I am an emotional guy. I can’t believe I can say that so easily. Four years ago I could not have admitted to this. In fact, four years ago, I may not (ahem . . .) have been so in touch with my softer side. Now I realize just how much emotions control me. I can cry at the drop of a hat, music can take me wherever it desires, and I feed off the emotions of others (both good and bad) much more than ever. I wake up each morning and the first thing I do is take an assessment of where I am emotionally (and you thought I was going to say “pray”).

Having come to terms with this, I have had to do a lot of backtracking. Much of this involves a reassessment of my life and who I am, how I process things, and how I believe. Yes, I said “how” I believe, not “what” I believe. The what of my belief is the same. While I am somewhat comfortable saying I have stumbled many times, fallen flat on my face a few, and have a whole new set of spiritual limps and scars to show people, my faith is in-tact. In fact, though I may not look it, these things have only served to strengthen my faith a great deal.

I used to believe that all problems could be solved by reason. I think I prided myself in my intellectual vigor. I don’t think I have ever been that smart, but I loved the vigor, the questions, and the way reason could give me so much confidence in my life and faith.

Dealing with Doubters Before

In the past, when I dealt with those who doubt, I would go straight to the arguments. Reason, intellect, and syllogisms. With these I would (or so I thought) easily dismantle any foe who had the audacity to carry a flag of unbelief. Then, I would pat the sad Christian on the head and say, “See how ridiculous your doubting is? Now go and doubt no more.”

Visiting the School of Doubt Myself

Since then, at some time in the past, without my consent, I was enrolled in the school of doubt myself. I don’t know where it came from or why it was my new instructor, but I thought I knew how to get rid of it. “Ha! Are you kidding? You don’t want me as a student. I am in the business of converting your former pupils.” But, for some reason, my arguments, reason, and intellect proved ineffective in expelling me from this school. At this time, I could not overcome my doubt with reason. It was not as if the arguments were not strong enough, it was that my emotions stood in the way. My “feelings” were in control. As I struggled to get back to my former level of confidence (as that was my goal), I found that this confidence was fueled by something other than my intellect. I discovered that my emotions were so much more powerful than my reason.

The funny thing is that I can go to videos of me teaching this. I already knew the power of emotions. I already knew that they were more appealing than reason. In fact, left to their own, I knew that they could control all other sources that we draw from to fill our soul with belief. Tradition, experience, reason, and even the Scripture are powerless against emotions when we let them run the show.

But here I was, in the school of doubt unable to hear any other source and finding no other guidance but emotion. What was I to do?

Learning to Love Emotions

I am still in the school of doubt. I will be there as an audit student for the rest of my life. I am content with this and I know the part my emotions have to play. Before, I knew in theory, now I know in practice. Emotions are a big part of my life and belief.

I also have learned that doubt is almost without exception emotional. I recognize that while I am disturbed by my doubt, I am not defined by my doubt. It is not who I am. But, more importantly, I have learned the value of emotions. I am a very emotional being. I can be controlled by my emotions and, rightly guided, this is a wonderful thing. God created me this way and he wants me to believe with all my emotions (“love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul. . .). It is when my emotions are engaged in my belief that I have the most peace. However, I can now get through times of immense emotional doubt and reason, of all things, does have a vital role to play. An ugly role, but a roll nonetheless.

Return to Reason

Not long ago I woke up in the middle of the night. It was one of those times when my emotions were so volatile and were not being friendly to my faith. I could not sleep. It was the second most severe bout with doubt I had ever had. I could not believe and there was nothing I could do.

(You see, during these times, it is not that I don’t believe or that I begin to believe something else, it is like the ability to believe is broken. That is where I was.)

So I left my room and went and sat in the garage (the place I go when I am highly disturbed emotionally). I was in an hysteric struggle. The only thing I knew is that if I could wait it out, it would go away. However, as I so often do, I started reasoning with myself: “Get a grip, man. Your beliefs are strong. Think about the historic reality of the resurrection. Think about the absurdity of a universe with no creator. Remember, there is nothing more reasonable. Where else are you going to go?”

As I ran though these arguments, initially, they have the same impotency. After all, without emotions, a faith built only on reason is cold, dark, hard, and ugly. It does not fill my life with joy like when my faith is full of emotional support. When I believe in God and my emotions are supportive, it is beautiful, lovely, nice, tender, and it has a wonderful aroma. Yet, for the first time, I decided to be content with the ugliness of reason. It had to be enough. It may have been hard, but it was strong.

This night, though it was not pretty, I stood alone on the ground of reason. I went to a different class and listened to this teacher. He was dry, boring, ugly, had a whiney voice and what hair he did have was all messed up. But he did know his stuff. I wanted that other teacher, Emotions, so badly. She was pretty, tender, and so artistic. Oh, how I love her class. But, she called in sick and Reason was my only option. I endured it.

That night I realized that I could live off the rations of reason. That night I learned to hold my nose and swallow an unsalted and uncooked egg. I have always said that reason is the foundation for our belief and we must use it, I had just not experienced a foundation without a house built on top of it. Reason may be cold, hard, and ugly to look at, but it is absolutely necessary for our faith. Yes, we grow to love and live by that which is built on top of it. And when this beautiful structure is knocked down, we don’t really care about the foundation any more. But we need to. Why? That night I was sinking in the mud. But I stepped back on that cold foundation and weathered the storm.

Reason alone stabilized my faith that night. And though reason is empty and ugly alone, it is still enough.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    29 replies to "The Emptiness of Reason"

    • Brandon Barr

      Michael. You articulated very well exactly my journey. Reason seems so attractive, and I left emotions behind. I have come full circle, and am thankful for my intellectual journey, it has informed me and made me whole. I know appreciate my emotional side.

      Michael, how can I get in touch with you? I need to write you . . .

    • Brother Stumblefoot

      Yes, I love it when something (something good or beautiful) makes me want to cry. Emotions are great if used properly. Reason is the foundation; but I’m not sure we have to exclude some emotion even there. And what a structure we can build with emotion, or what steam it puts in our locomotive, or melody in our song. I love it!

      But just poison the emotions and the song fades, the forward motion stops, the castle crumbles. Need I say also that the doubts (all sorts of doubts) crank up again and depression
      gets a foot in the door.

      I don’t want to imply that we rely only on emotions, we’ve got to have truth at the foundation, and you’ve already said most of this, i just have to chime in.
      brother Stumblefoot

    • Tiribulus

      Micheal, I love ya brother. I think you may even believe that by now. Epistemology. It’s jist gotta happen. I refuse to die before you and I have that conversation. OHHHH if you could only understand that you are so right and yet so wrong here. I only want to see you walk in all the victory God has for you. (though never without serious battles this side of the resurrection). May it be done to me and much more if I lie in telling you that that is my only motivation.

    • Anthony

      Reasoning with certain aspects of life can be harmful. I keep my soul connected with the Lord to avoid the false reasoning of those who follow science. I too in my years have become emotional as you when I see others hurt, compassion to the less fortunate that are not able to care for themselves, music that touches the heart with forgiveness (such as the song “The Reason” by Hoobastank). Men who have emotions with tears will make them only stronger in heart.

    • C Michael Patton

      Believe it or not, I would not give up this wrestling match with God. It keeps me honest, from having simple answers and, without empathy, suggesting that better Christians do not have these struggles. However, I can go in the opposite direction and judge those who are not wrestling with such things. This is not right either. I have learned that God’s path for all of us is so different.

      Presuppositionalism is a theology that many of us come to after belief and studies (like Calvinism). It is not a good evangelistic tool or (like my Calvinism) a solvent to problems such as doubt.

    • anita

      I have to just smile at this.
      I am so happy that I understand what you are talking about.
      Thanks for stating it clearly as I cannot.

    • C J Barton

      They teach how to read in school; and as you advance in academia, you can become so erudite and full of knowledge, but they don’t teach you how to feel. Or what to feel.
      My humble abode is subject to clutter, bigtime. It’s not me. I don’t just decide to strew things around, but often I must trudge through the cleaning and tidying from top to bottom. I suspect clutter is the result of neglect and maybe a little laziness! Yet when finished, it is a joy to have a house set in order.
      So, reason is like this: we have a God-given gift of reason to order our minds and thoughts to arrive at Truth. And frankly, the more of that, the better!
      I hate the analogy that emotions are the “icing on the cake” when in fact so many great works of God inspire us to courage, love, and sacrifice; these things I suspect are not possible without expression of the emotional soul inside us. So, knowledge is first, reason (getting it into our gut) is second, and feelings are the celebration of the resulting Truth-centered life – this seems more likely to me.
      Lastly, peace, joy, and love are fruits of the HS – I wonder if these address thought, emotion, and will? Remember that there is music and singing in Heaven – our emotions, I believe, are as much a part of our eternal soul as reason.

    • a.

      “the first thing I do is take an assessment of where I am emotionally
      (and you thought I was going to say “pray”).”

      well…… if you were to do that though, you might have clearer insight into that assessment… roots, reasons, responses? the Spirit will lead you into all truth

    • a.
      (p.s.please ignore the specific artist-vessel, if controversial to you)

    • Anthony

      Feelings are not taught, it is a natural reaction to something good or bad that happens and that feeling is sometimes shown outward by one’s emotions. Children are taught how to describe their feelings by using the simple tool of happy faces, sad faces, angry faces etc. (At least they are taught this in some schools).

      Answers are simple if you follow the Lord’s word and not the ways of this world. This helps avoid many struggles in life.

    • a.

      and then again maybe today’s emotion need assessment from the Lord might be: and 1 Tim 6:12; Eph 6:10-11

      Peace be to the brethren, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ;grace be with all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ with incorruptible love.

    • terry

      The Christian life is full of that which we must hold in “tension” and that which we must hold in “balance”. A tip of the scales in either direction causes a veer towards spiritual derailment and cognitive dissonance. Remember God’s former provisions and continue to pray for wisdom in grace and truth.

    • Christopher Rushlau

      “Emotion” is one of those words, like “terrorist” and “race”, that holds the US together as a dysfunctional family. Define “emotion” as you use it. No, you can’t, because it’s a sacred word, which means it has no particular definition, just like “terrorist” and “race”, but is at the center of our small-c constitution. That’s why we go to church and (or to?) watch people getting lynched: it’s holy because we can’t say why we have to do it. It’s really quite simple. It’s tradition. Our parents taught us not to ask questions. When a terrorist of another race makes us emotional, we have to kill him and you can’t ask about it.
      I wonder if there are any other sacred words. How about “money”? Ummm, in a way.
      Reason might be defined as putting words together logically to report a problem, or it might be more broadly taken as accepting things as real. A total liar still has to admit that his lies actually exist, even though everything they describe doesn’t.
      “The fool, in his heart, says, ‘There is no God.'”
      The terrorist from the subhuman race makes us emotional by making us want to ask questions, so we lynch him and then don’t talk about it. In a way, the lynching of Osama bin Laden violated that rule, because we occasionally congratulate ourselves for having the courage to do what had to be done in his case, even though it was wrong and everybody said so.
      But like Obama says, “Don’t make me laugh or I’ll drop a drone strike on you, dude.”

      • Christopher Rushlau

        Okay, Chris, now you’ve read the piece. Not bad, eh? But he sure set you up with the first paragraph.

        • Christopher Rushlau

          And let me say what “emotion” should mean, from my smattering of classic lore. Aristotle famously (according to Google) defines emotion or passion as ” “The emotions [pathe] are those things through which, by undergoing change, people come to differ in their judgments (metaballontes diapherousi pros tas kriseis) and which are accompanied by pain and pleasure.” The Greek term was “pathe”, verb paskhein, pathein, meaning “to undergo”, from which we get “passion” on the one hand and “patient”, in all its senses, on the other, both via the Latin “pati”. This also directly gives us the line of terms like “pathos”, “pathology”, etc. The separately Latin-derived “emotion” obviously means “to move away from”: “mid 16th century (denoting a public disturbance or commotion): from French émotion, from émouvoir ‘excite,’ based on Latin emovere, from e- (variant of ex- ) ‘out’ + movere ‘move.’ The sense ‘mental agitation’ dates from the mid 17th century, the current general sense from the early 19th century.” [Google’s etymology]
          Look, my lynch mob has come back to me.
          The key element is just what your essay addresses: why or how we depart from good judgment. You recognize the Greek “kriseis”, root krinein, to sift or discern, from which we get all the key words: certainty, crisis, critic, discern, discriminate, discretion, certify.
          So this takes us to “how do we know?” We judge that something exists by having it in mind as the thing we have experienced. But “there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip”, meaning that, like a court of law, the process of judgment can go awry. Experience is something we do as much as it is something that happens to us.
          So it is the first object of prayer. God, let us experience things as they are, which is how you give them to us, and you give us both the power to accept them as they are and the power to pretend they are something else. We will always think, when we alter our understanding of things from what they seem on their own to be to what we desire (away from what we fear), that we know what we are doing and where we are going. Only you know for sure. Let us rest in you like a child rests in its mother’s arms when we judge what exists.
          Can we live without judging, entirely going with the flow? I don’t know.

        • Christopher Rushlau

          Well I sound very flowery there but so what? So what is that it seems to me that you can run anything you want through your mind while you’re doing something and yet not lose track of what that something is, unless you run any line of thought through your mind in which you somehow are above it all. Then you instantly lose track of what you are doing, no matter how much at that moment you are telling yourself that you have never done it better.
          I include in that “doing something” everything from slicing green peppers to loving your spouse to encountering a lynch mob.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Works the opposite way for me. I think Reason is beautiful. And Emotionalism is ugly.

    • C J Barton

      Truth Unites: I agree in a way; if I tried to drive a car by smell, it wouldn’t end well.
      Driving takes observation and logical decisions to be safe. In fact, the ugliness of emotion is evident in epithets like, “Road Rage”.
      On the other hand, creating a great work, like a painting, sonnet, or concerto can’t be done in matter-of-fact assembly like a kitchen recipe – we have an emotional mind that also needs expression and can achieve awesome things when done in grace and order.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Let’s say Spock was Reason. And “Bones” McCoy was Emotion. And Captain Kirk was a Good Blend between the two.

      I’m Captain Kirk. 😉

    • C Michael Patton

      Exactly C J. I am with TUAD too when I think of reason as strength and stability. In that sense it is beautiful.

      But in the sense that I have presented here, reason as the foundation and framework of a house is not what ultimately satisfies. I love God with my mind deeply, but the greatest longing I have for him is very emotion, but cannot be achieved outside reason. The greater my reasoning, the greater capacity I have for emotion.

      Unfortunately in my circles, all my life, I have seen people who have enormous houses that are just foundation and frame. While there are others who have a small house with foundation that are completely built and decorated. I suppose through all the difficulties I have been through over the last few years, I have simply given myself permission to give the decor a higher priority.

    • Anthony

      Reasoning is not required in life when you have the Lord of heaven above in it. Reasoning are with people who are being tempted by the evil force in life to throw confusion into your daily living; causing confusion as to what direction one should go. The number one priority of a Christian or any other faith is to put the Holy Spirit first, others second and yourself last. It is written; rise who are first will be last, and those who are last will be first. Life is about choices. Choices comes with consequences, both good and bad.

    • David Taylor

      Sounds like you are on your way to becoming a Christian Hedonist! Paraphrasing Jonathan Edwards, light to the mind and heat to the heart!

    • C J Barton

      OK, Michael, and TUAD: You’re right, I believe, that there is beauty in reason and the miracle of thought and order that ensues. Once when I saw a steam train engine, with all the different parts working in harmony to produce the torque to pull the cars, it seemed beautiful, perhaps in the same way. Some also see this beauty in math, or in the motion of the planets, etc.
      I wonder if the mystery of worship, I mean, sincere, full-hearted worship, is the perfect union of reason and emotion in our expression towards God?

    • Christopher Rushlau

      I just submitted a comment which did not show up. I’m glad you accepted my earlier comments without screening. You did not remove them when you removed me. Perhaps people would have noticed.
      Do you feel anxious about this?

    • Christopher Rushlau

      Well, I must have deleted my previous submission instead of sending it. Do I feel anxious about that? My comment was about anxiety. Rather than talk about whether, say, compassion is an emotion, I focus on anxiety as the supreme anti-emotion: the frozen in “frozen Christians” (an epithet for Episcopalians). It would seem to result from trying to think a paradox, which ties not just the soul but the brain and body as well in knots, which the thinker is keenly aware of, along with anybody who meets him in this state.
      I don’t feel anxious about accusing you of gagging me (the Latin root of “anxiety” means to gag, to be unable to breathe) because I have no idea what happened to the comment I tried to submit. I couldn’t have deleted it instead of submitting it, there’s only one button to click on here, unlike in my email, which I sometimes mess up on.
      Jesus as the physician: if he were a psychiatrist today he would say, “I won’t ask you what’s troubling you, since I can read it in your face, body language, the words you pick, the inflection with which certain words are pronounced, etc. What I will ask you is, do you think God is stupid? Do you think people are stupid? Do you think you are stupid?”

    • Francis Nickle

      Michael, I encourage you to read(twice) The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Published in 1902, I believe you may be ready for it. I was not ready the first reading over 40 years ago. It resonates now upon 2nd reading. In terms of reading, often–not always–timing is of the essence. F. Nickle (F.E.N.)

      • Christopher Rushlau

        Please summarize its argument: claim, evidence, evaluation. I was reading a blurb of it recently that did not impress me. It seemed to make elementary mistakes.

    • AmandaO


      Have you read “Proper Confidence: faith, doubt, and certainty in Christian Discipleship” by Leslie Newbigin? I beg you to read it!!! If you haven’t. It changed my life. (I’ve read and enjoyed your blog for a while.) Again, you have got to read this book. That book, along with chapter 3 of Orthodoxy by GK Chesterston, kept me a Christian. I am very good at doubt. 🙂

      I don’t think it makes sense to pit reason and emotion so heavily against each other. This is because it’s not true. Whenever I think, I am always feeling. Whenever I feel, I am always thinking. It is simply an oversimplification to bifurcate as you’ve done, however, I know bifurcation like that is necessary to some degree at times for analysis, as long as we state what it is we’re doing. So, again, one never exists without the other, and I personally can not find which is more foundational, in fact I think that such an endeavor (to find out which is more foundational) is probably flawed and unwise. What does it mean to think and to feel? Perhaps these are two sides of the same coin? It is simply decision making, and I don’t think we can fully know ourselves. I’m probably rambling at this point.

      I’m sorry if any of my comments are repeats of other peoples’ comments – I did not read them before posting.


      • Christopher Rushlau

        AmandaO, I would say you’ve hit the nail on the head in this whole topic: thoughts and feelings are the same thing. I suggest a term: judgment: that Karl Rahner uses in Spirit in the World in describing how we know something. You think the car is going to hit the tree. You feel the car is going to hit the tree. You judge the car is going to hit the tree. I suppose his main point is that you have to want to know something, but then, even if you know you’re telling a lie, you want to know that, so you can do it right.
        I’ll suggest that having the two words, thinking and feeling, for the same thing is a symptom or indicator of a culture based on lying. The essential aim of a liar is not to mislead, it is to confuse.
        I think you are rambling when you say we can’t really know: you are back-pedaling. The success of a liar culture is in making people distrust their senses, judgments, bodies, so that they’ll toe the party line. “When I want your opinion I’ll beat it out of you.”
        I see your “decision-making” is exactly the same as my “judgment” so I’m not adding anything except perhaps to use the traditional term, if Rahner accurately reflects the Aquinas-Aristotle tradition by using that term. “Decision-making” implies the alternatives are already laid out. “Judgment” carries the implication that there is no evidence until you accept it, which then is the judgment that such-and-such a thing exists: like a judge in a courtroom admitting some exhibit or testimony into evidence, so that a fact is born. Human understanding is much more like a judge deciding what the evidence is than it is some executive picking one of the courses worked out by the staff.
        There is no bad news so huge that you can’t wish it away.
        Leslie Newbegin, Proper Confidence: I’ll look into that.

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