The Power of Listening to Your Heart

Book Details

Discerning Reader Editorial Review

Reviewed 07/09/2009 by Mark Tubbs.

Recommended. Seeks to rehabilitate emotion as a necessary and valuable part of the Christian life.

In light of the current discussion at Justin Taylor’s blog over the role of emotions in the Christian life, I thought it mete to post this placeholder review of Matthew Elliott’s book Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart. Reviewer Bob Kellemen is in process of composing a far more thorough and infinitely more expert review of Dr. Elliott’s book, which we will be highlighting as a feature review in coming days. In this humble review, I will merely register my initial thoughts about the book, which I found to be quite unlike any other book I’ve ever read.

Historically, different understandings of the role of feelings in Christian life have ranked among the chief polarizing causes of the divide between charismatics and more fundamentalist Christians. Rows upon rows of books from the former camp rely upon readers’ feelings of “victory” and “breakthrough” with which to gauge spiritual growth, while volumes published by the latter view feelings with suspicion: “emotions leave us in a fog and cloud our thinking…in order to live a godly life, we must control our emotions…following our emotions often leads us to sin.”

Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament, published by Kregel Academic in 2006, is the lengthier, more exegetical version of Tyndale House’s more recent Feel: The Power of Listening to Your Heart. In both, Elliott marshals the biblical evidence that rather than being dangerous, unreliable accessories to sin, feelings are:

•    Given to us by God to drive us to our best
•    Among the most logical and dependable things in our lives
•    Give us a window to see truth like nothing else
•    Accurate measures of the true health of our spiritual lives

Elliott begins his book with the primary assertion that “so many of us have been disconnected from our feelings and emotions.” This is a somewhat vague statement, worsened by the use of passive voice, but I interpret Elliott’s “disconnect” as meaning that Christians have for too long misunderstood the link between our feelings and emotions and our faith. He goes on to say that they are intimately connected, and when feelings and emotions are properly channeled in the service of faith, they are good things. Logic and reason should not pound feelings and emotions into submission, as though Christians ought to be “dried-up stoics” (J.I. Packer’s phrase). Rather, Christians should be deeply feeling people whose emotions run the gamut from sorrow to rejoicing – and which often manifest at the same time (2 Cor. 6:10; Isa. 53:3).

Indeed, Scripture mentions emotion fairly casually, in the sense that it “talks about emotion just like we do in everyday conversation.” To be sure, the Psalms epitomize human emotional expression. But what about biblical teaching on self-control? While Scripture certainly identifies self-control as a Christian virtue, Elliott interprets self-control to mean being emotionally adept rather than emotionally void. Excessive self-control along stoic lines actually serves to hobble our Christian walk:

Emotional moments and emotional understanding often lead to the greatest clarity in our thinking and understanding. These are the lightbulb moments. They capture the truth in a snapshot, as no amount of rational thinking can.

How so?

The root problem behind negative emotions is not the emotion itself; it’s you—your mistaken beliefs, your unhealthy values, your faulty thinking.

There, then, is the theory. But what of the application? With which tools shall we dig down to the root? Elliott offers a four-pronged tool for this very purpose:

•    Focus: What is preoccupying my mind and heart?
•    Know: What is actual and not imagined?
•    Value: What is really important to me?
•    Believe: How do I understand the world to work?

Feel is an intensely personal book in at least two senses. Firstly, Elliott relates his own story of growing in the expression of emotions and his academic study of the topic. Secondly, the topic itself addresses the deepest, darkest, and brightest impulses within ourselves, from the anger of hate to the ecstasy of joy.

The most important point Elliott makes in the book is that emotions are transitive, meaning every emotion has an object. “We don’t just love; we love someone or something. While this isn’t a groundbreaking discovery (for example, Christian Counseling and Education Foundation faculty have espoused this view for years), I would venture to say that a miniscule cross-section of the churchgoing public has internalized it. Indeed, in many, if not most, mainstream denominations, “love” is treated as a vague, intransitive, relative attitude rather than the specific, transitive, absolute that Scripture teaches it is.

I do have some quibbles with the book, a few of which I will register here, but again encourage you to check back for Bob Kellemen’s forthcoming review.

Occasionally Elliott seems to co-opt therapeutic language to the detriment of biblical language. Case in point is a few mentions of the concept of repression. It seems to me that whoever we are, however we are hardwired (a self-proclaimed Type A personality is among the members of a regularly appearing chapter-end panel in the book), we always act out of our emotions. Rather than repressing our emotions, sending them to Neverland as if we could simply banish them, do we not actually misdirect our emotions? Are not emotions like matter, in that they cannot be created or destroyed? To put it simply and rather ungrammatically, we cannot not feel our emotions, but we can and do control how they manifest outwardly. Or so it seems to me, an admitted layperson in this arena of study.

I have personal stylistic issues with the single-word chapter titles, which I don’t believe are all that helpful, as well as the single-sentence paragraphs, which often result in nothing more than wasted white space. The style is conversational – sometimes a bit too much so. For instance, before delving into a brief overview of the view of emotions bequeathed to us by twentieth-century psychiatry, the author says that he is “looking forward to taking a closer look with you at what some of these guys thought.” Personally – and you may call me a grammatical prescripitivist for this – a sentence like this shouldn’t get into print.

These quibbles aside, Feel is a strong book, and one that could benefit from revision in a second edition. If you take away nothing else from it, the one thing Elliott wants to leave you with is that like anything else in this fallen world, emotional output needs to be sanctified, transformed, and redeemed. The harmonization of reason and emotion is a sign of a mature believer. Where emotions are denied, one’s humanity is denied, which in turn results in what Elliott calls “spiritual dwarfism.”

Elliott cares deeply about biblical fidelity, and knows that much more work remains to be done on the topic of the role of emotion in the Christian life. Feel may only scratch the surface, but at least the ground has at least been broken so that deeper exploration might continue.