Our thought life is central to living a vibrant Christian life. In Romans 12:2, Paul says that the way we resist the pattern of this world is by renewing our minds. Now he could have said a lot of different things instead of mind—heart, emotions, worship—but he didn’t. The reason is that what we think about and what we believe are critical to how we live.
Dallas Willard, a Christian philosopher who has done a lot of work in the area of spiritual formation, offers penetrating insight into the interplay of thoughts and emotions:
Our thoughts are one of the most basic sources of our life. They determine the orientation of everything we do and evoke the feelings that frame our world and motivate our actions. Interestingly, you can’t evoke thoughts by feeling a certain way, but you can evoke and to some degree control feelings by directing your thoughts. Our power over our thoughts is of great and indispensable assistance in directing and controlling our feelings, which themselves are not directly under the guidance of our will. We cannot just choose our feelings.
We don’t have direct control over how we feel. But we can indirectly affect our emotions by thinking in certain ways. If we want to get at the root of the emotional doubt, then we have to change our thinking and stop allowing ourselves to believe lies. We must tell ourselves the truth—God’s truth—until we accept it. Again, this is not a one-time remedy; it’s a habit we need to build into our life.
In light of this, I hope that you will no longer feel ashamed when you experience doubt, nor idly sit by and allow emotional doubt to paralyze you with fear. I will let the poignant words of Oswald Chambers conclude our discussion:
“Unless we train our emotions they will lead us around by the nose, and we will be captives to every passing impulse or reaction. But once faith is trained to control the emotions and knows how to lean resolutely against weakness of character, another entry way of doubt is sealed shut forever . . . Much of our distress as Christians comes not because of sin, but because we are ignorant of the laws of our own nature.”