Reason, Emotion, and Faith

This topic deserves more time than I can give right now, but what else is new? So, these three things in each person can be distinguished from one another, and yet each provides motives on its own that affect our decisions and actions. In case you missed the title of this post, the three things that affect our decisions and actions are reason, emotion and faith.

For example (and I mean that — a case study), in the discourse of Congress at the moment, there are some who are introducing legislation to deny Americans the natural rights protected by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the rights to keep arms (meaning to own or have them), and to bear arms (meaning to carry them in such a way as to be useful). As in any conversation between conflicting viewpoints, participants make arguments based upon reason, emotion, faith, or some combination. The fact that these proposals are being urgently pressed for adoption before the end of the month is an important clue showing what kind of arguments support them. In this case, the arguments are based upon strong emotions that are likely to dissipate over time.

Reason does not change over time, but sometimes it is clouded by faith or by emotion. Faith changes only as much as the foundation upon which it rests. If your faith is based on the Bible, it also remains unchanged over time and can be summarized in unchanging, written confessions of faith. Faith can also be clouded by reason or by emotion. Emotion changes constantly, depending upon many circumstances. It tends to overpower both reason and faith, which leads to bad decisions and bad theology or spirituality.

The value of emotions is not in the truth of the matter, but in the strength of a person’s commitment. With high emotions, it’s possible for a person to be strongly committed to anything, even when the thing makes no sense according to reason, or contradicts the basis of faith. With low emotions, a person is more able to reason clearly and act accordingly, or to remember the basis of faith and put that into action. For example, an emotion like sympathy can have a very good effect when it causes a person to act toward another person in selfless mercy. However, the same sympathy can also have a bad effect when applied by a judge or a jury to produce an unjust decision in court.

But let’s go back to the example of the opponents to the Second Amendment of the US Constitution. By taking advantage of high emotion in the time following a terribly tragic event that has emotionally shocked the whole nation, they hope to advance their agenda of denying a basic civil right to millions of responsible owners of firearms, on the doubtful promise of greater security. Reason looks at the record of all such attempts in the past and concludes that this would work no better. Reason sees the places in the United States where this civil right is already denied, and calmly notices that rather than having increased safety and security, the residents have less of both. Meanwhile, reason notices the places where this civil right is protected, and notices that those citizens have more of the same safety and security being promised by these lawmakers in Congress. In short, reason tells us that these legislative proposals are dead wrong, even if they are motivated by a laudable desire to make people safer.

Emotion, on the other hand, provides very little guidance except that “something must be done!” Why? “We are not safe!” It’s comparable to the emotional motive of someone who refuses to fly on an airplane, because there have been news reports of crashes in the past with vivid color pictures. By pushing for a short-term final decision on these things, some people hope to manipulate the outcome against the better judgment (reason) of the citizens who are temporarily willing to trade their civil liberty for the empty promise of greater security. Strike while the iron is hot, as it were. Or, force a decision while emotion is still obscuring reason.

Faith, meanwhile, is already secure (for Christians) in the the certainty of God’s Word. Rather than fearing death, faith would have a Christian anticipate death with a kind of calm joy. We still cringe at the outbreaks of evil that take the lives of our fellow human beings, but they are not unexpected. Rather, these outbreaks confirm the basis of our faith: that everyone on Earth is in need of a Savior from the evil we carry within us. We still shudder at the pain we must suffer in our own lives, but in faith, we know it can be endured, and that Something far better awaits us afterward.

Emotion can either serve faith or it can obscure it. If made to serve faith, then the threat of violence or death, or the prospect of losing our most precious loved ones, does not diminish the quiet comfort we have in God’s promise of eternal life. We can feel terrible pain even while our attention is focused upon the certainty of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and not even the pain can take away the joy that comes with that certainty.

If made to obscure faith, then emotion probably also obscures reason, for reason is not as powerful as faith, but sometimes it still contradicts faith. When faith is obscured by emotion or reason, then we are led to break the First Commandment, in which God commands us to “fear, love and trust” in Him above all things. In other words, to have no other gods — not even ourselves.

Those in sales tell us that when someone decides to make a major purchase, it’s almost always an emotional decision, rather than a rational decision. When political leaders with an agenda to deprive citizens of their civil rights wish to advance their agenda, they do so by appealing to emotion rather than reason. That’s not how things should be. How many bad purchases have been made that way? How much bad legislation has been passed that way? How many free societies have passed into tyranny that way?

For the Christian, faith can help to straighten things out, so that emotion and reason do not interfere with each other. One word for that may be “wisdom.” I think this has been one of the great blessings upon the United States through many parts of its history, especially in the drafting and adoption of the Constitution with its first ten amendments. May the faith of Christians continue to have such a positive influence.

Much more could be said about this trichotomy, but there is no time. If you wish, feel free to add something by way of a comment.

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