In our examination of how to discern the voice of God, we started by discussing how God will only ever lead us on paths that agree with the Bible. Now we are turning to another point: the idea of conviction. Spiritual truth is spiritually known; the Holy Spirit convicts us of it in our hearts. But the Holy Spirit will not do the same for things that are false. So it is that if a voice is from God, we ought to be able to firmly commit ourselves to listening to that voice, without double-mindedness or cognitive dissonance. God calls us to peace, and while following Him will be far from easy, deep down in our hearts, we ought to be able to tell that we are doing the right thing when we pick up our cross and follow after Jesus.
The thing that complicates all this is that God doesn’t force our hand, but allows us to harden our hearts, to lie to ourselves… and quite effectively at that. For this reason, emotional comfort is not itself enough. It’s pretty easy to be satisfied with one’s approach if you never read the Bible, for example, and only surround yourselves with friends who aren’t even believers. They will tell you that your sin is acceptable, and you might then even come to believe it and be comfortable in your choice to wallow, without it paining you. But that sort of conviction is no good at all!
The trick is being able to have that easy confidence when actually doing everything right. You need to be convicted based on the truth of what the Bible says, not based on selfish human rationalization. If you can’t have peace on a path when you spend time in the Word and in prayer about the matter – if you can’t have confidence when you truly put the matter in the Lord’s hands – then whatever it is you might think you have, conviction it is not.
This week’s lesson starts on page 71 of the workbook, and was what we went through on 01/29/2023.
In this week’s lesson, we talked about how God’s voice will convict us of the truth – whether that means convicting us of sin, or giving us bold confidence to pursue a path of action that is necessary to pursue God’s plans for us. Being able to act with the confidence of doing the right thing is a great blessing.
Yet, one need not read much history at all to come to the conclusion that many, perhaps even most humans act with great conviction, yet clearly act against God’s truth. What then is godly conviction? It cannot just be a “feeling” divorced from the truth, because if it were merely having confidence of one’s correctness, then all these people who think themselves right would not in fact be dead wrong. Just look at the Pharisees.
No, quite to the contrary. Godly conviction is less about emotion than it is about the truth – knowledge that one is obeying the scriptures and acting in accordance with the commands of God. It is rooted first and foremost in understanding of the Bible and spiritual growth. For example, you must grow spiritually to develop the discernment necessary to have conviction about what ministry God wants you to perform (for every one of us has a job to do in the body of Christ; compare 1 Corinthians 12).
The operative point we will be examining on this page specifically is the idea that we must be on guard to to ensure that we do not deceive ourselves and act contrary to the truth. By examining passages that outline the human capacity for self-deception, it should be clear to us that we must always be checking our confidence against the Word of God, and tossing it out as rubbish if we realize it does not line up. Otherwise our conviction – strong as it may be – will only be getting in the way of what it is God actually wants us to do – what He would actually convict us of (rather than whatever we have convicted ourselves of), if we would but open our hearts and minds to His truth.
Example verses concerning the idea of human self-deception
The deceitfulness of the human heart
To start of with, how about a cheery verse discussing the nature of the human heart?
Jeremiah 17:9 | NIV84
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
Jeremiah 17:9 | NIrV
A human heart is more dishonest than anything else. It can’t be healed. Who can understand it?
We have no basis for trusting our own hearts. We are indwelt by the sin nature, as all humans have been since Adam (excepting Christ; part of the reason why the virgin birth is important). We are, down to a person, biased by the flesh. If we were witnesses taking the stand, we have already been tampered with, already taken a bribe.
Consequently, we ought not trust our own judgement any further than we can throw it. We ought to instead only trust the Word of God, which the Holy Spirit will use to convict our hearts of the truth, if we would but choose to listen to Him rather than charging ahead and dictating to God.
General example verses about self-deception
But if we don’t choose to listen, the Bible is very clear that we can deceive ourselves. It is far from impossible.
James 1:26 | NIV84
If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.
James 1:26 | NIrV
Suppose you think your beliefs are right because of how you live. But you don’t control what you say. Then you are fooling yourselves. Your beliefs are not worth anything at all.
1 Corinthians 3:18 | NIV84
Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise.
1 Corinthians 3:18 | NIrV
Don’t fool yourselves. Suppose some of you think you are wise by the standards of the world. Then you should become a “fool” so that you can become wise.
Galatians 6:3 | NIV84
If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
Galatians 6:3 | NIrV
If you think you are somebody when you are nobody, you are fooling yourselves.
Self-deception can even apply to salvation
Matthew 7:21-23 | NIV84
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Matthew 7:21-23 | NIrV
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do what my Father in heaven wants will enter. 22 “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord! Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in your name? Didn’t we drive out demons in your name? Didn’t we do many miracles in your name?’ 23 Then I will tell them clearly, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who do evil!’
Many people don’t like talking about these verses. Uncomfortable subject, this. Who wants to think about the chilling fact that not all Israel is Israel (Romans 9:6-7)?
Yet there are those who engage in something that they call Christianity that will nonetheless end up in the Lake of Fire forever, for the only thing that is important is believing in who Jesus was and what He did for us on the cross by taking the penalty for our sin upon His shoulders. God is Just – He offers salvation to all, gives all an equal chance to respond to Him. Literally all we have to do is not say no! But He does not ever make exceptions or excuse unbelief. Not even for people who outwardly adopt the title of Christian and engage in things that society thinks are good, like giving money to the poor.
How can people who spit in God’s face by rejecting the Son He sacrificed on their behalf then turn around and consider themselves Christians and children of God – even consider themselves and their group “better Christians” than other Christians (cf. cults)? That’s human self-deception. That people can redefine salvation to be a set of legalistic works and then actually believe it ought to terrify us. Not because our own salvation is imperiled when we come to this realization (we are saved so long as we actually believe in Jesus Christ – end of story), but because it ought to thus be obvious to us that humans can in fact lie to themselves to such a degree that they get something as important as salvation by grace through faith dead wrong, all while being completely blind to it. They think they are right, legitimately believe it. But they are not.
Self-deception runs on human arrogance
Revelation 3:17 | NIV84
You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.
Revelation 3:17 | NIrV
‘You say, “I am rich. I’ve become wealthy and don’t need anything.” But you don’t realize how pitiful and miserable you have become. You are poor, blind and naked.
Human arrogance is such that we all fail to recognize our own pitiful state; we all overestimate how much we have it together, and underestimate how much we need God. The Church of Laodicea in Revelation 3 typifies this pattern of blindness, but it applies in greater or lesser measure to all Christians. It is more than possible for people to think themselves upon the right path while in fact not even being close. The point is that we must never forget this truth, but must instead turn it upon ourselves reflexively to make sure that anything that we think and believe has the Word of God behind it, rather than human rationalization and self-deception.
The Bible would not have verses about examining and testing ourselves if it were not important
Consider these verses:
2 Corinthians 13:5 | NIV84
Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?
2 Corinthians 13:5 | NIrV
Take a good look at yourselves to see if you are really believers. Test yourselves. Don’t you realize that Christ Jesus is in you? Unless, of course, you fail the test!
Galatians 6:4 | NIV84
Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else.
Galatians 6:4 | NIrV
Each of you should put your own actions to the test. Then you can take pride in yourself. You won’t be comparing yourself to somebody else.
1 Corinthians 11:28-29 | NIV84
28 A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
1 Corinthians 11:28-29 | NIrV
28 A person should take a careful look at himself before he eats the bread and drinks from the cup. 29 Anyone who eats and drinks must recognize the body of the Lord. If he doesn’t, God will judge him for it.
Lamentations 3:40 | NIV84
Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.
Lamentations 3:40 | NIrV
Let’s take a good look at the way we’re living. Let’s return to the Lord.
It makes no sense for the Bible to speak of us testing and examining ourselves unless it was possible for us to be deceiving ourselves.
Does this mean we ought to always be fearful of “not really believing?” No. If we believe, we believe, and that is that. We need to have confidence in that. If we want to actually believe something, we do. We can’t mess it up like that; we do have free will.
But nothing will protect us from believing the wrong things, or actual unbelief. That free will cuts both ways. This is why we must always test ourselves against the scriptures to make sure that we really are holding to God’s truth, not some straw man version of it we have set up in our hearts. For, as we have just seen, it is more than possible for us humans to lie to ourselves so effectively that we completely blind ourselves to the truth, even though we claim we have it. Would that we would care enough to study the truth so that we might not be those people!
One of the most natural questions to ask when the topic of spiritual conviction comes up, in my opinion, is the question of exactly what matters it typically applies in, and how far it goes. Are we given a wealth of detailed guidance, or only the barest hint of an outline as how we ought to order our behavior? Which extreme is the reality of the situation actually closer to?
It is a good question, for if we spend lots of time with an ear to the ground, listening for answers about things that God will in no way give us specific guidance on, at best we waste our time, and at worst we will come to listen to some voice that is not from God. So it does make sense to discuss the topic of exactly what conviction means for us as Christians, and whether we should regularly expect it in our lives. This page will set out to discuss such things.
For most matters in life, the Bible doesn’t give us specifics. Generalizing a bit, God tells us what is important writ large, but does not give us anything like direct verbal answers to every little thing we have to make decisions on. Figuring out how to map spiritual truth onto the complex, messy situations before us in life – that’s something that falls to us. We get better at it as we grow spiritually – that is, learning, believing, and applying more and more of God’s truth.
Consider that this state of affairs does not come about because God could not provide us clearer answers for all the things we ask. He is Omniscient and Omnipotent. So, given verses like Matthew 7:7-8, why doesn’t He just instantly give us those answers, firm feelings regarding which path to take?
Well, who are we to say that it would be better for us to actually immediately get such answers and conviction for all our matters of discernment? If we believe Romans 8:28, no matter what happens, God is working all things out for our ultimate (spiritual) good. In fact, it is the best – the superlative is appropriate. The Plan of God is completely perfect. So if we don’t get any firm answers from God as to exactly what we ought to do about some specific thing, it is no accident.
Nowhere does Romans 8:28 say that we will understand God’s plans most or even much of the time. When you think about it, the reason for such is kind of obvious. We are incredibly finite beings with perspectives warped by our own sinful flesh and Satan’s world system trying to turn us away from God at every turn. Even the most spiritually advanced among us are still just puny humans. Who are we to talk to back to God? Do we really think we know better than Him now, hm? Perhaps we feel that we are owed guidance. That it is somehow our due. But just as a parent cannot always explain their complicated reasons to their whiny indignant four-year-old (even if they wanted to), so to does our blind human perspective pretty sharply limit God’s ability to share with us the real reasons behind things in life.
This case might perhaps feel like one of those that is fundamentally incomprehensible for that reason, but it really isn’t as incomprehensible as all that. Put simply, God doesn’t immediately answer every decision we put before Him like some sort of divine magic eight ball because He views the development of our faith as more important than our temporal gratification. If God were to answer our every question instantly, where is there room for faith on our part in that? How then could God perfectly work every single thing out right under our noses – even better than we could have ever imagined or prayed for ourselves – thereby demonstrating His perfect faithfulness… if we would but trust Him, trust that He has it all in hand?
So it is that we are left down here to struggle with limited perspective and imperfect information in order to demonstrate exactly how much we really do trust the Lord. He will always come through for us – maybe not in a way that maximizes comfort or wealth or any other ephemeral material parameter, but in a way that maximizes our spiritual wellbeing – but we have to have faith and wait upon Him. That is much the point, in fact.
This does not mean that God does not give us enough information to do what we ought
Put quite simply, we are always given enough information to make the decision we ought. These two propositions are not identical:
- God gives us all the information we need
- God gives us all the information we need to be so confident in our path that things will be crystal clear, without having to take difficult steps of faith
No matter what decisions stare us down (college major, career, who to marry, how to deal with difficult family relationships, what to focus one’s ministry efforts on as an individual calling, etc. etc.), if we actually trusted God as we ought, we could always “get it right.” Always.
So never ought the excuse “but I didn’t have enough information!” cross our lips. Enough information for what?
For example, let’s say you come to decide that you need to change you major after already being in college two years. Seems like wasted time and money, right? But what happens if God has some greater plan at work here? What happens if you might use that information you now think is fall-through in some way in the future? How do you know that such a thing for sure won’t happen?
Or maybe you really were being selfish and hardheaded in pursuing the earlier major, and you finally got your act together and started listening to God’s prodding that had been there all along. That’s possible too, sure. It actually doesn’t matter. The past is in the past. We just need to not get resentful and blame God. Either He has His reasons, or we we failed to listen as we ought. We’ll probably never know exactly what combination between these things (and others besides) truly explains “the why.” The point is that God always gives us everything we need to follow Him as He wants us to. If we make a mess of it, then that is on us, not Him.
Emphasizing this is important because the very worst thing we can do is make excuses for ourselves and blame God. If it seems to us like we prayed and prayed for guidance only to end up on a bad path that we had to backtrack on later (“why couldn’t you have just pushed me in this correct direction in the first place when I asked!”), things didn’t happen that way for a reason, one way or another, and that reason is never because God is unfairly stingy in His guidance.
The principle is in fact absolute
Very often the toughest matters of discernment are matters of application wherein there is no global absolute to go on. Sometimes people fancy themselves clever for having come up with some hypothetical thought experiment that seems to defy any possibility of knowing the “right answer.”
But if we pray earnestly, no matter how bad our intel, we can still always do what God wants of us, given where we are. We always have that potential. Even if some of these challenging hypotheticals were to actually come about for us personally (and that is sometimes not even remotely realistic), well we can properly answer all such things when we actually face them personally and pray for guidance, relying on the Holy Spirit that indwells us. We must have faith in that.
But, again, having all we need to follow God’s Will is different from it always being clear and dead obvious
Conviction is a spectrum, and we have no guarantees about where all matters in our life will fall, as we have just been discussing.
Blessedly, we can have rock-solid conviction about many things. For example:
- God loves us, loves us so much that He sent His only Son to take the penalty of our sins in our place.
- Our sin – no matter how dark a stain it may truly be – has been paid for and wiped out. If we but confess and mean it, that is it. It was already nailed to the cross with Christ, so God has justified legal basis for now declaring us clean, so long as we rest in the blood of His Son.
- As long as we believe, nothing can separate us from God and His love (cf. Romans 8:38-39) – for now, and forever.
- Everything that happens happens for a reason, maximizing the ultimate spiritual good of all (Romans 8:28).
In fact, everything the Bible truly teaches we can be rock-solid on. The problem is that there is plenty in life that is not directly addressed in the Bible. What to do then? Well, we can certainly avoid the extremes:
- On one side, we should avoid getting improperly preoccupied with “getting conviction” on every minute decision in our life – majoring on the minors. God probably doesn’t have grand spiritual guidance on which brand of paper towels to buy, for example. You probably ought to just pick one and get on with doing the spiritual things he actually wants you to do!
- On the other side, while it true that being overmuch enthusiastic about making all minor decisions matters of spiritual life and death is going to open you up to all sorts of problems, being too closed to the spiritual dimension behind reality is a very perilous approach too. We need to always evaluate things on the eternal spiritual plane, not the ephemeral material one. We shouldn’t waste lots of our time endlessly praying about minor nothings, yes, but we also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that all of our decisions have spiritual implications, will all come together to echo for us throughout eternity. We always need to be listening for God’s Will in our everyday decisions too, because everything in this life for us as Christians ought to revolve around God’s Will – for the world generally, and for us specifically.
Perhaps all of this is seems unsatisfying, leaving things vague and far from parsed out in a clear set of rules and principles. Welcome to life – grey and messy.
Sometimes conviction comes stronger with time, but sometimes not
To close us out, it is worth noting that it is not uncommon to better understand things with some 20/20 hindsight – for stronger conviction to come after we find ourselves halfway down a path, not when we first find ourselves at the fork. I personally have a couple examples of this phenomenon from my own life:
- Transferring universities to learn Greek and Hebrew to prepare for a role in Bible teaching
- Studying for and then working a day job as a software engineer rather than going through seminary, ending up in academia, or following some other career path.
It was not until I was months down these paths that things crystallized into full certainty in my mind. When I was forced to make the decisions in the moment – through much prayer – I honestly was not confident that I was not making mistakes in both cases. But over time God opened my eyes to things that had been hidden before, things that gave me a level of peace and certainty that I hadn’t had at the beginning.
We cannot always expect this across all situations though. Sometimes that process of difficult faith and persistent lack of answers may drag out rather than getting resolved in a few short weeks or months. No matter what, we just need to trust that settled emotions or not, if we are doing everything we can to learn, believe, and apply God’s Word to our lives (and keep in constant prayer about it all too) – if we are doing everything that we are supposed to – that God will work things all out perfectly. As Christian soldiers upon the battlefield of this life, we can keep our heads down and let our commanding officer handle all the rest – for there is no greater commanding officer than Jesus Christ.
This week, our Workbook examined the idea of conviction through the lens of Acts 2:32-41. This is the end of Peter’s address to the crowd at Pentecost.
These verses present an example of how conviction works in practice. First, the truth is presented (vv. 32-36). Then the people, upon hearing the truth, are convicted of its truth… and thus indirectly, are convicted of their mistake in crucifying their own Messiah (v. 37)! Their realization of the truth naturally leads to them to the question of what they should now do based upon this truth; true conviction always demands response on our part. Finally, Peter answers this question (v. 38). When God convicts us of something, he never leaves us in the lurch, but always gives us the direction that our response must take. (If we ask for it and truly want it, at any rate).
Hopefully all this (which our lesson in the Workbook covered – more or less) is clear enough. But this page, instead of focusing upon these main points, will instead briefly examine a couple contextual points that may throw into relief the true importance of this day in Church history, and the poignance of thousands of Jews all at once becoming aware of their past blindness, and collectively being pierced to the heart. It’s powerful stuff.
Acts 2 is really when the Church takes off numbers-wise. It represents a massive change in scale
Acts 1:15 states quite clearly that the number of believers at that time numbered around 120. Contextually, the “they” of Acts 2:1 is this group (we get this from the third person plural ending on ἦσαν combined with the fact that there is no noun in the sentence to directly serve as a subject – since the subject of “were all together in one place” is not stated directly in the sentence, the subject must come from earlier).
So those who spoke in tongues in the first part of Acts 2 were the people making up this small group of initial believers, the very first people in the New Testament Church. It is somewhat startling when you consider how many people congregated around Jesus when He did miracles and taught the crowds. Thousands were touched by his ministry, yet just a few dozen are gathered soon after His resurrection and ascension. We do not know exactly how many of those Jesus had sent out before (e.g., Luke 10:1ff.) were part of this group, so it is possible there were more godly people who were not present in Jerusalem at this time, for whatever reason. One might also consider some of those from the Samaritan village who had believed (John 4:39-42), for example, among other individuals or groups mentioned throughout the gospels (like the centurions of Matthew 8:5-13 and Mark 15:37-39, who perhaps were not able to leave their posts to be together with the other believers). We needn’t get overly fixated on the precise number; the point is that the overall number of people starts out startlingly small.
This is an important point to make given that after Peter’s Spirit-filled speech at Pentecost, Acts 2:41 says that “about three thousand” (ὡσεὶ τρισχίλιαι) were added to their number. Three thousand. Whether the multiplier was actually a full 30-fold, or was perhaps a bit less than that overall, the point is that the change here is drastic, and would lead to fundamental and sweeping changes in the structure and organization of the Church.
We should thus bear in mind whenever we talk of the conversion of these folks at Pentecost exactly how massive a thing this day was. It represents, in many ways, the day the Church was truly born. For while there were believers before Pentecost, Pentecost marks the coming of Holy Spirit and beginning the Church Age as a distinct phase of human history.
Many of these new converts were the very same people who may have clamored for Jesus’ crucifixion
Consider again Acts 2:36-37 (also cf. v. 23). In context, it clear that the thing that really pierced many of Peter’s listeners to the heart was the realization that they had crucified the very Messiah that they had been waiting for for hundreds of years!
In some ways, this collective realization on the part of the Jews prefigures the collective realization that will occur at the second return of Christ (Revelation 1:7, cf. Matthew 24:30), when Jewish people alive at the second coming will recognize the Messiah returning in glory, and once again collectively turn to Him:
every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him: The dramatic return of our Lord will be visible to everyone on earth. Singled out for special mention are His kindred people, Israel, in the phrase “those who pierced Him”, referring to the episode at the cross as predicted by Zechariah (compare Jn.19:34-37 with Zech.12:10; cf. Ps.22:16). This is a description of an instantaneous repentance and conversion of the Jews alive at the Second Advent when they witness the return of the Messiah as explained by the apostle Paul (Rom.9-11): the “hardness in part” that has characterized the majority of the descendants of Abraham since the 1st Advent will dissolve instantly upon the Messiah’s return.
Of course, we Gentiles are now part of the Church as well. But in these cases – both past and future – there is something decidedly right about God’s chosen people turning to Him en masse, a dramatic show of collective repentance. In much the same way as the prodigal son returning home, the things out of place will be set to rights, as the separation between Israel and the Church will be completely torn down, never again to rise. For we will all then be truly one in Christ, forever. Israel, after millennia of hardness, will have finally come home, joining us at the feet of the Father.
At any rate, the upshot for our passage here in Acts 2 is that this event hits hard on account of exactly who it is being convicted. It was not some group of people who had never heard of Jesus who were so stirred by Peter’s speech that they put their faith in Him. Instead, the crowd here was composed – at least in part – of the very Jews who had pushed for Jesus’ crucifixion (or if not that, had nonetheless not opposed it when Jesus was turned over to Pilate in a mockery of Justice).
So, again, we need to view this account of mass conversion at Pentecost as something a great deal more important than a bunch of random people being converted. For it marks the repentance of many Jews, who would go on to become the backbone of the very early Church as it expanded outwards from Judea to encompass the Roman Mediterranean. Those who had set themselves against God’s Son came to realize the truth, and decided to be born again, throwing themselves upon the Mercy of the very one they had betrayed. It ought to give us chills, even today.
In an earlier discussion page from this week, we examined the fact that it is completely possible for human beings to deceive themselves and yet be completely unaware of such. I did not particularly break out the root causes of self-deception there, but it turns out that there are a couple different umbrella categories.
On the one hand, some people lie to themselves by twisting scripture: pulling things out of context, improperly limiting or expanding the scope of things based on false interpretations of perceived audience (e.g., some people in the present day say “Well, Paul only meant this to apply to the people in the time/culture he wrote to, not us!”), or even just picking the wrong interpretation of multiple possibilities based on less overtly incorrect (though still incorrect) reasoning. The key word here would be “rationalization.” These folks still base the evidence for their positions on the Bible, they just have such faulty presuppositions – or do such violence to the text itself, hermeneutic principles, logic, or some combination thereof – that their “Bible-supported position” is in truth nothing of the sort.
On the other hand, others lie to themselves by making it all about how they feel, minimizing the role the Bible itself plays in their beliefs. Arguing with such people is very difficult, because emotion/experience is not directly falsifiable. If someone says “I feel like God has told me that I ought to ‘speak in tongues’ when I pray,” well, you can’t have much of a debate about 1) what “speaking in tongues” means to begin with (e.g., in Greek, the word γλῶσσα refers to a real language, not babbled nonsense – cf. Acts 2:4-12), and 2) whether this practice is something that God still empowers even in the modern day. Both things are simply presupposed based upon how the other party “feels,” with emotion put forth as the last word on the matter.
Of course, many times, people believe things that are false due to a veritable “cocktail” of rationalizations and presuppositions and mental gymnastics. These things are not necessarily mutually exclusive with each other, in other words. Nonetheless, on this page, we are going to briefly examine just the relationship between emotion and conviction, and make a case that true conviction is based primarily upon the truth as contained in the Word of God, not emotion.
Why emotion alone is a faulty basis for establishing spiritual truth
Put simply, human emotions are fickle. They are not consistent enough to draw conclusions from; any conclusions that people do try to draw from them are not repeatable or generalizable.
There really isn’t a great deal more to it than that. For anyone who is truly honest with themselves, it ought to be obvious that our emotions don’t always track perfectly with the truth, at least not initially. For example, most people have a very positive emotional response regarding God’s love and grace, and not nearly so much positive emotional energy when it comes to actually putting in the hard work of daily Bible reading and taking in Bible teaching in order to grow to spiritual maturity.
To be clear, this does not mean that we need to be utterly against emotions as Christians, or try to stifle them, as if they are necessarily evil. Emotions are part of being human (cf. John 11:33-36). There is nothing inherently wrong with them, per se. We can be joyful when we have occasion to be joyful, and mournful when we have occasion to be mournful. We can laugh, and cry, and feel outrage at evil conduct. We do not need to try to somehow not feel these things.
The point is simply that our emotions ought not be in the driver’s seat, but us. The truth is a thing independent from them. When our emotions line up with the truth, well and good. But if they do not, well, best go with the Bible, not our emotions.
Example: Facing down the wind and the waves
In Matthew 14:22-33 Peter starts walking out to Jesus upon the water, but when he saw the wind, he was afraid and began to sink.
The Lord of the Universe had just told Peter to come out to Him. What did Peter have to be afraid of? Yet he was afraid nonetheless… because it was an emotional reaction, not one based on the truth. His emotions told him that he was in trouble, that nature’s fury would overcome him. And, believing them, he earns a soft rebuke for his lack of faith.
My purpose in bringing up the example of Peter’s reaction here is this: it is common for our initial emotional response to events to be particularly untrustworthy. If we keep throwing truth at our emotions, eventually they’ll get back in line. But if we let them rule us, we will be like Peter, and find ourselves sinking beneath the waves, even though God is so much more powerful than any storm could ever be.
This is why following our emotions (rather than leading them) is dangerous.
Example: Joy in suffering
As another example, the Bible directly tells us to rejoice when suffering comes upon us (compare Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2-4). But is that really what humans tend towards, our initial emotional response?
If you want a persuasive yet short argument against the idea of basing much of anything at all upon our emotions, one good option would be something like: “The Bible commands us to look to the spiritual – seeing how testing grows our faith – in order to have genuine joy amidst suffering. The initial emotional response to intense suffering, common among all humans to one degree or another, is decidedly not joy. Therefore, our emotions cannot reliably be used to drive our spiritual outlook, QED.”
The natural response we feel when finding ourselves in the middle of suffering is dismay, not joy. As we grow more mature, we definitely will get better at looking to the unseen spiritual dimension in order to bolster our attitude and square our shoulders like good Christian soldiers – in order to snap out of our emotion-induced pity party that much faster. The more we believe 2 Corinthians 4:17 – really believe it – the less phased we will be by the temporary afflictions of the world. But we will still probably always have to wrestle our feelings in line at least some, to get back our peace and joy when things really get tough.
Emotional conviction vs. spiritual conviction
The Holy Spirit operates upon the truth in our hearts. The more biblical knowledge we store up in our hearts (from reading our Bibles and taking in Bible teaching from gifted and prepared Bible teachers – from growing spiritually), the more “spiritual capital” the Holy Spirit has to work with within us.
For us to become spiritually convicted about something, the Holy Spirit operates by means of this truth. This is why our spiritual discernment grows as our knowledge of the Bible grows; the two things are intrinsically linked.
Hopefully all this makes it clear why emotions have no part in true spiritual conviction. Emotions are simply not involved on either side of the equation. This means that they are, more or less, a red herring when it comes to what we ought to think, say, and do. The truth is the truth; it doesn’t care if we feel good about it, if we feel downright lousy about it, or if we are somewhere in between. We still have a duty to accept it and obey it, no matter how we might feel.
By way of contrast, emotional conviction operates independently from the biblical truth stored up in our hearts, and independent from the Holy Spirit’s prompting. Without God’s Word and the indwelling Holy Spirit coming together to shine light on our path, why would we expect emotional conviction to be worth much of anything at all? Seems obvious, right?
Yet, even so, it is still difficult in the moment to keep this in mind, and keep ourselves from getting caught up by the tide when it sweeps over us. Being able to resist – to hold firm to the truth, no matter how strong the waves of emotion – requires spiritual growth on our part, and lots of it.
So once again, growing spiritually (by consistently reading our Bibles and taking in Bible teaching from gifted and prepared teachers) is our answer, the answer as to how to deal with emotions in a godly way. You will seldom ever be wrong in guessing that spiritual growth is the ultimate answer to some problem we might face as Christians, and this case is no exception.