Theology 101

How Important Are Emotions in My Faith Experience?

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We might ask the question, “Which is more important to my faith, knowing scripture or feeling passionate about God?” Perhaps your time in Bible study has been dry. Or perhaps the opposite is true, you were excited after a recent Christian event, but the feeling was gone the next day.

First, let’s look at the difference between knowing and feeling and how they function in our lives. Theologian R.C. Sproul talks about two priorities or primacies. Our intellect is important in the process of knowing something is true but feeling or experiencing something helps us to know its importance. The intellect is first in the process of knowing because God has given us the scriptures as the central way of revealing himself to us.

Our Christian faith requires us to pursue God with all our minds, but is limited if not explored with all our hearts. Os Guinness has written that “the Christian faith is thoroughly rational but not the least bit rationalistic.” We use our mind to study the Bible, but we should not stop there; we should want to experience what we study.

It’s important to remember that our feelings are good, though sometimes twisted by the Fall. Affections are a measure of spirituality and are much to be desired. Puritan pastor Jonathan Edwards argues that it is his duty: “to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can provided they are affected by nothing but the truth.”

Feeling Deeply Satisfied in Knowing God’s Truth

God has meant for us to be deeply satisfied in him. The Westminster Catechism’s answer to the question “What is the chief end of man?” is “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We may forget the latter part of the answer. It can be argued that our purpose is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. It just happens that we are created to feel the greatest joy when God is most glorified. John Piper has emphasized that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Edwards would probably agree, there is nothing that produces emotion like the truth. The disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 got perhaps the greatest Bible study ever given where Jesus expounded all the things in the law, prophets, and writings that pointed to him. They later describe their emotion: “Didn’t our hearts burn within us” as he explained “the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

There is nothing that will produce this kind of burning like truth. Many times, I have been moved by theological study to prayer, praise, thanksgiving, or repentance.

The Perilous Path of Living by Emotions

Yet, it’s so easy to manipulate emotions. Remember your high school or college pep rallies? It is possible to get people very excited apart from truth. Movie producers know how to get you to feel what they want unless you consciously resist. It is easy to identify or cheer a character’s action that in a saner moment you might strongly reject.

There is a section of Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Man” that is a haunting commentary on our times:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

You can begin to feel good about what is bad and feel bad about what is good.

A Balance of Knowing and Feeling in Worship

Certainly, it is easy for feelings to become distorted even in worship. Edwards points out:

If a minister be driven with a fierce and intemperate zeal and vehement heat, without light, he will likely kindle the like unhallowed flame in his people and to fire their corrupt passions and affections, but will make them never the better, nor lead them a step towards heaven, but drive them apace the other way.

Of course, the ideal is both light and heat. Not light without heat, or heat without light, but light and heat.

Another Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, followed this method in his preaching: first light, then heat. According to professor David Calhoun, Baxter would expound a text then forcefully apply it.

Quoting Martyn Lloyd Jones, John Stott defines preaching as “logic on fire.” Stott talks about two extremes to be avoided, paraphrasing Bishop Handley Moule. First is an un-devotional theology—a theology that does not touch the heart, devoid of feeling. And, second, is an un-theological devotion—a superficial devotion lacking in substance, based on milk rather than on solid food. C.S. Lewis said he got more benefit from doctrinal books than some “devotional” books because they were so light on substance.

At IFWE, we want to engage your mind with biblical truth that will deeply move you. After a lecture on the biblical meaning of work at a church, my colleague Hugh Whelchel was approached by a man with tears streaming down his face. He said Hugh’s lecture had transformed his thinking about the value of his work (he was a dishwasher in a restaurant), so much so that he was moved to tears.

You may not have the same response in reading this blog, but I do pray that you would continue to explore the rich truths surrounding faith, work, and economics. May you know the intrinsic value of your work such that you gain excitement and passion that leads to obedience and action.

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  • Paulette

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I do not think I could agree more.

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