Faith and feelings

From Cor ad Cor
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Feelings are part of our nature

God designed us to be moved from within by our emotions. In order for us to act, we have to want to act.

The authors of Star Trek fantasized that the ideal human being would be a Vulcan, a person without any emotions at all. It is conceivable that this is what angels are like, although I have not met enough angels in person to feel confident that I know anything about angelic psychology. It may well be that their emotions are stronger, purer, and more powerful than ours because the good angels are free from the consequences of Original Sin and do not have the kind of unconscious that humans do.

I do know what humans are like. As a general rule, we do not have angelic knowledge of God, other spiritual beings, or even ourselves. Our feelings help to inform us about the interior and exterior world.


Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1762-#1775.
The Morality of the Passions
The human person is ordered to beatitude by his deliberate acts: the passions or feelings he experiences can dispose him to it and contribute to it.

I. Passions

The term "passions" belongs to the Christian patrimony. Feelings or passions are emotions or movements of the sensitive appetite that incline us to act or not to act in regard to something felt or imagined to be good or evil.
The passions are natural components of the human psyche; they form the passageway and ensure the connection between the life of the senses and the life of the mind. Our Lord called man's heart the source from which the passions spring.[1]
There are many passions. The most fundamental passion is love, aroused by the attraction of the good. Love causes a desire for the absent good and the hope of obtaining it; this movement finds completion in the pleasure and joy of the good possessed. The apprehension of evil causes hatred, aversion, and fear of the impending evil; this movement ends in sadness at some present evil, or in the anger that resists it.
"To love is to will the good of another."[2] All other affections have their source in this first movement of the human heart toward the good. Only the good can be loved.[3] Passions "are evil if love is evil and good if it is good."[4]

II. Passions and Moral Life

In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, "either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way."[5] It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason.[6]
Strong feelings are not decisive for the morality or the holiness of persons; they are simply the inexhaustible reservoir of images and affections in which the moral life is expressed. Passions are morally good when they contribute to a good action, evil in the opposite case. The upright will orders the movements of the senses it appropriates to the good and to beatitude; an evil will succumbs to disordered passions and exacerbates them. Emotions and feelings can be taken up into the virtues or perverted by the vices.
In the Christian life, the Holy Spirit himself accomplishes his work by mobilizing the whole being, with all its sorrows, fears and sadness, as is visible in the Lord's agony and passion. In Christ human feelings are able to reach their consummation in charity and divine beatitude.
Moral perfection consists in man's being moved to the good not by his will alone, but also by his sensitive appetite, as in the words of the psalm: "My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God."[7]

In Brief

The term "passions" refers to the affections or the feelings. By his emotions man intuits the good and suspects evil.
The principal passions are love and hatred, desire and fear, joy, sadness, and anger.
In the passions, as movements of the sensitive appetite, there is neither moral good nor evil. But insofar as they engage reason and will, there is moral good or evil in them.
Emotions and feelings can be taken up in the virtues or perverted by the vices.
The perfection of the moral good consists in man's being moved to the good not only by his will but also by his "heart."

Feelings are meant to be felt

Feelings are neither right nor wrong. They just are.

I am not a good person when I have "good" feelings.

I am not a bad person when I have "bad" feelings.

God judges us on our behavior, not our moods.

Feelings are not moral choices. If I had power over my moods, I would choose happiness, joy, and the peace that passes understanding all the time. I would not touch that dial or ever let it slide away from 100% bliss.

Some feelings incline us to acts of faith, hope, and love.

Some feelings incline us to acts of doubt, despair, and self-centeredness.

In some cases, we should do what we feel like doing; at other times, we need to act against (Latin, agere contra) our feelings.

Feeling tempted is not a sin

"Happy the man who has suffered temptation" (James 1:2).

"He who has not been tempted, what does he know?" (Sir 34:10).

Jesus suffered temptations.

Jesus felt "bad" feelings in His agony and on the Cross.

Feeling tempted is not the same thing as sinning.

Of course, if we invite temptation into our hearts — by using pornography, by replaying tapes of past hurts, by nursing grudges, by entertaining thoughts of revenge, etc. — then we are guilty of the sin.


I heard a man give this advice at a Twelve Step meeting one night. The origin almost certainly was from "R2 A2," an acronym used by Napoleon Hill and Clement Stone that stands for "Recognize, Relate, Assimilate, Apply."[8] The terms I use for dealing with feelings differ slightly from the original.

  • Recognize the feeling. For some of us, this can be hard. At times in my life, it has taken me as many as three days to realize that I was feeling angry at someone. I have heard some people say, "Name it and claim it." This does seem to be good advice about our interior life.
  • Reflect on the feeling. What does it tell me about myself? What does it reveal about how I see reality? Where is it coming from? What action am I being prompted to take? Is the action wholesome or not? Does it fit into some larger pattern?
  • Accept the feeling. Denying feelings isn't very helpful. Feelings can be messengers from our subconscious. They have work to do. We can find out what our feelings are saying and we can listen to the message they bring.
  • Act. Because of fallen nature and our personal sins, it often happens that our feelings are unbalanced, irrational, disproportionate, and misleading. We are not victims. We have choices. It may be difficult and an uphill struggle, but the fact of the matter is that we do not have to do what we feel like doing. We grow in virtue, the power to do the right thing in all circumstances, by habitually making good choices. No matter how strongly I feel inclined to shoplift, the intensity of that feeling does not justify theft. I may and often should act against my spontaneous inclinations and feelings.

Feelings come from and produce images

At the foundation of every feeling is some kind of imagery, even if we may not be able to make the image explicit.

Our feelings are oriented to action, so along with the images that generate the feelings come images of possible courses of action or inaction that we might pursue.

If I can change the picture, I may be able to change my feelings, or at least reduce the sense of anguish or panic or fear or regret that they stir up in me.

Reframing works.

Feelings are not infallible

People sometimes think that their feelings are a direct indication of how God views them.

  • "If I feel guilty, then I am guilty. My feelings of guilt prove that God has not and cannot forgive me my sins. If I was forgiven, then I would never feel guilty or ashamed of anything I've already confessed."
  • "If I loved God, then I would never feel what I am feeling (proud, greedy, lustful, angry, gluttonous, envious, or lazy). The fact that I am feeling this 'bad' feeling proves that I am not a good person."
  • "If God loved me, then I would never be weak, defeated, rejected, or unhappy. But I suffer all these things. Therefore, God does not love me."

This is insane thinking. We don't have to do this to ourselves. Because we have a fallen human nature, our feelings often run contrary to the reality of God's mercy and love.

Faith discloses spiritual realities

Edie Difato used to say, "No matter how I feel about it, two plus two always equals four. Even if I'm in an auto accident and am suffering excruciating pain, two plus two still equals four. In the same way, the love of God poured out for us in Jesus is always real, no matter what we feel."

Action Erodes Depression

Perfectionism breeds depression.

Our emotions are not always subject to reason; our actions should be. Part of the brokenness that comes to us as a consequence of Original Sin is that our feelings do not always reflect reality, especially the reality of God's love for us and our own power to respond to love with love. If we could just dial in good feelings by a simple act of the will, we would — in fact, I'd crank the dial over to "Ecstasy," if I had a dial. "If we had some ham we, could have some ham and eggs, if we had some eggs."

It is a great joy when our feelings do testify to the love of God and empower us to act freely and graciously in a loving fashion; it is a great sorrow when our feelings block the light and undercut our desire to love.

We do not have to do what we feel like doing, unless, by God's grace, the feeling corresponds to what is right and just and fitting and helpful for our salvation. When we act against our inclinations, we grow in virtue. "Virtue is its own reward." When we practice patience, we grow in the power to endure all things; when we practice forgiveness, we grow in the power to forgive all things; when we practice love, we grow in the power to love God and all of His children.

Particular kinds of feelings


  1. Cf. Mk 7:21. "From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile” (Mk 7:21-23).
  2. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,26 4, corp. art.
  3. Cf. St. Augustine, De Trin., 8,3,4:PL 42,949-950.
  4. St. Augustine, De civ. Dei 14,7,2:PL 41,410.
  5. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,24,1 corp. art.
  6. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I-II,24,3.
  7. Ps 84:2.
  8. I haven't been able to pin down the first use of the acronym, nor am I certain whether it was Hill or Stone who coined it. The acronym appears in many other forms as well: R2A2, R-2 A-2, etc. "RRAA" is what I thought I heard at the meeting and what has stuck with me. I have modified it in some of my notes to RRA/A. The slash represents the turn from accepting my feelings as my feelings to making choices about how to have a good day today.