Thinking about emotions (Part II)

Christians are arguing about emotions and passionate outpourings. Some exalt in these experiences, and see in them the revival of true and authentic Christianity; others decry the emotional hysteria of easily manipulated crowds, and assert that rational, mature Christianity needs to rise above such gross displays of experientialism.

Sound familiar? It is a (rough) description of the mid-18th-century American context for Jonathan Edwards’s classic work A Treatise on the Religious Affections.

Edwards’s treatise is a bit of a slog for the modern reader, and even a summary of its argument is well beyond a blog post (unless I break all word limit records). All I wish to touch on in this brief space is the rather brilliant way Edwards reframes the question. It’s not a matter of how much passion or feeling you do or don’t experience, says Edwards. High and intense feelings are no sign of true spirituality; but neither are they a sign of unspirituality. And Edwards proceeds to list a whole series of similarly neutral factors that are ‘no sign’, one way or the other, of the genuineness of the work of God in someone’s life.

It’s just not the way to look at it, says Edwards. What really matters, he argues, is the state of the person’s heart and affections.

An ‘affection’ is not quite an ‘emotion’—at least not in the way we now use the word. For us, an emotion is a strong state of feeling that arises within us, sometimes suddenly and usually unbidden. An emotion is usually responsive; it is an outpouring—a bubbling over of some well of feeling within us—in response to some sort of stimuli.

An ‘affection’, however, is more closely linked to the inclination of our hearts—to what we love or hate. Positively, it is when we perceive something to be good, lovely, attractive, desirable, and so passionately long for it; or negatively, it is when we find something to be evil, ugly, deadly or repulsive, and so shrink or run from it.

Now the affections, as Edwards defines them, are not slight preferences either side of indifference, but “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul”. They are marked by sensations of love or hate, of rejoicing or loathing, of gratitude or bitterness, but the manifestation of these sensations is complicated and varies enormously, and is thus no real sign that a true and holy affection is at work. In fact, it is very possible for there to be false affections that mimic the genuine gracious affections that God works in our souls—affections that bring all affections into disrepute.

And here is Edwards’s point, and the one that I think can help us reframe our discussion. For Edwards, true Christianity is, in large measure, a matter of the affections. It is not enough to hear about God, or know of him, or even assent to the truth of the gospel. A true Christian undergoes a transformation of the heart by the Holy Spirit so that he no longer loves himself and the world and the devil, but loves God and his Christ. A Christian’s ‘vigorous and sensible inclination of the will’ is now towards God and his word, and away from the devil and his lies. This fundamental reorientation at the centre of our being—this change in what we love—refashions our entire lives. It reorients our relationships and priorities; it frees our minds to want to know more of God and to please him in everything; it humbles us and causes us to bewail and confess our sin; and it issues in Christian practice day by day.

And this change is effected by a divine, supernatural work of the Spirit of God, as he applies the word of God to our minds and hearts.

I think this puts our debates about emotions in a new light. If I can caricature the discussion as I’ve observed it over the past 20 years or so, one side is saying that classic evangelicals are cold and cerebral and distrust emotion, and that what is needed is a more emotional, experiential, uninhibited Christianity (which usually funnels down to church meetings with loud music and lots of singing that help create a charged atmosphere and an intense emotional response), while the other side is that saying that feelings come and go, and shouldn’t be trusted or pursued for their own sake, and that if we stick to the truth and to growing in knowledge, then the feelings will follow (like a cart following a horse).

The category of ‘affections’ supplies what is lacking in both of these positions in my view.

There is no point simply stimulating emotional response, which can be done easily enough through music and lighting and atmospherics. This, as Edwards would say, is no sign of true spirituality. Nor is it enough simply to impart knowledge, because the mere intellectual apprehension of certain truths is also no sign of true relationship with God.

What we need is a change in our affections. We need to change not what we feel, nor even what we think, but what we love.

The question is: how does one do that?

6 thoughts on “Thinking about emotions (Part II)

  1. Great post Tony. Thanks for a really helpful clarification about this topic.
    Isn’t it only God who can change our affections? So would the way to change our affections to be more in line with God’s be to ask Him through prayer to change us?

  2. Thanks for these posts, Tony, great clarity and helpful intro of Edwards’ stuff.

    I look forward to your next installment, as I recall Edwards’ writing ‘anything that will enhance emotions as much as possible are to be persued – or something like that!

  3. I would certainly say singing the praises of God in the words of God among the people of God has helped re-align my affections.

  4. Tony you said:
    ‘What we need is a change in our affections. We need to change not what we feel, nor even what we think, but what we love.’

    This seems like dangerous waters to me. But then I am the sort of person who thinks there are always sharks at the beach when I’m swimming.

    Tony, how do see the link between mind and love?

    Thanks for your efforts on this topic

  5. Thanks for the comments all.

    Luke, Yes it is only God who does it, and prayer is thus essential. But God does it through various means—just as conversion is his work, and much to be prayed for, and yet is also achieved through human mediation (the telling of the gospel etc.). So what means does God use to stir our affections?

    This goes to your comment, Mikey. Is Edwards backing pretty much ANY means, so long as it moves the affections? Not a bit!  I think you might have been remembering this bit: “If true religion lies much in the affections, we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the word and the administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshipping God in prayer and praises, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means, is much to be desired.”  I.III.2

    So it’s not doing anything that might move the affections, but performing what Edwards regarded as the proper and duly ordained expression of religion (prayer, singing, sacraments, preaching), in a lively, heartfelt way—what Edwards calls a ‘pathetic manner of praying and preaching’.

    However (and this goes to your point Dianne), Edwards was VERY aware of the sharks in the water. Immediately after he says: “Indeed there may be such means, as have a great tendency to stir up the passions of weak and ignorant persons, and yet have none to benefit their souls; for though they may have a tendency to excite affections, they have little or none to excite gracious affections”. 

    The whole treatise (as I mentioned in the post) is aimed at distinguishing what makes for true or ‘gracious’ affections. And the place of the mind and Scripture is paramount in discerning this.

    But more of this in part iii …


  6. Hi Tony,

    Where do the spiritual gifts fit with all this? We’ve mentioned teaching already, but what about the others?
    Gifts are given for the common good and ought to be used out of love for our brothers and sisters. But do they help in bringing about true and gracious affections?
    I can’t think of scripture which addresses this specifically. From personal experience, however, I would be inclined to say yes.

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