It Didn’t Work for Me (Part 3)
What should it feel like to be a Christian? What impression would you have about this issue after spending a week at summer teen camp or listening to a steady diet of popular Christian music or attending a conference featuring a lineup of “passionate” celebrity preachers? You could easily end up with a lopsided view, anticipating that walking with God entails a largely unbroken spiritual “high.” And when such emotion doesn’t characterize your experience, you may start to wonder whether your experience is authentic. Having discussed some misunderstandings of grace and sanctification, I come to a third possible reason that people may conclude that Christianity hasn’t “worked” for them: unrealistic expectations regarding emotions in the Christian life.
The answer to the question about emotions or feelings might seem to be a simple matter scripturally. After all, we have clear texts like these (emphasis added):
- “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you” (Ps 5:11).
- “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy . . .” (Gal 5:22).
- “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil 4:4).
- “Though you have not seen him [Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet 1:8).
But is this all that needs to be said? I want to set forth three propositions that reflect more comprehensively the role of emotions in the Christian life.
A MIXED BAG
To begin with, according to Scripture the believer’s emotional life is remarkably diverse, a rich texture that defies cliches and formulas. Without minimizing the four “joy” passages quoted above, let me highlight some counterpoints within the contexts of those passages (emphasis added):
- “Give ear to my words, O LORD; consider my groaning” (Ps 5:1).
- “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal 4:19).
- “I have thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, and your messenger and minister to my need, for he has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill. Indeed he was ill, near to death. But God had mercy on him, and not only on him but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow. I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious” (Phil 2:25-28).
- “In this [future inheritance/salvation] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet 1:6). This verse speaks of joy and grief at the same time!
To these verses we could add a great deal of biblical data. Here are some that stand out:
- The lament psalms are the most prominent type of psalm, accounting for nearly half of the compositions in the divinely inspired “manual for worship.” Does modern hymnody come anywhere close to that distribution?
- Ecclesiastes 3:4 says that there is “a time to weep” as well as “a time to laugh.” And both of these are included in the assessment that God “has made everything beautiful in its time” (v. 11).
- Our perfect Savior himself was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa 53:3). He wept over dead Lazarus (John 11:35) and over unrepentant Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). So sadness can’t be inherently sinful or always undesirable.
- Paul reflected quite a spread of emotions. A few chapters before commanding the Romans to “rejoice in hope” (Rom 12:12), he said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” because of the lost condition of fellow Jews (9:2). First Corinthians 6:10 sets forth the paradox succinctly: “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (cf. 2 Cor 4:8-9).
For more material toward a biblical theology of emotions, check out Ron Horton’s fascinating book Mood Tides. Yet here I must move on to my next point, one based not so much on Scripture but on common sense: a variety of factors influence our emotions.
If you’ve been irritable today, it may well be because you didn’t sleep long enough or deeply enough last night. Food also affects how you feel, though Thanksgiving week might not be the best time to be talking about sugar highs and sugar lows. The relationship between our bodies and our feelings remains rather mysterious, especially when it comes to the element of personality. Yet surely our genetic makeup has considerable impact on the emphasis and the range of our emotional lives. Some people are more naturally upbeat, others more melancholic. Still others always seem even-keeled.
External circumstances also influence our emotions. The Bible acknowledges this and urges compassion and caution toward those who are suffering. “Whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Prov 25:20).
So emotions aren’t directly or at least primarily under the control of the will. They can’t be turned on or off by flipping an internal switch. To a significant degree, they are responses to stimuli. They “happen” to us. Did you “decide” to cry the last time you watched a Hallmark movie? Did you make a conscious choice to explode with excitement when your favorite sports team won the championship?
EMOTION OR SPIRITUALITY?
The above leads me to a third point: emotions are not necessarily reflective of our spiritual state. Negative emotions do not necessarily mean we are sinning or out of fellowship with God. Positive emotions do not necessarily mean we love God and are walking with him.
To be sure, a Spirit-filled believer will experience positive emotions toward God. Yet emotions are no sure sign of authenticity. They can, in fact, easily deceive us. We understand this on a human level, right? The thrill a couple feels when kissing does not prove that they actually love each other. It may be merely the result of the endorphins and other chemicals rushing to the pleasure centers of their brains.
Similarly, the pleasurable emotions we may feel during worship services are not synonymous with the deeper inclinations of the soul that have historically been called religious or spiritual affections. This is true regardless of the “worship style” being used. Yet it would seem that contemporary styles are more prone to deceive us since pop music can have such an immediate and overpowering emotional effect. Are we truly engaged in worshiping the holy God or simply enjoying an emotional buzz? Or some unhealthy combination of the two? Indeed, even a positive emotional response to preaching can be deceiving. “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away” (Luke 8:13, emphasis added).
I recognize the dilemmas I’m introducing in distinguishing between emotions and spiritual affections. They can be hard to distinguish even in Scripture. How do we go about separating them when we read things like “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” (Ps 98:4)? In addition, an emphasis on evaluating emotions will especially trouble those who are already overly introspective.
Believe me, I’m not trying to judge anyone’s heart. I have enough trouble with my own. Yet we each need to grapple with the implications of Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” I certainly don’t have all the answers regarding emotions and spiritual affections. Perhaps this recent dissertation will help me sort through these matters. I also need to read this book sometime. But at any rate, when so much is at stake, shouldn’t we at least be asking questions about the difference between emotions and spiritual affections? Shouldn’t we guard against the dangers of emotionalism?
SOME MODEST RECOMMENDATIONS
Lest I end only with questions, let me make some modest recommendations about emotions in the Christian life. I trust you’ll find these true to Scripture as you think through this matter for yourself and strive to help others. And I welcome any observations you may have.
- Don’t de-emphasize or over-emphasize the role of feelings in the Christian life. Don’t view them as inherently dangerous or as a panacea. Accept them as a part of our divinely created human nature but also as damaged by the fall.
- Recognize the emotional pitfalls that you are especially vulnerable to, and do whatever you can to prevent and resist them. Maybe you need to get more sleep, especially before the Lord’s Day. Or maybe you need to get out of bed and take a run—endorphins again!
- Seek to grow in spiritual affections and healthy emotions not directly but by pursuing sanctification. For instance, unconfessed sin is one possible cause of sadness (Ps 32:3-4). Conversely, meditation and prayer are means by which the Lord ministers his joy and peace to us (Phil 4:4-9). You can’t warm your heart, but you can pull up to God’s fire. I’m not sure where I first heard that, but it captures a lot about sanctification.
- More generally, recognize that you have only so much “emotional energy” to go around. If you’re dissatisfied with your emotions (or affections) toward the Lord, maybe your life is too stuffed with relationships or activities—even good ones—that are sapping your stamina so that you don’t have much left to invest in your walk with Christ.
- Repentantly confess to the Lord your lack of love for and joy in him. Ask him to refresh and renew your affections and emotions as you trust his Word and do the next right thing. If my own experience is any indication, you will have to do this regularly—like pretty much every day.
- Let your struggles with affections and emotions in this life deepen your anticipation for the unmitigated bliss of the next life. It will only be in his eternal presence that we will experience “fullness of joy” (Ps 16:11).
Photo credit: Nathan Cowley, pexels.com