Thinking about emotions

I’ve been thinking a lot about emotions recently. This, of course, may be precisely my problem. I shouldn’t be thinking about emotions; I should just be feeling them.

At least that’s what people tell me. Emotions, I am assured, are an important part of who we are as humans created by God, and so Christian faith should also be emotional in some way. It’s not enough just to think and to do; there’s something a bit wrong with us if we don’t also feel.

It’s hard to argue with this, and so I have begun to rummage around in my soul to see if I can rustle up some emotions. And you’ll be glad to know that I’ve managed to find some.

For example, when things were difficult at home a few weeks ago, with moody teenagers, an overly-packed diary, the car breaking down, and Ali and I getting snappish with each other, I definitely felt a detectable sense of frustration and weariness. Not major depressive despair, you understand; more a kind of low-grade, hang-dog unhappiness. Will this ever end? Can someone just give me a break? Why is nothing ever simple? That sort of thing.

But then I went off to church and commiserated with a brother who was hav­ing almost precisely the same experience of 40-something life, and finished the conversation feeling much more upbeat. The emotion was a kind of eye-rolling, almost cheerful, you-can’t-win-can-you resignation.

The sermon on that day happened to be about the Lordship of Jesus in Luke 6, which includes the challenging words, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (v. 46). It evoked in me a feeling very similar to the one I used to get driving home for holidays to our family farm, some 800 kilometres north of Sydney. After the long, wearying drive, I’d crest the top of the hill, and Eltham Valley would open up in front of me, with our homestead on top of one of the spurs jutting out of the surrounding hills. The satisfaction of being home—so familiar and yet new again—would begin to fill inside me, like a warm drink. This was what the pleasant shock of recognition felt like in Luke 6. Yes, Jesus really is Lord, and life is really all about pleasing him, doing what he tells me, and building my life on him and his words. This is home. This is where I really belong.

Definitely some positive emotion happening.

But then the church meeting went impossibly long because there were just too many announcements and interviews and extras packed in, and my feelings of uplift from the sermon started to deflate with irritation.

And so goes my emotional life: different sensations, ebbing and flowing, responding to a variety of stimuli, some an expression of godly attitudes, some not.

Now, I feel a bit stupid for not realizing this sooner, but this constantly varying stream of feelings seems to be the kind of emotional life the Bible would lead me to expect as a Christian. The Psalms, after all, give you the full gamut—from almost suicidal despair through to cymbal-bashing, lyre-strumming exaltation, and everything in between. And if you used the New Testament as an emotional guide, you’d expect the godly Christian to feel a very wide range of things—sorrow and joy, anxiety and peace, anguish and relief, thankfulness and pride, jealousy and affection, hatred and fear, kindliness and indignation, and so on (see Rom 15:13; 1 Cor 15:31; 2 Cor 2:4, 7:9, 11; 11:2, 28; Phil 1:8; Col 3:16; 1 Thess 3:7-8; 1 Pet 1:8; Rev 2:6; and plenty more besides).

This does not include the ungodly versions of many of these same emotions, which we also should expect to struggle with in our sinfulness. There is godly sorrow that leads to repentance, and worldly grief that produces death (2 Cor 7:10).

So what is the call for a more emotional evangelicalism really asking for?

I might be wrong about this, but I don’t think it’s a call for this broad range of authentic emotion, which we each experience differently in our createdness depending on our circumstances, our culture and upbringing, and on the different emotional make-up God has given us. I rather suspect that what is being sought is a particular set of emotions—things like passionate intensity, joyous celebration and sweet victory. In particular, they are the charged emotions that we experience in certain kinds of church meetings, where your heart just wants to burst with love and adoration of God, or where an inner glow of warmth and gratitude wells up inside you, or where you feel exhilarated and excited as if your team has just scored a famous last-minute victory.

The assumption seems to be that experiencing these sorts of emotions is an indicator of spiritual maturity and a full personal intimacy with God, and that a corresponding lack of these emotions is evidence that your relationship with God is defective in some way.

I think this is quite wrong. But to explain why, we need to talk about the difference between ‘affections’ and ‘emotions’.

Affections and emotions

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

This might be a description of the current debates between charismatics and evangelicals, but it is also a 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 this short article. What I want to focus on 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 its lack. Edwards goes on to list a series of similarly neutral factors that are ‘no sign’, one way or the other, of whether a particular emotional experience is a genuine work of God in someone’s life:

  • as a consequence of the experience you may be very “fluent and fervent in talking of religious things”
  • the experience may have come unexpectedly or without any effort or endeavour on your part to bring it about
  • others may have been with you and experienced the same sort of feelings
  • you may have felt comforted or joyous or confident after your experience
  • as a result of your experience, you may have become much more enthusiastic about going to church or being involved in Christian meetings.

Edwards argues at length (and convincingly) that none of these are any indication, one way or the other, as to whether a particular state of high or intense feeling was the work of God’s Spirit in your life.

Examining the feelings and their manifestations and consequences is just not the way to look at it, says Edwards. What really matters, he argues, is the true state of a person’s heart and affections.

Now here is a vital point: an ‘affection’ is not the same as 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 or circumstance.

In Edwards, however, the ‘affections’ are 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 foundational 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 forth 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 25 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 comes down to church meetings with stirring music and lots of singing that help create a charged atmosphere and an intense emotional response); the other side is saying that feelings come and go, and shouldn’t be trusted or pursued, and that if we stick to the truth and to growing in knowledge then the feelings will take care of themselves.

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

There is no point in simply stimulating emotional responses, which can be done easily enough through music and lighting and atmospherics. As a younger Christian, I experienced many intense emotions in charismatic meetings, standing with my eyes closed, arms in the air, swaying to the music and lost in the moment. But if Edwards is right (and I think he is), these emotions in themselves were no sign whatsoever that I was any closer to God, or any more spiritually mature.

However, neither is it any sign of true spirituality that people simply know things. The mere intellectual ascent to 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?

Changing our affections

What does Edwards say about changing or stimulating the affections?

We should first acknowledge that this question is not his primary concern. His treatise is not so much about how to get a few more affections happening, but how you tell a true or ‘gracious’ affection from a false or worldly one. However, as he describes (in rather exhaustive detail!) what makes for a true or gracious affection, we also learn quite a lot about how they are stirred or stimulated.

Space is limited, so here are just four key points from Edwards (quotes are from Volume 1 of the Banner of Truth edition of Edwards’s works, Edinburgh, 1974).

a) True affections “arise from those influences and operations on the heart that are spiritual, supernatural and divine” (p. 264). In other words, they come from God, not from some striking or strange occurrence that excites the heart. You may hear a word from God in an unusual way, or with a strong personal impression that he is speaking directly to you, or with a sudden and powerful sense of conviction. But none of these indications are particularly ‘spiritual’ or indicative of gracious affections. It is the excellency and spiritual activity of God that incites our love and affections, not the surprising or unusual manner of us hearing about him.

b) The real foundation of gracious affections is the “transcendently excellent and amiable nature of divine things, as they are in themselves; and not in any conceived relation they bear to self, or self-interest” (p. 274). In other words, a genuine love of God doesn’t arise merely from being grateful for what I have received from God—that is, from self-love. It is an attraction to or love towards God as he is in himself.

c) True and holy affections are grounded on the “moral excellency of divine things” (p. 278)—that is, on God’s holiness (incorporating his righteousness, faithfulness and goodness). This is what drives our love for him, not what Edwards calls his ‘natural’ attributes (e.g. that he is much bigger, stronger, and smarter than us). God’s goodness and holiness are what renders God’s other attributes lovely: his wisdom is lovely and attractive because it is holy wisdom; likewise his strength power and majesty. When these things are allied with unholiness, as they are in the devil, they make him more terrible, not more attractive!

d) If all this is true, then the affections are changed or stirred as we come to understand and appreciate more clearly who God is: “Truly spiritual and gracious affections … arise from the enlightening of the understanding, to understand the things taught of God and Christ, in a new manner. There is a new understanding of the excellent nature of God and his wonderful perfections, some new view of Christ in his spiritual excellencies and fullness; or things are opened to him in a new manner, whereby he now understands those divine and spiritual doctrines which once were foolishness to him … There are many affections which do not arise from any light in the understanding; which is a sure evidence that these affections are not spiritual, let them be ever so high.” (p. 282)

Thinking again

The more I think about emotions, the more I think we should probably be thinking about something else—like Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2), or the “things that are above” rather than the things on earth (Col 3:2). I don’t think we get anywhere by stimulating emotion or, for that matter, by suppressing it. What we really need is a heart that is moved to love everything about God through the supernatural work of God’s Spirit.

What Edwards says about the affections and how they are stimulated reminds me of that unusual phrase Paul uses when he prays for the Ephesians, that they might have the eyes of their hearts enlightened (Eph 1:18). In their inner self, at the heart of their being, he wants them to know and understand and grasp how rich is their glorious inheritance, how immeasurable is his power, and how great is the mighty strength by which he raised the Lord Jesus Christ far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but in the age to come.

You can sense the flow of Paul’s own affections as he writes this. These are not theoretical ideas for him, but truths that he sees with the eyes of his own heart.

True and godly affections are not stirred by music or singing, by soaring rhetoric, or by being part of a big excited crowd. Our hearts are moved to love God when by his Spirit we come to know more of him. We truly change our affections not by concentrating on the affections, let alone the emotions, but by fixating on God. The more clearly, prayerfully and compellingly we set forth the truth of God and Christ, in dependence on the Holy Spirit, the more will people’s hearts be stirred to hate sin for its wickedness, and to love God for all his goodness and holiness.

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