How Feelings Take Control Rather than Play their Part

I invited guest contributor, Nick Hetrick, to share his thoughts from a two-part talk entitled “Taking Your Thoughts Captive,“ which he and Chris Risley gave at our annual Xenos Summer Institute. Nick completed his PhD in English at The Ohio State University and serves as a counselor and Bible teacher in our church. In this short essay, he tackles the confusing topic of the divided self. On the one hand, we have strong impulses and feelings. On the other, God calls on us to exercise self-control and to take our thoughts “captive to the obedience of Christ.“ Nick’s article explores this tension. Stay posted for the second installment from Chris Risley. Add your thoughts below in the comment section subscribe if you want updates.



By Nick Hetrick

For some of us, feelings behave like a distracting extra in a movie: they take up all the attention and steal the show rather than playing their appropriate part in it. Such people are unduly driven by their feelings. For others, feelings are more like an unseen illness, creating various (and sometimes serious) symptoms without ever making themselves fully known. These people struggle to notice or attend to their feelings, which nevertheless significantly influence how they think, talk, and act. Few of us strike the perfect balance, appropriately aware of our feelings and able to engage with them, but not ruled by them. Because our feelings are related to our thoughts in ways I will discuss below, learning to engage our feelings is a crucial part of taking our thoughts captive and yielding them to Christ. And because inability, refusal, or failure to take our thoughts captive can wreak havoc on our spiritual lives and our overall well-being, we do ourselves and the people in our lives a great service by growing in the ability to engage with our feelings.

In their 2018 book Untangling Emotions, J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith describe the tendency to indulge feelings and the tendency to ignore them with reference to two lines from the song “Let It Go,” from the Disney film Frozen. Ignoring feelings is summed up in the line, “Conceal; don’t feel. Don’t let them see” and indulging them is summed up in the line, “Let it go! Let it go! Can’t hold it back anymore.” Groves and Smith point out why it’s important for each of us to consider which way we tend and whether our emotional lives have come under God’s control. They write, “The way you respond to your emotions, including how you feel about how you feel, is of vital importance to your relationship with God and others in your life. Our emotions are one of the most common and commonly misunderstood opportunities in our lives to grow in maturity and love. They have the power to deeply enrich our relationships or drive wedges into them.”[2] In other words, the way we recognize, engage, and communicate our feelings can either deepen our connections with people or distance us from them.  

While the practical question of how to take our thoughts and feelings captive and bring them to God is important, it is also important to understand the nature of the problem. With that in mind, I offer the following reflections on why feelings seem to reign more than ever before in American culture. In addition, I describe observable indicators that one’s feelings are “running the show” in someone’s life.[3]

It should be said at the outset that humans are naturally inclined to be ruled by our passions, and that both scripture and science bear witness to that tendency. As the apostle Paul puts it, all of us at some point “[follow] the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature” and continue to experience tension between our natural instincts and the leading of God’s Spirit (Eph. 2:3a; Gal. 5:17). In a secular context, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses the metaphor of the human mind as being comprised of an elephant (the emotional, impulsive self) and a rider (the rational, conscious, thinking self). As Haidt and his co-author Greg Lukianoff explain in their book The Coddling of the American Mind,

[T]he rider often believes he is in control, yet the elephant is vastly stronger, and tends to win any conflict that arises between the two…[T]he rider generally functions more like the elephant’s servant than its master, in that the rider is extremely skilled at producing post-hoc justifications for whatever the elephant does or believes. Emotional reasoning is the cognitive distortion that occurs whenever the rider interprets what is happening in ways that are consistent with the elephant’s reactive emotional state, without investigating what is true. The rider then acts like a lawyer or press secretary whose job is to rationalize and justify the elephant’s pre-ordained conclusions, rather than to inquire into—or even be curious about—what is really true.[4]

In other words, humans are hard wired to think emotionally and to persuade themselves that our emotional reasoning is reasonable after all. Putting it in everyday terms, Chip and Dan Heath write,

Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider. You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on. Good thing no one is keeping score.[5]

Even the most self-controlled among us have to admit that we can recognize ourselves in at least one of these scenes.

Yet even as humans naturally follow our emotions and have always done so, certain key shifts in the ideological terrain of western culture in the past three centuries have increasingly seated our “passions and inclinations” on the throne of our lives, making it more likely that we will follow those passions and more difficult to take our thoughts captive. In particular, the shifts I have in mind are the Enlightenment and its attendant exaltation of human reason for the discovery and creation of knowledge; deism and its attendant isolation of humans from a reference point outside ourselves; and existentialism and its attendant emphasis on human experience for the creation of meaning.[6]

The Enlightenment was a European intellectual and philosophical movement spanning most of the eighteenth century. Its core tenet was that human reason and capacity are sufficient to guide human society and the progress of knowledge. Enlightenment thinkers championed humans’ ability to discover and create knowledge, and these thinkers’ writing and speaking had a major influence on the practice of empirical science and the pursuit of social justice that those of us living in the twenty-first century west take utterly for granted. Enlightenment thinking de-emphasized God as a personal, powerful being on whom humans are dependent. Although some Enlightenment thinkers’ rejection of divine revelation was more aggressive than others’, God largely fell out of favor, so to speak, during this period.

In sum, the Enlightenment was a world-changing and highly beneficial period in human history that generated enormous advances in knowledge and politics, but at the same time, its exaltation of human reason led predictably (at least in hindsight) to a devaluation of God’s role in human thought and society. Over time, philosophical naturalism—the view that natural forces are the only forces at work in the world—came to prominence, and the intellectual landscape came to include prominent thinkers and writers who openly rejected God’s existence altogether.

As the Enlightenment’s emphasis on human reason and capacity became less a set of revolutionary new ideas and more the foundation of western intellectual life, philosophers contemplated the implications of a world without a God who defined and assigned meaning to the world and to life. Some, like the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, suggested that “the death of God” led to the rejection of all objective meaning and value. In other words, the death of God leads to nihilism. But other, later figures—notably the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus—suggested that rather than abandoning meaning altogether, people can create their own meaning through the way they view and conduct their lives. As Sartre put it in his essay “Existentialism is a Humanism,” “Life is nothing until it is lived; but it is yours to make sense of, and the value of it is nothing else but the sense that you choose.”[7]

To read Sartre or Camus is not by any means to read inspirational rhetoric about following your heart. However, the baseline assumption that there is no meaning apart the meaning we create has taken on a vigorous life of its own, right up to the present moment. When social media posts implore us to follow our dreams; when popular movies are filled with characters’ struggle against emptiness; and when prominent musicians’ lyrics include lines like, “Just say it out loud to see how it feels…Nothing’s off the table,” we can be sure that the impact of existentialism lives on, however closely it might resemble the existentialism of Sartre and Camus.[8] The legacy of existentialism is that modern people not only feel at liberty to define their lives by their feelings. In fact, many believe that is their only option. After all, if I am not being “authentic,” “genuine,” and “true to myself,” then I am not really living. And on the ground, for most people, notions like authenticity, genuineness, and even truth are utterly intertwined with personal feelings.

How, then, do these broad-scale historical trends, underscored by our natural inclinations, play out in everyday life? How do feelings take center stage for the average person?

First, consider the following scenario: A co-worker doesn’t show up to work one day, so you text her that evening to ask if everything is alright. She tells you she’s fine and that you don’t need to worry. Later that night, you see a post on social media explaining that your co-worker’s mother was diagnosed with cancer the previous day. After thinking about it for a moment, you realize that there’s a good chance that your co-worker’s absence has something to do with her mom’s diagnosis. The next day when your co-worker sits down at her desk, you offer sympathy, saying that you heard about her mom. She avoids eye contact and says, “Don’t worry about it” and then, under her breath, “I wish people would stop asking me about it.” Over the next month, your co-worker’s performance at work suffers, and she stops going out for happy hour with other people on your work team, which she had done almost every week for months. Meanwhile, as far as anyone you know is aware, she has not talked at length about her mother’s illness or spoken with a counselor that the company’s employees can visit a certain number of times per year at no cost. Clearly, your co-worker’s emotions are exerting a powerful influence on her life, and yet, as far as you know, she has not acknowledged those feelings at all.

Now, imagine that your brother, whom you live with, calls you one afternoon. From the moment you answer the phone you can tell he is agitated. He explains that your landlord plans to raise your rent for next year by 20%, even though you re-signed your lease on the assumption that rent would stay the same, based on a conversation you had with him in the hall one day. Your brother tells you that he plans to march down to the rental office, talk to the person in charge of the company, and demand that rent for the following year remain the same. He goes on to tell you that your other roommate has decided that if the landlord doesn’t agree to the demands, he is going to move out and doesn’t care if that leaves you and your brother high and dry, stuck with the inflated rent. He suggests that the two of you confront your roommate that evening and tell him you won’t stand for this. When he finally gives you the opportunity to speak, you point out to your brother that he seems angry and intense. You tell him that it sounds like his planning is moving pretty quickly and ask if either the landlord or your brother said anything more than what he has reported. Your brother pauses briefly before snorting indignantly and saying, “Yeah, I’m angry, and yeah I’m moving quickly! What choice do we have? The new lease starts next month, and these jerks are trying to screw us over! And why are you questioning me anyway?” Trying a different tack, you ask if perhaps it would be better to let his feelings cool down before making any decisions. Again he is miffed and says, “I feel how I feel because of what’s happening! Can we cut it out with the therapy session and just deal with this?” Here we have a person being led by his emotions; he is aware of that fact but doesn’t see the problem.

Both of these stories are obviously exaggerated, but most readers can relate to the way these two responded. The grieving, surprised co-worker and the angry brother are both at risk for alienating themselves from people and for making choices that could have negative long-term effects on their lives. And from a biblical perspective, there are further problems that both explain and suggest a way out of their problematic positions.

First, neither person is putting biblical truth front and center. Jesus taught at the end of the Sermon on the Mount that everyone who “hears these words of [his] and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Mt. 7:24-25). How is the co-worker not putting Jesus’ words into practice? Not by having feelings about her mother’s diagnosis, whatever they might be, but by isolating herself from people in her life who care for her and want to help. God tells us that we should allow others to bear our burdens and to mourn with us when we mourn lest we be overwhelmed or burn ourselves out (Gal. 6:2; 1 Cor. 12:26). The angry brother is also at risk for disregarding innumerable biblical injunctions not to act in anger—especially in Proverbs, where we find wisdom like, “Short-tempered people do foolish things, and schemers are hated” (Prov. 14:17). 

Second, neither the co-worker nor the brother seems at all suspicious of his or her sinful nature—that part of us that the Bible says is naturally inclined to turn away from God and his wisdom. God’s word says that our hearts are hearts are “the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked” and that our natural inclinations are often at war with the direction God’s Spirit seeks to lead us. The problem is not our emotions in themselves. The problem is when we do not bring those emotions to God in order to let him minister and to submit them to him in order to receive further insight about what we are feeling and why, as well as about what to do with our feelings.

In the end, what we all need is to learn to approach our feelings the way we approach lights on the dashboard of a car, as psychologist Les Carter suggests:

[O]ur emotions are warning signals meant to bring order to life. We have noted that our emotions can be an open window to our inner thoughts, beliefs, and struggles. Emotions are surface symptoms that indicate a need to confront the deeper issues of our mental processes. As we learn to view our troublesome emotions as God’s warning system, we can begin to adjust our thought patterns, appealing to God for resolutions.[9]

God created humans as emotional beings, just like him. Like God, when we have feelings, they are related to what is happening, what we believe, and how we filter what is happening through the lens of what we believe. As Christians, our aim should be to take note of our feelings, acknowledge them to ourselves and to God, and then figure out what we are responding to in feeling them. From there, we can examine those responses (and the feelings that come along with them) through the lens of God’s perspective. Rather than bowing to our feelings, consciously or not, we should engage with them without being ruled by them.

[1] This essay is adapted from the first part of a two-part workshop on Taking Thoughts Captive at the 2019 Xenos Summer Institute in Columbus, OH

[2] J. Alasdair Groves and Winston T. Smith, Untangling Emotions, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2018), 15-16.

[3] For those eager to address the practical side of this question, you can listen to Part 2 of our workshop, taught by Chris Risley, at

[4] Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), 35.

[5] Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, (New York: Crown Publishing, 2010), 7.

[6] On the one hand, saying anything sufficiently precise about “the past three centuries” in the space of a few paragraphs is by nature an exercise in futility. On the other hand, taking stock of the broad intellectual trends that brought us to the cultural moment in which we find ourselves is—in addition to being instructive in itself—a helpful way to “break the spell” of that moment and remind us that things were not always the way they are today.

[7] Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a Humanism,” (North Yorkshire, England: Methuen & Co., 1948). The essay is based on a lecture of the same title that Sartre had delivered in Paris in 1945. It was originally published in French in 1946 and then in English two years later. The essay has come under significant criticism, but the basic idea that people create or determine their own meaning is a core tenet of existentialism in any event.

[8] I am thinking of here of ubiquitous Instagram posts, films like those of the auteur Wes Anderson, and the lyrics of, in this case, Kanye West (from his song, “I Thought About Killing You”).

[9] Les Carter, The Missing Peace: Finding Emotional Balance, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987), 39.