What to do when you don’t feel happy


Throughout Scripture we are commanded to feel, not just to think or decide. We are commanded to experience dozens of emotions, not just to perform acts of willpower.

For example, God commands us not to covet (Exodus 20:17), and it is obvious that every commandment not to have a certain feeling is also a commandment to have a certain feeling. The opposite of covetousness is contentment, and this is exactly what we are commanded to experience in Hebrews 13:5: “Be content with what you have” (RSV).

God commands us to bear no grudge (Leviticus 19:18). The positive side of not bearing a grudge is forgiving “from the heart.” This is what Jesus commands us to do in Matthew 18:35: “Forgive [your] brother from your heart.”

The Bible does not say, Make a mere decision to drop the grievance. It says, Experience a change in the heart. The Bible goes even further and commands a certain intensity. For example, 1 Peter 1:22 commands “Love one another earnestly from the heart” (RSV). And Romans 12:10 commands “Love one another with brotherly affection” (RSV).

People are often troubled by the teaching of Christian Hedonism that emotions are part of our duty—that they are commanded. This seems strange partly because emotions are not under our immediate control like acts of willpower seem to be. But Christian Hedonism says, “Consider the Scriptures.” Emotions are commanded throughout the Bible.

The Scriptures command joy, hope, fear, peace, grief, desire, tenderheartedness, brokenness and contrition, gratitude, lowliness, etc. Therefore Christian Hedonism is not making too much of emotion when it says that being satisfied in God is our calling and duty.

It is true that our hearts are often sluggish. We do not feel the depth or intensity of affections that are appropriate for God or His cause. It is true that at those times we must exert our wills and make decisions that we hope will rekindle our joy. Even though joyless love is not our aim (“God loves a cheerful giver!” 2 Corinthians 9:7; “[Show] mercy with cheerfulness,” Romans 12:8), nevertheless it is better to do a joyless duty than not to do it, provided that there is a spirit of repentance that we have not done all of our duty because of the sluggishness of our hearts.

I am often asked what a Christian should do if the cheerfulness of obedience is not there. It’s a good question. My answer is not to simply get on with your duty because feelings don’t matter. They do! My answer has three steps. First, confess the sin of joylessness. (“My heart is faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I,” Psalm 61:2.) Acknowledge the coldness of your heart. Don’t say that it doesn’t matter how you feel. Second, pray earnestly that God would restore the joy of obedience. (“I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart,” Psalm 40:8.) Third, go ahead and do the outward dimension of your duty in the hope that the doing will rekindle the delight.

This is very different from saying: “Do your duty because feelings don’t count.” These steps assume that there is such a thing as hypocrisy. They are based on the belief that our goal is the reunion of pleasure and duty and that a justification of their separation is a justification of sin. — The Dangerous Duty of Delight.

 

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