Feelings as Data, Not Directives

Written by Ryan Evans on March 30th, 2022

To what extent do we allow our feelings to dictate how we think, speak and behave? In a prospective family interview several weeks ago, Mrs. Kniss and I both picked up on a powerful statement from a parent. As she was describing their family discipline approach, she said they teach that, “Feelings are data, not directives.” In other words, feelings can inform our actions, but shouldn’t dictate them.

Often, we fall short in allowing our feelings to rule how we respond to a situation. Speaking from personal experience, certain times trigger a reaction (directive) as opposed to methodical contemplation (data). For some it may be unwelcome news, a rude person, or an unkind comment. For others, perhaps our trigger is a misinformed referee call during a soccer game, or a driver more preoccupied with a phone conversation than on following the rules of the road.

In any case, we all are prone to react to our feelings rather than allowing our feelings to serve as data for reflection. A book particularly helpful on the topic is Dallas Willard’s classic, Renovation of the Heart. Written in 2002 and recently re-released as a 20th anniversary edition, the book is subtitled, Putting on the Character of Christ. Willard writes, “Healthy feelings, properly ordered among themselves, are essential to a good life. So, if we are to be formed in Christlikeness, we must take good care of our feelings and not just let them ‘happen.’”

Just as adults need work to take dominion of our feelings, so do our children. Any parent raising children has witnessed the tantrum fueled by feelings that misalign with a child’s desires. Maybe the child didn’t receive as many cookies as he wanted, or a sibling had the audacity to grab a toy that for weeks remained neglected and dormant. Like a sudden tidal wave, the feelings rise up, resulting in reckless, impetuous words or actions.

Such events present parents a divinely-appointed opportunity for discipline and instruction. Abdicating our God-given responsibility to instruct and train amounts to a child’s sin becoming our own. Paul instructs us to take every thought captive to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), necessitating parental intervention when a child’s actions manifest an abject lack of self-control. Willard writes, “Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters.” Feelings are not bad, but they are not the ultimate determiner for thought, speech, and action. “If we allow certain negative thoughts to obsess us, then their associated feelings can enslave and blind us – that is, take over our ability to think and perceive.”

Here’s where we as parents are most convicted: What do our children learn from us? Do we allow our feelings to dictate action? How often do we find ourselves reacting emotionally to circumstances? Do we, in fact, model for our children that feelings are directives? “Self-control,” writes Willard, “is the steady capacity to direct yourself to accomplish what you have chosen or decided to do and be, even though you ‘don’t feel like it.’ Self-control means that you, with steady hand, do what you don’t want to do (or what you want not to) when that is needed and do not do what you want to do (what you ‘feel like’ doing) when that is needed. In people without rock-solid character, feeling is a deadly enemy of self-control and will always subvert it.”