Q&A: Christian and Pagan Feelings

Christian and Pagan Feelings

Question

Would you agree that a believer's and non-believer's experiential life substantially overlap, i.e., they often feel the same things when they are placed within a common situation? How worried should a Christian be about their salvation if their experiential life seems to be the same as a non-believer even though they may have a Biblical worldview and behave differently from the non-believer?

Also, as a counselor, I have had to accept the reality that secular therapy has the capacity to change people for the better - not just simply changing behavior through cognitive therapy but changing their heart through close relationships with other people. If such therapy is effective for changing the affections of our hearts, should Christians participate even though the group may not be purposefully "Christian?"

Answer

"Would you agree that a believer's and non-believer's experiential life substantially overlap, i.e., they often feel the same things when they are placed within a common situation?"

Obviously some feelings are the same, because "feeling" is a pretty broad category. When an unbeliever feels hot, a believer in the same room will likely feel hot too. When unbelievers feel sad about human tragedies, believers will likely feel sad as well. The question, I suppose, is whether there are any feelings that are unique to the regenerate. An example might be feelings of awe and wonder in the presence of God. Non-Christians, of course, can feel religious awe, but is it the same? Does the presence of the true God feel different from a religious experience involving a false god? I'm inclined to say yes, because for the Christian everything is different (2 Cor. 5:17). If there is a distinctive Christian intellect, and a distinctively Christian will, shouldn't there be distinctively Christian feelings as well? And of course Scripture urges us to cultivate certain kinds of joy, sorrow, etc. as part of the regenerate Christian life.

Nevertheless, it would be very hard for me to define experientially the difference between, say, Christian joy and non-Christian joy. Certainly their weeping uses the same physiological mechanisms as mine. So there is "overlap," just as there is overlap between Christian thinking and non-Christian thinking. But there is also difference, at some level.

It helps to know that in general feelings are very difficult to describe. How do I describe to someone who never experienced hot or cold what these feelings are like? Similarly with feeling awe, or joy, or sorrow. We can't define what coffee smells like; how can we define what it is to feel awe in God's presence? So we may never get to the point where we can define precisely how Christian feelings differ from non-Christian ones.

"How worried should a Christian be about their salvation if their experiential life seems to be the same as a non-believer even though they may have a Biblical world view and behave differently from the non-believer?"

The operative word here is "seems." If "seems" means that the Christian can't define verbally the differences between his feelings and those of his non-Christian friends, he shouldn't worry, because feelings are hard to define anyway, as I said above. If "seems" means that the Christian feels no compassion for the lost, no awe in the presence of God, no sorrow for sin, no care for his family and church, then clearly something is wrong. Solving that problem may require a good dose of the means of grace. But it doesn't require being able to define the elusive difference between Christian and non-Christian feelings.

"Also, as a counselor I have had to accept the reality that seculair therapy has the capicity to change people for the better - not just simply changing behavior through cognitive therapy but changing their heart through close relationships with other people."

Be careful of the word "heart" here. In the Bible, heart is not equivalent to feeling or emotion, as it usually is in modern English. Rather, heart is the core of the person, what he really is when all the masks are off. You can't change that through secular therapy. But secular therapists can teach us ways of growing in our emotional life, and we should be willing to listen to what they say as long as it doesn't contradict the Bible. That's what we say about all the secular sciences.

"If such therapy is effective for changing the affections of our hearts, should Christians participate in such therapy even though the group may not be purposefully 'Christian'?"

It's certainly better if Christians with such problems go to Christian counselors. For such problems are not only problems of feeling, but problems of faith as well. And secular counselors can mislead, not only in their overt doctrine, but by misdirecting our thoughts, wills, and feelings in subtle ways. But for those who are discerning, such therapy is better than nothing.


Answer by Dr. John M. Frame

Dr. John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.