Brief Reviews, Midweek Edition, VOLUME 2

[Midweek Edition] Brief Review: FEEL by Matthew Elliott

A Brief Review of FEEL:
by Matthew Elliott

Paperback: Tyndale Books, 2008.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Chris Smith.

Matthew Elliott’s FEEL: THE POWER OF LISTENING TO YOUR HEART is a good resource for helping followers of Christ to begin to recognize and not be afraid of our emotions.  Written in easily accessible, conversational style, FEEL is a wonderful response to the stoic forms of our faith that are quick to repress emotions.  While FEEL serves well as an introduction to thinking about our emotions, there are several significant theological problems with its approach to emotions.  First, at the heart of Elliott’s message is the idea that “emotion is the only motivation that is able to propel us toward a radically obedient and abundant life” (47); and this message is repeated at various times throughout the text.  While, emotion is indeed one motivator on our journey toward faithfulness, it certainly is not the ONLY one.  Virtue and relationships, both forged in community, are also motivators.  I am not even convinced that emotion is the primary motivator.  Which leads to my second theological concern.  Elliott seems to be writing out of a primary narrative that is largely individualistic.  Emotion does absolutely play a larger role in motivaton if we accept the isolation of individualism.  However, in a strongly ecclesiological narrative where God’s fundamental work is gathering a people to bear witness to his reconciliation, emotion must take a backseat to faithfulness.  Finally, Elliott seemingly has little concept of our great capacity for self-deception, and how that can contort our emotions.  He is clear that emotions have an object, and I would agree, but I also would be skeptical about the extent to which we can be honest about those objects.  Elliott does not recognize that it is easy for us to rationalize an emotion toward an object as good, when in reality our motivations are not quite so pure.

        Elliott is quite right that emotions are a part of who God has created us to be as humans, and we should not repress or ignore these emotions.  However, Elliott in his reaction against stoicism has swung too far in the opposite direction and overstated the role of emotion.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at:


  1. Matthew Elliott

    Dear Chris,

    Thanks for your recent review of my book FEEL – appreciate your reading it and taking it seriously.

    Just a couple quick responses to your questions.

    First, we tried to write to an audience that had been taught something unbiblical from the church by making some provocative statements to make them wrestle and think. I stand by them, in the context they were written. But they are provocative on purpose to make you think about and question taught church dogma on controlling emotion.

    I would say that love as the great commandment taught by Jesus is in fact “the only motivation that is able to propel us toward a radically obedient and abundant life.” Now the only thing we need to consider is if love is an emotion in the text. You can refer to both FEEL and my book for pastors and teachers “Faithful Feelings” on that. I also have a draft article on it, if you are interested to read it. You can also refer to others, for example, John Piper who uses Faithful Feelings in support of this in What Jesus Demands from the World and Jonathan Edwards for agreement that this love is emotional.

    In the words of Edwards, the true nature of religion “consists in holy affections.” Feel is very much an updating into modern language of his book Religious Affections. We also see that human motivation is very dependent on the emotions, that is why Jesus said loving God and neighbor were the greatest commandments. I, however, never argue that it is the ONLY (your caps) one, just the most important from the words of Jesus. Emotion is most prevalent in the context of community, so I am not sure why emotional motivation is necessarily linked to individualism. If we have the values of community, we get most emotional about community. If we have the values of the me generation, we get emotional about me. If we have the true values of faithfulness, as we should, we get emotional about being faithful and that becomes a true emotional motivation. That is the point of saying emotions have objects. So emotional motivation is not at odds with any of these things.

    Finally, I hope you had the chance to thoroughly read one of the last chapters of FEEL – “Done.” Here we explain how wrong it is to follow sinful emotional motivations and the disastrous results of this. We are not good at being honest about our true motivations – that is very true – and this is precisely where we need to listen to our emotions in order to deal with the real values and beliefs that result in great sin. One of the best ways to get past legalism to authentic holiness is using the process of listening to your emotions and then repenting of those values and believe that do not line up with the truth. This is the process of being Done with sin in a way that goes beyond a façade of spirituality.

    In my thoughts, it is Jesus who framed the debate in saying that we find in love all the law and the prophets – He is the one who put emotion front and center. I am only trying to understand what exactly that command means. And I fear that for many of us, including myself, when we downplay the emotions for the sake of finding “balance” we are most likely trying to get away with less rather than the radical abandonment to love that Jesus demands.

    In the words of C.S. Lewis, “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.” The Abolition of Man.

    Blessings and I hope this brings some light to these subjects.


    PS I would also say that because of the misunderstandings possible in this subject, I took FEEL to godly men and scholars whom I greatly respect, and submitted myself to their judgment. Is there anything here that dishonors God or goes beyond the text? In all things I endeavored to be true to the gospel.

  2. Matthew —

    Of course, I agree that love is the primary motivator for the Body of Christ, but I strongly disagree with your reduction of love to an emotion. Sure, love has an emotional facet, but to reduce love to emotion is, I believe, a gross misrepresentation. If we believe that Jesus is the perfect embodiment of love, let us look carefully at his life. There are certainly times when he is emotional (e.g., weeping at the death of Lazarus), but his life is not one driven by emotion. For instance, take the Garden of Gethsemane; Jesus has some emotions of apprehension (“Lord, if you be willing, take this cup from me”) but those emotions are submitted to obedience/faithfulness.

    Maybe, as you say, emotion does play an essential role in religion, but I would argue that Christianity is not a religion, and to the extent that it is religious it misses the way of Jesus. Greg Boyd makes this point well in his new book THE MYTH OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION.

    My comments about self-deception/rationalization were directed specifically at the “Done” chapter, which I read several times through… Yes, I agree that there is value in listening/paying attention to our emotions, but there is a big epistemological question that the “Done” chapter does not address, namely how can we be certain that our emotions are connected with the objects that we believe them to be? I believe that others can help us sort out this mess to some extent, but to imagine that we can sort it out by ourselves by listening to the emotions is a gross over-simplification.

    Thanks for further explaining your perspective.

    Grace and Shalom,
    Chris Smith
    The Englewood Review of Books

  3. Let me further clarify my point about love as an emotion. There are types of love that are driven by emotion: eros, of course and to a certain extent philos. But the agape love to which we have been called in Christ is not primarily an emotion. The nature of agape love as unconditional eclipses the emotions attached with it. Regardless of our emotions, whether we want to or not, we are called to sacrificial love.

    Chris Smith

  4. Thanks Chris for your thoughtful comments. Your viewpoint is of course what the evangelical church has been teaching for a generation, and a lot could be said in response. We could, for example, go to ideas from Edwards, Aquinas, Wesley and others to show that this viewpoint is not universal among the great theologians. We could talk about how the anti-emotion bias got started in the church by those trying to mesh the Bible with Stoic and pagan philosophy. We could go to explaining what emotion is in order to dispel the notion that it is not all that important in our spiritual lives. To do all that, you will need to start by reviewing my book for pastors and scholars “Faithful Feelings.”

    Let me just say a couple quick things.

    1) The idea that agape, phileo and eros are three distinct kinds of love is debunked by recent linguistic studies and comes up short in the evidence from the New Testament – see “Faithful Feelings.” It simply is a philosophical construct put on the text, but not in the text itself.

    2) For one good example, 1 Corinthians 13 seems to dispel the idea that love is not an emotion. If love is action or commitment and not emotion how could you give you body to be burned and yet not have love?

    3)The Jesus of the Bible was very driven by his emotions, how many times are we told he healed feeling compassion? In the garden, using your example, we are told in Hebrews that it was joy that compelled him to the cross. We are not simple beings and can have different motivations all at the same time. The woman giving birth endures through the pain for the love of her child, but still hates the pain. The man going to battle is compelled by love of country, but still does not want to endure the awful brutality to come. The fact that Jesus grieved over what he was to endure while still being compelled by love is nothing against emotion, it just says he was human.

    4) The problem with “Done” you point out is certainly not unique to emotion – anything we face in the intellectual world is the same. Interpretations, and false interpretations, are made for the Bible all the time. How many times have we sat in a sermon and said to our spouse “That is not what this text says.” We must guard ourselves in this in every interpretation of any fact. So this is not an argument against emotion being crucial to spirituality.

    Finally, my friend, be careful that what you say is not just an excuse for not being where you need to be in your passion and desire for God. It is very easy to be lukewarm when we take emotion out of the picture – then our expectations for ourselves are greatly lowered. This is in fact, I believe, the great danger in what we teach. If agape love is not emotional, we can then live by duty and be content. Where God wants us to live passionately by the heart, loving him with all we are. Emotion leaves us no excuses to live halfway. On the other hand, if we do not need to feel it we can still be OK without a changed heart and that leaves the church, so tragically, in the lukewarm state we are in. It is no coincidence that so many of the great leaders in past revivals taught that love was the great thing we must feel toward God, that is what revives the soul – knowing that God desires new hearts, not dry duty.