As a parent, one of my jobs is getting my kids to do things they don’t want to do, because they simply need to do them. It’s a frustrating job, but we parents do it because we believe it ultimately leads to a life well-lived.
Doing homework. Practicing piano. Praying. Choosing good food over junky. Setting the table. Practicing soccer. Going to church. Cleaning the kitty litter. Exercising. And so on. I push my kids to do what’s best for them and for the household/community whether they like it or not.
I’d be a bad parent if I let my kids get away with not doing what they don’t want to do.
But somehow, once we become adults, we think that the heart is all that matters, looking down on words like duty and obedience. Hollywood’s clichéed refrain — “Follow your heart!” — can sometimes leads us in good directions. But more often, it leads us down blind alleys and away from what we ought to do. Because if I don’t want to do it, if my heart’s not in it, then I shouldn’t do it.
If we want a life well-lived, we must make our hearts follow our actions more than having our actions follow our hearts.
In fact, the greatest obstacle to doing the right thing is our feelings.
When my wife and I aren’t happy with each other, the last thing I want to do is to swallow my pride, take an honest look at myself and my behavior, and then apologize for behaving so badly. This is true, especially when I don’t feel like it. Right actions must precede right feelings.
When there’s a phone call that I need to make that raises awkward feelings inside of me, those feelings don’t negate the need for the phone call. Interestingly, the calls generally go a lot better than I anticipate and I end up feeling so much better for having made them. (Most of the time.) Again, doing the right thing leads to an experience of good feelings that weren’t felt beforehand.
Now, here’s an interesting one.
When my kids get after each other, my wife and I will intervene and require one or both of them to apologize to the other. Now, when one says, “I’m sorry,” to the other, there’s usually a lack of feeling to the apology. In fact, it often sounds like the opposite of an apology, accented by an exasperated huff at the end. In which case, the other will reply, “No, you’re not!”
So, what do we require at this point? Do we require that the offending child “feel” sorry and say it over again?
I don’t think so. I’m not all that good at getting inside of people’s feelings and shaping them the way that I would like them to be. If I were good at that, I’d be an unholy terror, demonic.
So, no, I don’t require anyone to feel any way. What I do want from people is right behavior, because I know that we often have to act our way into right feelings.
Ronald Rolheiser writes in his book Prayer: Our Deepest Longing about a man who met with him and said he no longer believes in God. Rolheiser told the man to pray for just a few minutes every day and get back to him in six months. When they met again, the man had a renewed faith. He had acted his way into feeling what his mind was struggling with.
Sadly, I’ve seen exactly the opposite happen. I’ve seen someone choose to not believe in God after years of unshaken faith. After a few months of choosing not to believe, she no longer did. Her heart followed her actions.
In Micah 6, the prophet expresses God’s frustration with people who expressed all kinds of religious feelings but were empty of the actions he desired of them. The religious feelings weren’t wrong, but the lack of justice and mercy and simple walking with God was wrong. They needed to act their way into those behaviors and new desires for those behaviors.
So, what is it that you don’t want to do? Praying? Serving the poor? Forgiving your parents or someone else? What else is God nudging you to do that you don’t feel like doing?
This is what God says: “I don’t care how you feel. Just do the right thing. The feelings will come.”