In early 2008, the French investment bank, Société Générale, announced that a single trader fraudulently lost over $7 billion making it the world’s largest rogue trader incident. The loss led France into recession. Later that spring at a risk managers’ conference in Chicago, I overheard chief risk officers in the halls quietly shaking their heads and saying that rogue traders simply could not exist because of standard corporate checks and balances. Basically, the trader had made so much money prior to the losses that other staff simply looked the other way when the imprudent risks were being taken.
Working as a chaplain intern in an emergency room (ER) in a Washington hospital in 2011, I noticed a disturbing link among the patients. More than half of all patients admitted to the ER had problems stemming from relational problems and poor life-style choices. Overweight patients came in with diabetes, asthma, joint problems, and cardiac problems. Men passed out on the street from excessive drinking or other drug abuses. Elderly patients were dropped off by relatives late on Saturday afternoon—too late to find a ride home over the weekend. Young men and women fearful of contracting AIDS came in to be tested. Among psyche patients the link was even more pronounced. For the most part, the doctors treated the presenting diagnosis and released them.
The common denominator in each of these examples is that the bankers and the patients did what felt good at the time, as psychologists would predict. Behavioral psychology teaches that even an amoeba will response to a positive stimulus by repeating the behavior that evoked the positive stimulus and doing less of the behavior associated with a negative stimulus. This is the standard behavioral learning model. In this respect, the Apostle Paul lamented: For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out (Romans 7:18 ESV).
Matthew Elliott (141) asks an interesting question: how can Jesus command us to love one another (Mark 12:30-31) if love is simply an emotion found in the heart? How can I obey this commandment if my emotions are just a product of who I am? Elliott’s answer: If emotions are merely physiological impulses, they can be ignored, controlled or trivialized, while, if they have as their essential element thinking and judgment, they are an essential part of almost everything that we think and do (31). In other words, what we think affects how we feel—especially over time. We get emotional about the things that are important to us.
If we accept Elliott’s cognitive thesis of how emotions work, then emotions are a poor guide for behavior when our theology is wrong or weakly held. If my life centers on the great ME instead of the great I AM, then my emotions will naturally reinforce my theology. In other words, bad theology leads to bad emotions, which, in turn, leads to bad behavior. Jesus said: the tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).
Sadly, inattention to theology leads to the same result. The story of Hannah Arendt’s coverage for the New Yorker of the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 is instructive. Arendt was a German Jew, student of philosopher Martin Heidegger who wrote her dissertation on Augustine, and a holocaust survivor who escaped from the death camps. Arendt went to the Eichmann trial thinking that, because he was the architect of Hitler’s final solution, she would meet a hate-mongering, fire breathing Nazi. Instead, what she found was a petty bureaucrat who was unable to think for himself. She was dumbfounded and devoted the rest of her life to a study of evil. What was the conclusion of her study? Wickedness may be caused by an absence of thought. When we refuse to think for ourselves, we find ourselves doing things we are later not proud of and hanging with the wrong people. The tree is known by its fruit (Matthew 12:33 ESV).
At one point, a colleague that I had counseled thanked me for saving his marriage. What had I done? Very little–we talked for only 5 minutes. We prayed together and I asked him to pray for his wife. He did. He later reported that he could not remain angry with his wife after praying for her. In other words, feelings of love followed actions of love. So when Jesus commands us to love our neighbors he is talking about actions—practiced theology. Hopefully, the feelings will follow.
Matthew A. Elliott. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2006.
Andrew D. Lester. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007, page 29.
Hannah Arendt. The Life of the Mind. New York: Harcount, Inc, 1977, page 13.
Eichmann was sentenced to death by a civilian court in Israel and was hung for crimes against humanity in May 31, 1962.