Your theology can change your emotions

Have you ever been told that your feelings don’t matter? Or that you ought not to be led by your emotions but by the Holy Spirit? These well-intentioned statements aim to dissuade Christians from allowing their emotions to rule them as emotions can often misdiagnose the situation we face.

What if our emotions do not need to be ignored but must be redeemed? What if our emotions do not obstruct our fellowship with God, but when rightly guided, can lead to deeper fellowship with Him? This is what the doctrine of Orthopathos aims to proclaim – God wants us to have the right affections.

What is orthopathos?

The term “Orthopathos” was introduced in the 1970s by Wesylan and Pentecostal theologians. Their aim was to demonstrate that the Christian life was not merely right thinking (orthodoxy) or right action (orthopraxy), but there was also a proper way to experience God. Henry H Knight explains “We need not only right beliefs and practices, but we also need a right heart; we need not only to think and do what is faithful, but we also need to be faithful persons.

To put it differently, orthopathy does not primarily refer to a warm heart, but to a heart formed, governed and motivated by love”. According to Wesylan’s theology, to experience God as we ought we need the right thinking and the right actions that are informed by the right heart. In other words, how we feel about God matters. This does not mean that we must generate feelings to experience God rightly. What it does mean is that as we have been filled with love (Romans 5:5), this love ought to transform not merely our emotions but our person. Now we live in such a way that embodies the fruit of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). John Wesley would say “… Christians [should] have a character which consists of holy tempers such as love for God and neighbour, faith, hope, peace, humility, and other fruit of the Spirit”. This is what Paul prayed over the church of Ephesus, that they would not only be filled with the love of God but know the love of God so that they could experience the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:17-19). Without orthopathos, we will fail to experience God as fully as we can.

The Three Os

In His high priestly prayer, Jesus says that to know God is to have eternal life (John 17:3). To know God is not merely intellectual knowledge of God but to also be in a covenantal relationship with Him. To have eternal life is to know God with our head (orthodoxy), our hands (orthopraxy) and our heart (Orthopathos). The relationship of these three Os can be compared to that of a Venn diagram. To experience God fully we need hearts shaped by the love of God that will transform how we think, live and feel. If any component is missing, the Christian will reduce the experience that God desires for us. Christians that over-emphasise orthodoxy are in danger of being pharisaical.

The danger is people like this can often honour God with their lips but have hearts that are far from Him (Matthew 15:8-9). Christians that over-emphasise orthopraxy are in danger of work righteousness. The danger is that people can often believe that how they live is what justifies them before God. Paul nullifies this way of thinking “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Romans 3:28). Christians that over-emphasise Orthopathos are in danger of centralising their emotions.

The danger is that without feeling certain emotions they are far from God and thus unable to fellowship with Him. Paul nullifies this line of thought also by telling us that “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height or depth, nor anything else in all creation [including your emotions], will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 8:37-39.

Whilst our feelings ought not to be the compass of our lives, they can be good indicators in our lives. Instead of suppressing or over-indulging your emotions, let the love of God transform your emotions so that you can experience Him more fully. In doing so, we can experience heaven on earth.

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