Can God Command Feelings?

I am reading John Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology.  I received a complimentary review copy through NetGalley.

An issue that came up in my reading a few days ago is whether God can legitimately command people to believe or to feel a certain way.

In a footnote, Frame said that people can choose what they believe.  According to Romans 1, Frame says, people choose to suppress the truth in unrighteousness.  They choose to believe what is pleasing to them as opposed to the truth.

In another footnote, Frame was referring to Hegel’s problem with God commanding people to feel a certain way.  Frame specifically mentioned Hegel’s problem with the command in Philippians 4:6: do not be anxious.  Hegel wondered how anxious people can obey this command.  Can they truly help how they feel?

In yet another footnote, Frame discussed the tendency of certain philosophers to treat law and love as dichotomous.  Their assumption is that law pertains to outward actions, whereas love concerns feelings and motives.  Frame responded that God’s law also can concern feelings and motives.  Jesus, after all, prohibited hate in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:21-22).

I often have the same frustration as Hegel.  I wonder if God is fair to command us to feel or not feel a certain way.  I deal with anxiety and unforgiveness.  There are times when I have difficulty turning these things off.  And biblical passages about the fearful having a place in the Lake of Fire (Revelation 21:8) and God not forgiving those who do not forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25-26) do not help matters.

Would I prefer for God to judge me by my actions, not by my thoughts?  Well, yes and no.  On the one hand, I do not actively take revenge on people I may hate in my heart.  I reason to myself that perhaps this may count as forgiveness before God.  I hope that it does, even though, to be honest, there are a lot of factors limiting any revenge I might want to take against people: laws, a concern for my reputation, etc.

On the other hand, as an introvert, I would prefer to focus on what goes on inside of me as opposed to what I actually do.  If I have a benevolent feeling for a person, I want that to count as love.  Some may tell me that this is not enough: that I actually have to show a person love concretely.  But certainly God is interested in my attitude, right?  The attitude defines the sort of person one is, correct?  Not surprisingly, as an introvert, I tend to prefer Christian teaching that tries to influence my attitude and perspective towards God, life, and other people.  If my attitude and perspective are all right, I reason, then that will favorably influence how I interact with other people.

That is pretty contradictory, I know.  Yet, there is some wisdom in both approaches.  I may hate a person in my heart, but I only hurt the person if I act on that hatred.  That means there is some love within me, right?  Yet, attitudes and perspectives are important, for thoughts can influence actions.

I do think that people have some say-so in what they feel.  I cannot turn off how I feel, and sometimes, as I have said before, simply telling myself to feel or not to feel a certain way does not really solve anything.  But I can choose to go to God in prayer.  I can breathe and meditate.  I can read about people who have the same struggles that I do (which can be a double-edged sword).  I can go to church, or therapy.  Many people take medication.

Interestingly, the passage that troubled Hegel, Philippians 4:6, does not just tell people not to be anxious.  It also tells people to make their requests to God with thanksgiving.  V 7 goes on to say that, then, the peace of God will keep one’s heart and mind through Christ Jesus.  Action can influence attitude.  Plus, God plays a significant role in helping a person out.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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