Sexual Identity: legal Issues: Challenging the Autonomy of Emotions and Desires

Since God created humans in his image to love and serve him, he has the power and authority to command us how to live and enable us to obey. God’s word written and his commands in particular do not merely touch one aspect of our being. It is impossible for God’s word and commands not to be addressed simultaneously to our intellect, actions and emotions. There are some desires that we ought not to have, and to have them is sin. Yet, when people reject the one living and true God in their thinking they cannot help but eventually become confused in their thinking regarding everything, because God is the creator (Romans 1:18-32). One area where we see significant confusion in people’s thinking is with respect to the relationship that holds between their thinking, actions and emotions.  

A variety of English terms, of course, can be used as synonyms for our intellect, actions and emotions, and yet because the range of meaning of some of them is rather broad we sometimes find people talking past each other on these topics. One of the blessings of God’s written word is that it often does not give us an explanation regarding particular subjects or answers to particular questions. Instead, particular truths are stated while other truths related to the ones stated are left unaddressed, at least in an explicit way. The relationship between our thinking, emotions and actions is one of those areas where the Bible often implies much more than it makes explicit through direct statement. 

God requires us, however, to live with the implications of his explicit commands no less than he does the explicitness in the commands, and this relates to the relationship between our thinking, actions and emotions. In part, this is Jesus’ point in Matthew 5:21-48. It is not just that the physical act of murder is a violation of the 6th commandment, but that a particular kind of anger—an emotion (!) is as well. In fact, consider the implications of the truth that Jesus reduced the Ten Commandments and our entire duty to God to two commands—love God and love your neighbor. The question that we must always be addressing is: What does it mean to carry out these commands in the concrete realities of life? God’s word and Spirit inform and transform us so that we discern the answer, delight in it, and do it.  

But God requires us to think because he also requires us to act, and, catch this, to have particular emotions! But, be careful, that is not to say that the expression of these emotions will look the same in all people.

Many will readily admit that God commands us to act a particular way, perhaps even many will concede that he requires us to think particular thoughts, but to have particular emotions?! Feelings are neutral, we are often told, or some will even claim that they are in some sense superior to actions and thoughts. According to Scripture, however, we are a composite whole of body and soul, and our thoughts, actions and emotions exist in a union with each other, even if we or others are confused about the character of this union.

The argument here is simple: Unless we are prepared to affirm that the command to love God and love neighbor does not include our emotions, then we have to affirm that God commands our emotions. The tenth commandment alone: “You shall not covet” makes the point. This includes sexual behavior for which God has not created us. Still, the multitude of Scriptures calling upon us to rejoice in the Lord and praise him, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, to mourn sin, to regard anger and lust as violating the commands not to murder or commit adultery, to say nothing of Jesus’ own weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, all reveal the conclusion that God commands us to have particular emotions regarding particular realities, pursuits and circumstances. None of this is to oversimplify the complexity that marks our emotions. Instead, it highlights the depth and profundity of our relationship to the Lord and others. Frankly, it calls into question shallow and superficial understandings of the Christian faith and life.

There is an increasing tendency among some professing Christians to regard sinful desires and the emotions attached to them as defining their identity and therefore not as something of which they need to repent. Such a belief is both contrary to God’s word written and in conformity to the ideology of American culture that exalts feelings and regards them as automatically legitimate. If Christians are going to faithfully minister within the public square that operates according to this God-defying and dogmatic faith commitment, we cannot copy it. It is not biblical compassion or empathy to conform to the sins of those we seek to evangelize. Instead, while acknowledging that we too have such sinful desires we proclaim a living and reigning Lord Jesus who can and will conquer such desires in us by his written word and Spirit, when we cry out to him for that victory.

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.  

David Smith