We then might walk past beautiful flowers, and the beauty of these flowers may captivate us to feel happy. And then we might walk past a large “SALE” sign, making us feel anxious to rush in and grab the bargains before they’re all gone.
When we have our subjective and dynamic emotions as our driving force for influencing our actions, our personalities shine through more clearly in our actions, making it easier to express who we are and allowing people to get to know us. When we are happy, people can see from our actions that we’re happy, and when we’re sad others can see that too. However, this can also sometimes lead us to be selfish, because we’re appealing to our feelings and not the other person’s. Our feelings can also make us unpredictable at times – unpredictable things like the garbage truck or the “SALE” sign will create unpredictable emotions. This can cause us to “act on a whim” based on our feelings which can be hit or miss – sometimes we may act at the vital moment we need to and end up doing the right thing, other times we may end up the opposite and do an unwise thing or be caught up in sin.
When Convictions Lead
On the other hand to emotions, our convictions or “head knowledge” can be described to be more objective. What we know is often beyond our control and based upon facts and truth, and as such would be something we share in common with other people – for example we can accept common truths such as ‘it is against the law to murder someone’ and ‘our bodies function on necessities such as food, water, sleep, etc’. But aside from these undeniable truths, there are other “truths” that could be seen as subjective, in particular I am referring to what Christians believe to be the truth, versus what non-Christians believe to be the truth. Without complicating the scenario, if two people have the same worldview, then their convictions are objectively the same. Convictions are also static in nature. The truth and other things we know don’t just suddenly change at random. Of course, you can have laws and facts revised and updated (such as Pluto no longer being considered a planet), but there are facts such as your date of birth which cannot change. Nonetheless, there is no “unpredictability” element that is present for emotions which would greatly make our actions unpredictable.
In particular for Christians, I want to emphasise the point that the truth and our convictions come from the Bible. Though it is beyond the scope of this article to address why and how the Bible is truth (for both Christians and non-Christians), Jesus Himself testifies that “[God’s] word is truth” (John 17:17). Understanding the Bible is no easy task either, but it is a reasonable (and frankly the only) way in which we can draw truthful convictions. Basing the truth on what God says makes it objective, and God proclaims about Himself: “I the Lord do not change” (Malachi 3:6), giving us the static facet of convictions.
When we have our objective and static convictions leading the actions that we perform, we can appear to be more “robotic” in our personalities and our nature. We display more order and predictability in our actions, because we adhere to a set of “rules” to decide on our actions. This can in fact be helpful to other people, as they are able to “predict” how we’ll act and react in relation to them, making it potentially easier to interact with people – we all have a fear of the unknown after all, and being able to work with known convictions removes that fear. The difficulty of our convictions is that sometimes we don’t know what is the truth, or it is very hard to figure out what is objectively right or wrong (as opposed to easily being able to identify our feelings) – how do we know what is the right thing to do apart from our feelings? And where will we go to find out the truth?
When Feelings and Convictions Try to Lead Together
I have purposely structured my ideas on feelings and convictions in a way that shows a stark contrast between the two; this is more to highlight why we intuitively perceive the two to be opposites of one another. At face value, it does seem that only one of these things can lead our decisions at any time. In reality, we take both our feelings and convictions into account but when they compel us to take two different (and maybe opposite) actions, we have to let one trump the other. Let me use some (poorly made) diagrams to illustrate my idea:
When our feelings and convictions both point us towards the same action, then there are no conflicts and we easily just affirm that action because we thought and felt that it was the right thing to do. These are scenarios that we often overlook because we didn’t have difficulty in deciding what to do, but there are probably many times in our lives where we our convictions and feelings do point us in the same direction and we aren’t torn between having to choose between two opposite things. Bear in mind I am not considering trivial decisions (such as what we should eat for lunch) but rather trying to figure out “right” from “wrong”.
However the way we make decisions isn’t always that simple:
When our feelings and convictions point us in different directions towards different actions, we are now unable to satisfy both what we think and what we feel. In some scenarios (and the diagram above is trying to show this), our feelings and convictions take us in opposite directions to actions that can be opposed to one another. We can often find ourselves at a crossroad where our options are mutually exclusive (doing one thing means not doing the other) and there is pressure for us to figure out which of our actions will be the right one to take. Now sometimes, we’ll get it right, other times we’ll get it wrong; and not only so, but the right actions that we take can sometimes come from our feelings and other times our convictions. With experiences where both right and wrong decisions have come out of our feelings and convictions, it can seem hard to figure out which one to trust more over time. Sometimes our feelings may misguide us and lead us to doing something wrong. Other times our convictions may have been based on something untrustworthy which can lead us to doing the wrong thing.
When We Try to Put Feelings and Convictions Together
Here is another take on how we might try to reconcile the way we make decisions with our feelings and convictions:
If you are familiar with a decision matrix from Mathematics or Economics, then you should find this diagram relatively easy to understand. I would like to divide our decisions and actions into four simple categories as shown in the table above: whether something feels good or bad, and whether that thing is right or wrong – so we are pairing up combinations for the positive and negative ends of the spectrum for our feelings and convictions. Here are some short comments on each of these boxes:
[Top Left] Feels Good & Is Right – This is ideally where we want most of us decisions and actions to fall in. Not only are we doing the right thing by God’s Word, but we also feel good while doing so. This is perhaps the best scenario that Christians could hope live their life, where we get positive affirmations from our emotions for doing the right thing.
[Top Right] Feels Bad & Is Right – In reality for the Christian, this is typically where most of our decisions and actions actually fall in (the top left box is an aspiration and probably doesn’t happen as often as this top right box). The Christian life is a struggle and often times we will be struggling to persevere in doing the right thing because it feels hard. Avoiding what is sinful to do the right thing may mean opposing what our bodies feel is good. Since we are all naturally drawn to sin, it becomes harder to do the right thing when our feelings don’t agree with that action either.
[Bottom Right] Feels Bad & Is Wrong – Contrary to what we might expect from taking the negative ends of the spectrum for both characteristics that we’re measuring, this box is actually not the worst one to be in (I’ll go on to explain why the remaining option can be considered the worst). Again because we are all still sinful, there will be times where we will sin; but when we sin, we can still come to the realization that it is wrong (usually in hindsight) and hence feel bad about it. This is in fact quite intuitive; if the top left box is about feeling good for doing the right thing, then naturally it is in harmony with this bottom right box, where we feel bad for doing the wrong thing (in some sense we have double negatives here). When we feel bad for doing the wrong thing, then we are affirming the right signal to ourselves that we have sinned and should repent and change our course of actions in the future. We will fall into sin, and the best thing we can do from that point is to repent and change our ways.
[Bottom Left] Feels Good & Is Wrong – In contrast to the bottom right box, this is perhaps the more dangerous box to be in because not only did we do the wrong thing, but we are also affirming the wrong signal to ourselves. We are telling ourselves that it feels good to do the wrong thing, and this will encourage us to keep doing it and to continue to sin. Often times if we are to choose between this box and the top right box (doing something that feels bad but is right), we would be more tempted to put our feelings in front of God’s truth. We would rather do what feels good than to do what is right, and ultimately this box deceives us in the way we should be living.
The Way We Put Feelings and Convictions Together
As much as we want to try and put righteousness in front of our feelings, it is hard to ignore our feelings and make our decisions purely on our convictions – we just wouldn’t seem “human” if we did so. On the other hand, we cannot rely on our feelings completely to dictate our actions to the point where we give up what is right. From the above section, we may try to think of how to find some sort of middle ground where our feelings and convictions contribute equally to our decisions but we occasionally swing and miss the mark. However I would like to suggest the following alternative:
There are a lot more elements in this model than in the previous sections, so let me go through this diagram from left to right.
A lot of what shapes our thinking and the things we believe and are convicted of are the things we see and experience in the world (external sources). Things that we perceive with our five sense (sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste) all shape the things that we know; and in particular, the things we hear from other people like our parents and friends form a huge influence on what we know and believe. Christians go through a huge change in their lives when we realise that it is the Bible that shapes what we should believe to be right and wrong (our convictions). Sometimes the Bible will affirm what we somehow “guessed” was right before we read it. Other times the Bible will correct our misconceptions and bring to light the truth of matters that we got wrong. And still there are other times where the Bible shows us the truth of something we have not seen or thought about before. Nonetheless, if we are to receive stimulus from the world to build up the things we know and believe, we need to be ready to “filter” them through the Bible (hence the dotted lines) to work out what the truth really is. Otherwise, we should get our convictions from the Bible itself and let it dictate the way we see the world. This is what it means when Paul calls the Thessalonians to “not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all.” (1 Thessalonians 5:20-21a)
The idea I propose is that our convictions and feelings don’t need to be separate and opposite to one another. In fact they can be tied to one another where our convictions shape our feelings. The Bible not only tells us what we should believe, but also how we should feel based on our convictions:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5)
The Bible calls us to rejoice, to feel “joy”. But it’s not to conjure up joy out of nothing, instead the reason we should feel joy and rejoice is because “the Lord is near”. The conviction of Jesus returning with our inheritance of eternal life gives the reason why we should feel joy. Here is another example of how convictions shape our feelings:
“Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.” (Romans 12:9b)
In Romans, Paul calls us to have feelings of hate towards evil and sin. We are taught what is right and wrong from the Bible, and then called to respond emotively to our convictions – to hold onto and love what is right and to reject and hate what is wrong.
Ultimately when our convictions and feelings are aligned by the Bible, then we can become able to let both our feelings and convictions lead our decisions and actions. Ideally they would be in harmony with one another because the Word of God has aligned them the same way. When we not only learn what is right from the Bible but also trained to feel good about what the Bible calls is right, then we will be able to do what is and feels right. In the same way, when we learn what is wrong from the Bible and also trained to feel bad about what the Bible calls is wrong, then we will be able to avoid what is and feels wrong.
Now the reason why my diagram still has branches of “wrong actions” stemming off from feelings is that sometimes we will misinterpret the Bible and misunderstand what is right and wrong. Reading and understanding the Bible isn’t easy and we can’t expect to always get it right instantly. This is why we have Bible “Studies” at church, to study and work out what the truth is; and also why we need to continue reading the Bible and working out what it says. Getting it wrong shouldn’t be a discouragement to us that we can’t get it right. Rather, it should motivate to keep delving deeper into the Bible to find the truth. Our friends and family who are more mature in their knowledge of the Bible can be a great help for us when we aren’t able to figure it out.
Remember Sin’s Effect On Us & Conclusion
At the end of the day, it is hard to work out what is right and wrong, and even more so to do the right thing over the wrong thing. Working out our convictions requires time and effort in studying the Bible diligently and humbly, and learning to deal with our emotions sometimes means we have to deny our feelings in favour of seeking out the objective truth. But things don’t seem that bad if we are able to figure out the truth from the Bible and then align our feelings according to what we believe from God’s Word. When we are able to sort through our convictions and feelings together, it becomes easier to recognise and do what is right, and reject what is wrong.
Sin continues to be at work in us unfortunately, either obscuring the way we learn from the Bible and clouding us from the truth, or from clouding our hearts and tempting us to feel bad about the right things, and good about the wrong things. But let us keep looking to God and the Holy Spirit he has placed in us to guard our hearts from sin; to remember Jesus’ death on the cross to remove the guilt and penalty of our sin; and to His Word, which contains the truth and the words of eternal life to guide us in the way we ought to live. Let us keep praying to God for wisdom and guidance, and talking to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to help push us to find out what is right and true.