You’re Probably Not As Rational As You Think

Everyone believes something, and we believe it for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes we believe things for good reasons, and sometimes for bad. I know a psychologist with whom I often speak about various issues, and not long ago we were talking about the role of emotions in determining our commitment to particular ideas or beliefs. She made the comment to me that if someone has a strong emotional commitment to an idea, there is almost nothing you can do to change his mind. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I think there is some truth to it.

Emotions Can Feed Self-righteousness

My maternal grandfather was an abusive alcoholic. He was this way for my mother’s entire childhood, and ultimately died from a combination of liver disease and lung cancer. He drank and smoked himself to death and died in 1987 or 1988. The damage he did to his family along the way has had ramifications that ripple down through time and affirms for me that the sins of the fathers are indeed handed down to their children.

In my life, the use of alcohol was always bad. We had real and valid pain caused by abuse and neglect of this man. Emotionally, the sight of someone drinking always brought up bad feelings. Always. As a child, I witnessed enough to know that I did not want to be like my grandfather, and I was determined to totally abstain. I succeeded in that goal, but the emotional commitment in my life lead me to put anyone who drank alcohol in the category of “abusive drunk.” I was wrong.

Through the years people tried to convince me that my (what had become) self-righteous position was not defensible from scripture, was inconsistent with Paul’s teaching on grace, and was generally harmful to the gospel of Jesus Christ. I couldn’t hear them. I didn’t want to hear them because the emotions around the issue were just too strong, and no amount of reasoning was going to convince me otherwise. I had proof to show the evils of alcohol, and my family bares the scars.

It took time to come to a more Christian and gracious view of on the issue of alcohol and its use by Christians. It took study of scripture and prayer. Getting passed the self-righteousness also required lessons in humility and forgiveness. Not that I’m particularly good at any of this, but in this thing in my life, the Holy Spirit worked on me and changed me.

I see this pattern of emotional commitment to a faulty position repeated time and again.

Emotions Can Fool Us

I know someone who went through a traumatic experience in his life. During his dark days, he began attending a Word-Faith church, and came under the influence of its teaching. He was experiencing serious financial struggles, and a friend encouraged him to faithfully and sacrificially give 10% of his income to his church. If he did this, he was told, God would bless him richly in a financial way. This man lived faithfully by this principle, and sure enough, he got through his dark days, and has gone on to live a financially stable and fulfilled life. Down the road a few years, after spending a several years away from Word-Faith teaching, he has become involved in it again at a deeper level. He is often heard repeating the claims made by popular Word-Faith teachers, and trying to convince friends to join him in his pursuit of this newly rediscovered “biblical” truth.

I’m not going to spend time here telling you why I think the Word-Faith movement is preaching a false gospel, is heretical, and is cancerous to Christianity in America. I want only to say that I am deeply concerned about those I know who have fallen under its spell. But I also realize this: my friend will not hear my criticisms of the movement because he has an emotional commitment to the teaching. It doesn’t matter that we could come up with various other spiritual explanations as to why God in his loving kindness toward him saw him through those dark days. It only matters that his friend told him that giving 10% of his income would bring him blessing. He gave. God blessed. End of story. Anyone who has taken statistics will tell you that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but when the emotions are involved, anything goes. His emotional investment in the belief means it will take a work of God and the loving dedication of his friends to show him the wrong-headedness of the Word-Faith movement. The connection between the giving and the blessing seems logical, but it is really more of an emotional inference leading to commitment to untruth.

Our emotions are given to us by God. They are a gift, but they are also fickle and broken because of sin. Our judgement is sometimes untrustworthy because our ability to perceive truth is cloudy. We see through a glass darkly. This doesn’t mean that we can’t know truth. We certainly can know the truth of Jesus Christ. It just means that we have to continually be examining ourselves and asking why we believe what we believe. We are broken people, and we must humbly admit that our sight is not always clear. There is a such thing as absolute truth, but am I equipped to see it properly?

Here are some questions we need to ask ourselves from time to time:

  1. Why do we hold so strongly to certain ideas? Is it because this is what someone else told us to believe?
  2. Have we really thought about and investigated our beliefs? If what we believe it true, it will stand up to scrutiny. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions.
  3. Do we hold on to some beliefs because our emotions dictate that we must? Is is possible our emotions are lying to us?
  4. What are my motivations for belief? Do I want to know truth, or do I just want to be comfortable in the bubble?
  5. Am I afraid?