The Believer and Emotion

The Spiritual Man, CFP, Vol. 2, Part 7 THE ANALYSIS OF THE SOUL-EMOTION, Ch. 1, by Watchman Nee

ALTHOUGH A CHRISTIAN may have experienced deliverance from sin, he shall continue to be soulish—that is, powerless to overcome his natural life—if he fails to experience additionally the deep work of the cross wrought by the Holy Spirit. A limited description of the life and work of soulish Christians has been given earlier. Careful study of the soulish reveals that the conduct and action of such ones stem principally from their emotion. While the soul possesses three primary functions most soulish or carnal Christians belong to the emotional category. Their whole life appears to revolve largely around the impulses of emotion. In human affairs it seems to occupy a greater area than mind and will: it apparently plays a bigger role in daily life than do the other parts of the soul. Hence nearly all the practices of the soulish originate with emotion.

The Function of Emotion

Our emotion emits joy, happiness, cheerfulness, excitement, elation, stimulation, despondency, sorrow, grief, melancholy, misery, moaning, dejection, confusion, anxiety, zeal, coldness, affection, aspiration, covetousness, compassion, kindness, preference, interest, expectation, pride, fear, remorse, hate, et al. The mind is the organ of our thinking and reasoning and the will, of our choices and decisions. Aside from our thought and intent and their related works, all other operations issue from emotion. Our thousand and one diverse feelings manifest its function. Feeling comprises such a vast area of our existence that most carnal Christians belong to the emotional type.

Man’s sensational life is most comprehensive, hence highly complicated; to help believers understand it, we can gather all its various expressions into the three groups of (1) affection, (2) desire, and (3) feeling. These groups cover the three aspects of the function of emotion. Should a saint overcome all three, he is well on the way to entering upon a pure spiritual path.

To be sure, man’s emotion is nothing but the manifold feelings he naturally has. He may be loving or hateful, joyful or sorrowful, excited or dejected, interested or uninterested, yet all are but the ways he feels. Should we take the trouble to observe ourselves we will easily perceive how changeful are our feelings. Few matters in the world are as changeable as emotion. We can be one way one minute and feel quite opposite the next. Emotion changes as feeling changes, and how rapidly the latter can change. He therefore who lives by emotion lives without principle.

The emotion of man often displays a reactionary motion: a time of activity in one direction will sometimes produce an opposite reaction. For example, unspeakable sorrow usually follows upon hilarious joy, great depression after high excitement, deep withdrawal after burning fervor. Even in the matter of love, it may commence as such but due to some emotional alteration it may end up with a hatred whose intensity far exceeds the earlier love.

A Believer’s Emotional Life

The more one probes the workings of an emotional life the more he will be convinced of its vacillation and undependability. No one should wonder that a child of God who walks by emotion rather than by spirit usually comports himself in a wavelike fashion. He bemoans his existence because it is so unstable. Sometimes he appears to live in the third heaven transcending everything, while at other times he plunges to the low level of an ordinary man. His experience is replete with ups and downs. It does not require an enormous circumstance to change him, for he is unable to withstand even the tiniest mishap. 

Such phenomena exist because a person is controlled by feeling and not by spirit. Since the dominant impulse in his walk continues to be emotion, it not having yet been delivered to the cross, his spirit will receive no strengthening of the Holy Spirit. Wherefore this one’s spirit is weak, helpless to subdue emotion and through it to govern the whole man. If, however, by the power of the Holy Spirit he has his emotional life crucified and accepts the Holy Spirit as the Lord over all things, he most assuredly can avoid this kind of alternating existence.

Emotion may be denominated the most formidable enemy to the life of a spiritual Christian. We know a child of God ought to walk by the spirit. To walk this way he needs to observe every direction given by his inner man. We know also, however, that these senses of the spirit are delicate as well as keen. Unless the child of God waits quietly and attentively to receive and discern the revelation in his intuition, he never can secure the guidance of his spirit. Consequently, the total silence of emotion is an indispensable condition to walking by the spirit. How often its small and delicate motion is disturbed and overpowered by the roaring of one’s emotion. On no account can we attribute any fault to the smallness of the spirit’s voice, for we have been endowed with the spiritual capacity to be able to hear it. No, it is entirely the mixing in of other voices that causes the Christian to miss the spirit’s voice. But for that person who will maintain his emotion in silence, the voice of intuition can be detected easily.

The upsurge and decline of feeling may not only disqualify a believer from walking in the spirit but may also directly cause him to walk in the flesh. If he cannot follow the spirit he will naturally follow the flesh. Because he is unfit to obtain the guidance of his spirit, he invariably turns to his emotional impulse. Be it therefore recognized that when the spirit ceases to lead, emotion will do so. During such a period the believer will interpret emotional impulses to be motions of inspiration. An emotional Christian can be compared to a pond of sand and mud: as long as no one disturbs the water the pond looks clear and clean; but let it be agitated a moment and its true muddy character appears.

Inspiration and Emotion

Many saints cannot distinguish inspiration from emotion. Actually these two can be defined readily. Emotion always enters from man’s outside, whereas inspiration originates with the Holy Spirit in man’s spirit. When a believer surveys the beauty of nature, he naturally senses a kind of feeling welling up within him. As he admires the fascinating landscape he is moved with pleasure. This is emotion. Or when he meets his loved one there surges through him an unspeakable feeling as though some sort of power is attracting him. This too is emotion. Both the beautiful scenery and the beloved one are outside the man—hence the stirrings aroused by these external elements belong to emotion. Inspiration, on the other hand, is quite the reverse. It is exclusively effected by the Holy Spirit within man. God’s Spirit alone inspires; since He dwells in the human spirit, inspiration must come from within. Inspiration may be imparted in the coldest and most tranquil environment; it does not require the encouragement of scenic wonder or of dear ones. Emotion is just the opposite: it withers the instant outside help is removed. And so an emotional person thrives wholly in accordance with the particular environment of the given moment: with stimulation he can press on, without it he folds up. But inspiration needs no such outside aid; on the contrary, it becomes confused should emotion be unduly influenced by external environment.

The Lord’s people should be cautious, however, lest they view coldness and absence of constraint to be barometers of spirituality. Such an assumption is far from the truth. Know we not that the mark of emotion is dejection as well as excitation? Know we not that emotion cools as well as stirs? When emotion arouses a man he is elated, but when it mollifies him he feels depressed. Driven by high emotion, the Christian commits many errors. Upon awakening to this fact, however, he tends to suppress his feelings altogether. And so now he conceives himself as spiritual. Yet what he does not realize is that this is but a reactionary impulse of that self-same emotion of his which has calmed him down; that following a time of excitement, there is bound to emerge an emotional re-action. Such coldness and dullness precipitates the believer to lose interest in God’s work: it deprives him as well his brotherly affection towards God’s children. Because of the reluctance of the outer man to work, the believer’s inner man is imprisoned and the life of the spirit is powerless to flow out. Now during this episode the saint may deem himself to be walking after the spirit, for, he reasons within himself, am I not today an extremely cold person and no longer burning wildly as before? Little does this Christian comprehend that he continues to walk after emotion anyway, only this time after the other extreme of emotion!

Few are the cases, however, of Christians turning cold. Most of them continue to be propelled forward by their high emotion. In the moment of excitement they do many things beyond proper bounds, actions which during subsequent periods of calmness they themselves would deride and consider nonsense. Deeds done under excitement often induce pangs of regret and remorse in retrospect. How distressing that Christians lack the spiritual strength to consign their inordinate feeling to death and to deny its control.

Two reasons can be offered why many walk according to their emotion. First, since they do not understand what walking according to the spirit is nor have ever sought to so walk, they will naturally walk according to the movement of emotion. Because they have never learned how to deny the agitation of their emotion, they are simply swept along by it and do those deeds which they ought not do. Their spiritual sense verily raises its objection, but these individuals so lack spiritual power that they completely disregard its objection and heed their feeling instead. The latter beats stronger and stronger in them until they are completely carried away. They do what they should not; and after having done it they repent for having so done. Second, even those who have experienced the dividing of spirit and soul and who recognize the stirrings of emotion as being soulish and instantly resist can nonetheless walk after emotion. This is due to the success of “spiritual” counterfeit. Before anyone becomes spiritual he is overwhelmed by his powerful emotional feelings; but after he becomes spiritual his emotion often pretends to be his spiritual sense. Outwardly these two are difficult to differentiate, because they appear to be nearly identical. For lack of knowledge, the saints can be deceived. And as a consequence they exhibit many carnal actions.

We should remember that in walking after the spirit all our actions must be governed by principles, since the spirit has its own laws and principles. To walk by the spirit is to walk according to its laws. With spiritual principles everything becomes sharply defined. There is a precise standard of right and wrong. If it is “yes” it is “yes” whether the day is clear or cloudy; if it is “no” then it is “no” whether exciting or depressive. The Christian’s walk should follow a distinct standard. But if his emotion is not handed over to death, he cannot abide a permanent standard. He will live by the whim of his vacillating feelings and not according to a definite principle. A principled life differs enormously from an emotional life. Anyone who acts from emotion cares neither for principle nor for reason but only for his feeling. Should he be happy or thrilled he may be tempted to undertake what he ordinarily knows is unreasonable. But when he feels cold, melancholy or despondent he will not so much as fulfill his duty, for his feeling fails to go along. If God’s children would pay a little attention to their emotion, they would note how changeable it actually can be and how dangerous it therefore is to walk by it. So often their attitude is: if the Word of God (spiritual principle) agrees with their feeling, they observe it; if the Word does not, they simply reject it. What an enemy emotion can be to spiritual life! All who desire to be spiritual must conduct themselves daily according to principle.

One quality which characterizes a spiritual person is the great calm he maintains under every circumstance. Whatever may happen around him or however much he may be provoked, he accepts it all calmly and exhibits an unmovable nature. He is one who is able to regulate his every feeling, because his emotion has been yielded to the cross and his will and spirit are permeated with the power of the Holy Spirit. No extreme provocation has the strength to unsettle him. But if one has not accepted the dealing of the cross upon his emotion, then he will be easily influenced, stimulated, disturbed, and even governed by the external world. He will undergo constant change, for emotion shifts often. The slightest threat from outside or the smallest increase in work shall upset him and render him helpless. Whoever genuinely desires to be perfect must let the cross cut deeper into his emotion.

If the Christian would simply bear in mind that God does not lead anyone who is in turmoil, he might be spared many errors. Never decide on anything or start to do anything while emotion is agitating like a roaring sea; it is in times of great emotional upheaval that mistakes are readily made. Our mind too becomes undependable in such periods because it is easily affected by feeling. And with a powerless mind, how can we ever distinguish right from wrong? Again, during that time even our conscience is rendered unreliable. As emotion pulsates, the mind becomes deceived and conscience is denied its standard of judgment. Whatever is decided and performed in such circumstances is bound to be improper and will be something to be regretted afterwards. A believer should exercise his will to resist and to terminate such fomented feeling; solely when his emotion is no longer boiling but returns to perfect calm can he decide what he should do.

Similarly, one should refrain from doing anything which might stir up his emotion unnecessarily. Sometimes it is peaceful and quiet, but subsequently we do something will-fully our own which immediately activates the emotion unduly. Such cases are frequent, with great damage inflicted upon our spiritual life. We must deny all that disturbs the peace of our soul. Not only should we not do anything during emotional crisis; we also should not do anything which tends to induce such a crisis. Does this therefore imply the opposite: that we can do nothing wrong if what we do is decided or performed in a time of emotional quietude? Not necessarily at all, for instead of being led by the spirit we may unfortunately be led by our “cold emotion.” If such be the case, the work we do shall soon activate our “warm” emotion. Those who have had experiences along this line may recall how in writing a letter or meeting a person their emotion became greatly agitated, proving that what they were undertaking was out of God’s will.

Emotion and Work

Heretofore we have stressed the truth that the spirit alone can do spiritual work, so that any work not achieved by it counts for nothing. This truth is so vital that we feel led to restate it in additional detail.

Today men give much attention to psychology. Even many who serve the Lord feel they must diligently study psychology. These believe if only their words, teachings, presentations, manners and interpretations can be made psychologically appealing to people, that many could be won to Christ. Psychology naturally refers in large part to the workings of man’s emotion. Occasionally it does seem to be helpful, but a child of God who relies on emotion serves no productive purpose for the Lord.

We recognize already that regeneration of the spirit is the paramount need of man. Any work which cannot quicken man’s dead spirit or impart to man God’s uncreated life or give him the Holy Spirit to indwell his regenerated spirit proves thoroughly futile. Neither our psychology nor that of the unbelievers can impart life to them. Unless the Holy Spirit Himself performs the work, all is vain.

A Christian should understand that his emotion is wholly natural; it is not the source of God’s life. If he in fact acknowledges that no life of God resides in his emotion, he will never attempt to secure the salvation of people by means of his power of emotion through tears, mournful face, cries, or other emotional devices. No efforts of his emotion can affect in the slightest the darkened human spirit. Except the Holy Spirit gives life, man can have no life. If we do not rely on the Spirit and use emotion instead, our work will yield no real fruit.

Those who labor for the Lord need to see distinctly that nothing in man can generate God’s life. We may exhaust every psychological method to excite man’s emotion, to arouse his interest in religion, to make him feel sorry and shameful for his past history, to create in him a fear of the coming penalty, to foster admiration of Christ, to induce him to seek communication with Christians, or to be merciful to the poor: we may even cause him to feel happy in doing these things: but we cannot regenerate him. Since interest, sorrow, shame, fear, admiration, aspiration, pity and joy are merely various impulses of emotion, man can experience all these and his spirit still be dead for he has not yet apprehended God intuitively. From the human viewpoint, might not one be tempted to assert that if a man possesses all these qualities must he not be a first-class Christian? Yet these are but the manifestations of emotion; these do not prove regeneration. The first and foremost sign of new birth in anyone is that he knows God intuitively, for his spirit has been quickened. Let us not be misled or be content in our work if people should change their attitude towards us, become friendly with us, and manifest the above-mentioned expressions. This is not regeneration!

If everyone who serves the Lord would take to heart today that our aim is to help people to receive the life of Christ, then none would ever employ an emotional approach to obtain men’s approval of the teaching of Christ and their preference for Christianity. Only if we completely acknowledge that what man requires today is God’s life—the quickening of the spirit—will we then perceive how vain is any work performed by ourselves. No matter how extensive a man may undergo a change, this alteration effected by emotion occurs exclusively within the pale of his very “self”: never does he step outside that boundary and exchange his life for the life of God. May we truly appreciate the reality of the fact that “spiritual aims require spiritual means.” Our spiritual aim must be to secure man’s regeneration, and to effect that transformation we must use spiritual means. Emotion is altogether useless here.

The Apostle Paul tells us that any woman who prays or prophesies must have her head veiled (see 1 Cor. 11). Many and diverse interpretations surround this matter. We have no intention to join the dispute by deciding on an interpretation. Of one thing we can be sure, however; which is, that the Apostle intends to restrain the operation of emotion. He signifies that everything which can foment emotion must be veiled. It is especially easy for women in preaching to agitate people’s emotion. Physically merely the head is covered; but spiritually everything pertaining to feeling must be delivered to death. Although the Bible does not call for the brothers to veil their heads physically, spiritually speaking they should be as veiled as the sisters.

Paul would have no necessity to give such an order of prohibition if emotion were not so greatly being displayed in the Lord’s work. Today the power of attraction has developed into nearly the biggest problem in so-called spiritual service. Those who are naturally attractive are more successful; whereas others less attractive experience less success. The Apostle nevertheless insists that everything belonging to the soul, naturally attractive or not, must be covered. Let all the servants of the Lord learn this lesson from the sisters. Our natural appeal does not help us in spiritual work and neither will our lack of natural appeal hinder it. We shall abandon our heart of dependence on the Lord , if we stress our power to attract others; likewise, if we pay attention to any lack of power to attract we also shall not walk after the spirit. Far better is it not to think of this matter at all.

What are the servants of the Lord seeking today? Countless ones aspire to spiritual power. But this power is obtained solely by paying a price. Should a Christian die to his emotion he will possess spiritual might. It is because he leans too much on his emotion and is bound too strongly to his desire, affection and feeling that the Christian forfeits real power. Only a deeper operation of the cross can fill us with spiritual dynamite; other than that there is no way to it. When the cross works upon our desire enabling us to live completely for God, spiritual power will naturally be evidenced in us.

A believer’s emotion, if not overcome, will additionally hamper him in spiritual work. As long as its influence obtains, his spirit is impotent to control it and consequently unqualified to fulfill the highest will of God. Take physical weariness as an example. We should be able to distinguish (1) the need for rest due to bodily fatigue, (2) the need for rest due to emotional weariness, and (3) the need for rest due to both. God does not intend us to overwork. He wishes us to rest when genuinely tired. Yet we should understand whether we have need to rest due to bodily fatigue or emotional weariness or both. Frequently what we say is rest is merely laziness. Our body requires respite and so does our mind and spirit. But a person should never rest because of a laziness which arises from the evil nature in his emotion. How often laziness and emotional distaste for work join to employ physical fatigue as a cover-up. Since man’s emotion is highly self-favoring, believers should guard against laziness intruding into what should be exclusively a good and proper kind of rest.

The Proper Use of Emotion

If God’s children permit the cross to operate deeply upon their emotion they shall find afterwards that it no longer obstructs, but rather cooperates with, their spirit. The cross has dealt with the natural life in the emotion, has renewed it, and has made it a channel for the spirit. A spiritual man we have said before is not a spirit, but neither is he a person devoid of emotion; on the contrary, the spiritual man will use his feeling to express the divine life in him. Before it is touched by God emotion follows its own whim. And hence it habitually fails to be an instrument of the spirit. But once it is purified it can serve as the means of the spirit’s expression. The inner man needs emotion to express its life: it needs emotion to declare its love and its sympathy towards man’s suffering: and it also needs emotion to make man sense the movement of its intuition. Spiritual sensing is usually made known through the feeling of a quiet and pliable emotion. If emotion is pliably subject to the spirit the latter, through the emotion, will love or hate exactly as God wishes.

Some Christians, upon discerning the truth of not living by feeling, mistake spiritual life as one without it. They accordingly try to destroy it and to render themselves as insensate as wood and stone. Because of their ignorance of the meaning of the death of the cross, they do not understand what is meant by handing over one’s emotion to death and living by the spirit. We do not say that, in order to be spiritual, a Christian must become exceedingly hard and void of affection like inanimate objects—as though the term spiritual man means for him to be emptied of feeling. Quite the contrary. The most tender, merciful, loving, and sympathetic of persons is a spiritual man. To be entirely spiritual by delivering his emotion to the cross does not denote that henceforth he is stripped of his feeling. We have observed numerous spiritual saints and have noticed that their love is greater than that of others, which demonstrates that a spiritual man is not without emotion and additionally that it differs from that of the ordinary man.

In committing our soul to the cross we must remember that what is lost is the soul life, not its function. Were its function nailed to the cross we then could no longer think, choose, or feel. We must therefore remember this basic fact: to lose soul life means to doggedly, resolutely, and continuously deny the natural power and to walk exclusively by the power of God; it means to live no longer after self and its desires but to submit unexceptionally to the will of God. Moreover, the cross and resurrection are two inseparable facts: “for if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom. 6.5 ASV). The death of the cross does not connote annihilation; hence the emotion, mind and will of the soul are not extinguished upon passing through the cross. They only relinquish their natural life in the death of the Lord and are raised again in His resurrection life. Such death and resurrection cause the various operating organs of the soul to lose their life, to be renewed, and to be used by the Lord. Consequently a spiritual man is not emotionally deprived; rather, his emotion is the most perfect and the most noble, as though newly created out of God’s hand. In short, if anyone has trouble here, the trouble lies with his theory and not with his experience, for the latter will bear out the truth.

Emotion must go through the cross (Matt. 10.38-39) in order to destroy its fiery nature, with its confusion, and to subject it totally to the spirit. The cross aims to accord the spirit authority to rule over every activity of emotion.