Feeling Your Faith: Matthew Elliott

Matthew Elliott is the author of two fine books on emotions and the Christian faith, and he has agreed to offer this post today for our conversation. I’m grateful for his work and I hope we can have a good discussion of his ideas today. For his books, see his more accessible study Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart
and his more intense study called Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament

Feeling Your Faith 

Matthew Elliott


I was with a woman this morning who lost her son to tragedy three years ago. This intense, strong, vibrant follower of Jesus told me that she had almost left the church because people spoke theology and empty Christian platitudes to her instead of feeling and weeping with her. It was terribly empty. She found comfort from those who would share her pain. That is the way God made us.


And yet, so often we fail to enter into one another’s heartaches. 


Why are we so afraid of emotions in the church? 

We think our job is to control our feelings and in our church culture we are uncomfortable when people feel deeply. In our desire to distance ourselves from feelings, we do great damage to souls and our own ability to feel love and compassion.

I read the end of 2 Corinthians this morning
in bed. What does Paul say for his final words, the last things he wants to
leave in his readers’ minds?


I close my letter with
these last words: Be joyful.
Grow to maturity.
Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace
will be with you. Greet each other with Christian love.”


I thought, “What would I have naturally
written for my final words to beloved people? What would we have heard in my church?”
I am afraid it would have been very different.


I think it might have been a list of good works. 

Maybe something like, “I close my letter with these last words: Be
diligent in reading the Word. Pray each day, in the morning before anything
gets going in your day. Memorize Scripture, so it is hidden in your heart. Serve

in your church and then go out to tell others about Jesus. Then God will be
with you.”

Sometimes we get so caught up in the doing we forget that, to God,
the core issue is the state of our hearts. Feelings have much to say about the
true state of our hearts, that is why they are so prominent is Scripture.

My friend this morning told me another story. She said she came
from a formal religious background that, to her, was only about works and
ceremony. Then she became a genuine follower of Jesus and became so alive. A
year later she was in a strong evangelical church and woke up to realize it was
no different to her than the church she had left. She was DOING all this stuff
to please God and was losing the vibrant emotional life of Christ.

These are the things I feel guilty about not doing enough – praying,
reading my Bible, doing works of service and memorizing Scripture. Rarely, do I
get down on myself for not feeling right.
But to Paul, the doing comes after,
flows out of the being. Being is totally integrated with how we are feeling. What
is the last thing Paul wants people to remember? “Rejoice!” “Encourage!” – and
does anybody give good encouragement without feeling it genuinely within?  “Live in peace!” – can you be peaceful
if you are feeling angry toward a brother or fearful about the future? There is
strong emotion in all these.

And what is the last thing Paul wants us to remember about God?
How he feels for us – his great love. When I think about all this I wonder if “Greet
each other with Christian love” must mean more to Paul than a handshake and
asking “How are you doing?”

I wonder what it should mean for me.

We so often have our goals all wrong. The NIV translates “Grow to maturity” as “Aim for perfection.” But what
is perfection to Paul? He shows us it is not my “church-taught” definition of
getting up at 5:30 AM instead of 6:00 in order to get in a quiet time, but
rather, it is how we love and are loved, how we rejoice, how we live in peace.

We cannot grow to spiritual maturity without growing in emotional
maturity. We need less talking about what we need to do in church and much more about how we are to feel.

We think of Paul as this great theologian, this great thinker and
he was certainly that. But how about Paul the great feeler? How about the Paul
that would not have given any theological answer to my friend when she lost her
son, but the Paul that would have gone to her, put his arms around her, and
wept. “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep.”

A final thought as well, what about our witness to the hurting
world? Are people around you looking to follow someone that can recite lots of
Scripture by heart, someone who can win a debate on Jesus being the son of God?
Would that turn them on to the LIFE Jesus offers, would that get them to come
to church with you? Sure, sometimes that is the turning point and that is

But, more often, I think people around us are looking for someone
who knows how to love, feels compassion, someone who knows joy – the kind that
shows on their faces.

What is going to show people that God is real, what is going to
draw people to truth? Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that the greatest of
actions, like giving your body to be burned, without love is devoid of
godliness and value.

Our most powerful witness is often not what we say but how others
see we feel our faith. 

The world is not asking us for perfect answers and ultimate logic.
What people are asking Christians is: “Do you love me? Does the life you say
you have in Christ bring you the joy and hope I want in my life? Can I see it
on your face?”

I think if I aim for a little less doing and a whole lot more
feeling I may be a little closer to where God wants me to be.

Bio: Matthew Elliott is on a
journey to understand how God created us to feel.

This has led him to study emotion in the New Testament for his PhD, write
books and articles on emotion, including Feel:
The Power of Listening to Your Heart,
and work to develop the Feel Seminar to teach people what it
means to love God and others from the heart.  www.faithfulfeelings.com

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  • reJoyce

    Morning. The link to Matthew Elliott’s site doesn’t work. (It’s misspelled.) It should be:

  • Scot McKnight

    reJoyce, thanks. I fixed it.

  • bNelson

    I think the emphasis on feeling is misplaced. The emphasis in scripture is on Being; God is the great I AM. Feeling is an expression of being. Love, joy, faith, hope are much more than feelings. They are choices that give the Holy Spirit permission to release His power to transform our essence so that all our being reflects who God made us to Be, abundantly. Being integrates intellect, feeling, doing into a whole, so we are beings with integrity. Fragmented from our true being, we are illusions and no amount of “right” thinking, feeling, or doing can heal that brokenness.
    Feelings are indicators of the status of our hearts in relationship to God, ourselves, and others. – Becki

  • bNelson

    …however, given the over-sell of the intellect in evangelical and other western denominational religious cultures, the author’s concern is well placed. The heart’s language is both thought and emotion. Emotion is the “fuel” for the soul, motivation. we can think rightly all we want, but without the help of balanced, positive emotion, our perceptions of who we are will remain unchanged, and our intent to turn good thinking into good doing right won’t last long.

  • Good comments, Becki.
    Yes, I agreed to receive this book (the first one listed) some time ago with the understanding that I would read and post on it. I actually have been thinking of this just this morning, I believe, and have the intention of reviewing it, maybe at length on my blog. (Maybe not so bad I didn’t earlier, as my over 1400 posts in nearly four years of blogging are yet to be recovered!). I found what I read of your book to hit me as intriguing at first, but then to leave me wondering.
    But I think you’re on to something, Matthew. In your book you share examples of well known Christian leaders who speak words contradicting this: maybe like, “You can’t live on your feelings.” “Feelings are secondary, what matters is your faith.”, etc. And you contrast that with readings from Scripture (as you do here) and your understanding of them. It does seem clear that our rationalistic or modern way of reading such passages might contrast with a more holistic way the Bible writers and readers understood them.
    I think some people are more feeling oriented than others, some more mind-oriented. But that doesn’t mean one can’t feel deeply, even if they’re not easily given to emotions. And I think the world is on to something when they talk about the importance of emotional quotient, that intelligent quotient alone will not determine one’s success in life, in fact how EQ may be even more important than IQ.
    I do like for sure the thought that we need to pay attention to our feelings. That they can reflect our heart, which after all is what God is concerned about, and out of which we live.

  • And like Becki says, the heart reflects what is inward in its entirety. I think an important aspect to consider in all of this is relationships, and changed relationships through God’s saving work in Christ. That this is an important aspect of our being changed.

  • Faith

    It is good to hear this post. I think it is dysfunctional to shut down feelings. My friends outside the church thought Christians were so phoney in the “happiness” precisely because they did not feel in a healthy way. I grew up in churches and a home that shunned negative feelings, like anger or anxiety, as unspiritual or “sinful.”
    Faith is not a feeling, it is a choice to believe in God with or without feelings. I might have faith, choose to trust God but have a good deal of anxiety about trusting, but it is still an exercise of faith. And clammness can come later. When I feel difficult emotions, I remind myself that those are emotions, i listen to see what they have to tell me. Fear of the emotion or of having the emotions would increase the emotion raising the level of anxiety.
    glad for the discussion.

  • bNelson

    Ted @ 6
    “in all of this is…changed relationships through God’s saving work in Christ.”
    I agree, Ted. It’s God’s work through the birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus and the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit, as we choose to collaborate with him, that our fragmentation is healed and our integration develops….

  • Many of us were taught to evangelize and in the process negate people’s feelings. Remember the train illustration? FACT – FAITH – and the caboose FEELING. Feelings don’t count in a big matter like salvation we were told to say. The mental/rational trumped the emotional. Years later those same evangelized people get to counseling and the big challenge is to teach them to validate what? Their feelings. It is such a LIE to be told not to feel and that feelings are not important in the Christian faith. Where did this cr*ppy thinking come from?

  • Scot McKnight

    I was thinking of this last night when I began to think about Matthew’s post appearing here. Where does this idea come that feelings are bad?
    In part it comes from the teaching to suppress passions, which can be (but not always) negative desires, but when passions become connected to feelings, then suppressing emotions/feelings emerges. There is a belief in rationalism, but it goes back to the Greek philosophers, that reason is the reliable guide while the emotions will lead a person astray.

  • MaryKate Morse

    The conversation about emotions in the church is also a conversation about gender. Men are more likely to be supported if they show emotion. For instance, if a man is preaching and begins to choke up and tear up while sharing a personal, relevant story, the audience is drawn in and feels connected more to him. If a woman begins to tear up while speaking to a mixed-gender audience, people generally become nervous and feel uncomfortable. Women are labeled as “emotional,” and people get uncomfortable if they start to cry while preaching. Women get stuck knowing how to be taken seriously while also being emotionally authentic. Emotions are part of being human – a central part. Let’s give space for it both for men and women. Not emotionalism, which is the use of emotions for manipulating people’s response – this is wrong.

  • Scot, I recently corresponded with you on this topic in the context of Christian worship. Of course, emotions are important. One verse that has always pointed this out to me is Romans 6:17—”But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” Here we see mind, emotions and will all responding to Christ and the Gospel.
    What I object to is a practice of pietism that says, “Unless I feel something in a certain way, with a required amount of ‘passion’ or intensity, it’s not a real encounter with God.” And I see this everywhere in evangelicalism, especially in the form of worship services that seek to “work up” this kind of intense emotion.

  • Vaughn Treco

    @Scot From your review of the NT, what have you found that grounds the distinction that you are making between the passions and feelings?

  • Dana Ames

    Not only that, Scot, but in some quarters of the American church it seems that we can’t weep with those who weep, because we think the fact of suffering and tragedy somehow negatively affect God’s reputation, or (less nowadays I think, but still present) that the person affected somehow didn’t have enough faith/obedience. This latter has to do with the obedience/health & wealth topic of a couple of days ago.
    Both aspects are tied into erroneous theology (which might also be tied into something that’s peculiarly American- get over tragedy and grief quickly/pull yourself up by your emotional bootstraps) that has no place for suffering.

  • Vaughn Treco

    A few random thoughts on the emotions in the Christian life:
    In my experience as a pastor, I was amazed to discover how rarely Christians allow God to enter into their experiences of deep emotion.
    After having received the psalms from my mother’s lips I took it for granted that God desired passionate honesty from his people.
    A similar approach to the experience of the passions/emotions/feelings seems to permeate Negro Spirituals…another source of my Christian formation in The Bahamas.
    (Note: It helped to have my mum’s instruction reaffirmed by my first college OT professor, Dennis Magary.)

  • Scot McKnight

    Vaughn, not sure I was rendering that distinction from NT evidence. But the clear teaching of Paul is that the epithumia — lusts/desires — are to be avoided. Whether he called “joy” and “rejoice” something like “emotions” is not clear to me, but that distinction might be worth making on the basis of avoiding the passions that lead to sin and to nurture the emotions that are connected to goodness.

  • David Phillips

    In doing my doctoral work at George Fox, I used Elliot’s Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament in one of my research papers, in my dissertation and it will be used in my book coming out soon.. His book was a great book.
    The enlightenment has caused us, church included, to focus on the rational. We direct everything to the mind, and try to create a rational path to ministry, evangelism, and discipleship. We, however, fail to understand that we are primarily emotional people, not logical people. Even our rational thought is too often a rationalization of our emotions. Emotions have more to do with our behavior than logic.
    We can certainly manipulate using emotions, but if we are going to see change in the church and change in our world, we need to recognize that change happens first at the emotional level, not the cognitive.
    I really appreciate Dr. Elliot’s work, and thanks for this post…

  • Vaughn Treco

    Perhaps we do not weep with those who weep because we have not integrated weeping into our relationship with God.

  • RJS

    Is the subject here really the kind of feeling used in the idea of fact, faith, feeling? I would thing that honest emotion (a good thing) and feelings as a guide for faith (a nebulous thing) are distinct ideas.
    I always struggled with the idea that we should “feel” different as Christians and the reality of faith would be known by this feeling. The biggest place this would play a role was in the (drumroll please) “Conversion Experience.”
    On the other hand authenticity is critical and hard to find/come by. MaryKate Morse hits one of the issues in her comment – display of emotion casts me in a light I detest … irrational female. It makes it hard to find the right track.

  • EricG

    Elliot’s books on this topic sound interesting. Does either book discuss the question of feelings toward God? I.e., at times in our lives we experience a sense of distance from God. That is another aspect of our faith lives that we often do not feel free to discuss with each other, since it is typically viewed as a sign of weakenes. I’ve been going through that “feeling,” and it has been made all the more difficult because its not something that is easy to discuss with others.

  • Vaughn Treco

    @Scot, I have taken a similar tact in my own attempt to distinguish between the passions and emotions.
    We may not need to look to the Enlightenment for the origin of the tendency to de-emphasize the emotions. Whether or not it was intended to do so, it seems as though the Catholic description of the effects of the Fall has encouraged this approach to the emotions.
    Question 53 of the Baltimore Catechism captured this tradition well when it enunciated the gifts which Adam and Eve possessed prior to the Fall: “What other gifts were bestowed on Adam and Eve by God?” In answer, the BC states that the “other gifts bestowed on Adam and Eve by God were…control of the passions by reason….” (See http://www.catholicity.com/baltimore-catechism/lesson05.html)
    The Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph also continues the witness to this tradition when – speaking of the effects of the Fall – it says: “The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered…” (CCC 400).
    Since entering the Catholic Church, I have heard several lay people and clerics speak of the suppression of emotion as a natural implication of this tradition. While I do not accept this logic, this tradition does seem to lend credence to the practice of undervaluing emotions.

  • Vaughn Treco

    @Matthew In an effort to push back against the tendency among Christians to undervalue emotions – and to preserve and deepen the integration of emotions in my walk with Christ – I have resorted often to the practice quoting/paraphrasing the Apostle Paul’s description of his own deep emotional attachment to the Philippians: “For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Phil 1:8). I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive responses that I have received from many Christian brothers and sisters.

  • @EricG
    The New Zealander, Alan Jamieson, has a great book on that topic called Chrysalis: The Hidden Transformation in the Journey of Faith.

  • Thanks all for the comments and insights. Today and tomorrow are state chess tournament days for my son, so not a lot of access to the internet. Would love to join in a bit more. A couple things that stick out from the conversations. Just stream of consciousness before going back to Jackson’s tournament. Passions and emotions are tricky to pull apart. In the NT passions are specifically linked to sexual sin and it is not a generic term like we see in the philosophers.
    To Becki, many do argue that joy, love, etc are “more than emotions.” I believe that is very problematic, as in trying to make them more, we actually make them less. For example, love that is “made more” by saying it is action, not feeling, is actually less than love the emotion. Love as action can be fulfilled in the doing, where love the emotion motivates far beyond just doing the right thing. Also, the idea that emotion is not tied to thinking and values is flawed. When we correctly understand emotion as an integrated system with our reason, we no longer need to downplay its importance.
    To Eric, sure the books talk about our feelings toward God, that is a part of it. I want to write “How God Feels About You” sometime soon as well.
    Feelings are not a guide to faith, but they are a window to see truths that often gives us insight into the true state of our faith. When they are off, they are telling us something is amiss.
    David, I am convinced that the emotional and the cognitive are so wonderfully integrated that they cannot be clearly differentiated like many have taught. It is more like we have one level – not a separation of cognitive and emotional – where the two are constantly interacting and rubbing against each other in a way that is to amazing and wonderful for us to clearly understand. We are both rational and emotional and when one is out of balance our logic is greatly compromised – studies in neurology are showing that compromised emotional function greatly impedes any logical thinking.
    Back to chess!

  • bNelson

    Matthew – Loved the clarification! didn’t mean to imply that love, joy, etc. do not include emotion, just that they go beyond emotion. Maybe they are states of being, if you will, initiated by the father and participated in with our whole selves. I agree that emotion is definitely tied to thinking and doing, didn’t mean to imply otherwise. Integration with the rest of our being is key.

  • Mich

    Matthew is spot on regarding the supposed split between reason and emotion from a cognitive approach–see D’amasio.
    The Enlightenment tried to preach reason ruling emotions, and critiques of the Enlightenment always preached the dehumanizing effect of too much reason–see the Romantics.
    I think much of Christian thought boils down to emphasizing Law over or rather at the expense of the Gospel. Much of Christian thought seems afraid of the effects of the Power of the Gospel–it will lead to antinomianism, or worse…….dancing.
    Wonderful post and comments.