Judge Not the Lord by Feeble Sense (Feelings and Faith)

 The way we react or respond to the gospel is not the gospel.  My feelings and emotions about Christ are not good news.  The empty tomb does not depend upon how much I treasure Jesus.  My delighting in Christ is not at the heart of the apostolic preaching of the cross.  The level of my satisfaction in Jesus doesn’t affect the historical facts that he died and was raised.

Why are these things worth mentioning?  Well, for one thing, they have to do with assurance of salvation.  If a Christian thinks his response to the gospel is part of the gospel, his assurance will be like a roller coaster that rises and falls with his feelings.  If a believer thinks her delighting in Christ or finding satisfaction in Christ is part of the good news, her assurance will ebb and flow with her emotional state.  In other words, if I think my feelings and emotions are part of the gospel, my assurance will quickly decline on days I’m not treasuring Christ above all.

I appreciate how Thomas Brooks discussed this in his book The Unsearchable Riches of Christ.  When talking to Christians about growing in grace, one bit of counsel he gives is this: “Take heed of making sense and feeling a judge of your condition.”

Though there is nothing more dangerous, yet there is nothing more ordinary, than for weak saints to make their sense and feeling the judge of their condition. Ah, poor souls, this is dishonorable to God and very disadvantageous to yourselves.  Sense is sometimes opposite to reason, but always to faith.  Therefore do as those worthies did, ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight’ (2 Cor. 5.8-9).

Brooks then lists many emotional worries a Christian may have, like not feeling God’s “enlivening presence” or not being “melted” or “enlarged” as earlier in his Christian life.  A Christian might not feel God’s nearness or perhaps not find prayer as sweet as before.  Brooks writes,

If you will make sense and feeling the judge of your state and condition, you will never have peace or comfort all your days.  Your state, O Christian, may be very good, when sense and feeling says it is very bad.  …The best of Christian men have at times lost that quickening, ravishing, and comforting presence of God that once they have enjoyed.  And verily, he that makes sense and carnal reason a judge of his condition, shall be happy and miserable, blessed and cursed, saved and lost, many times in a day, yes, in an hour.

The counsel that I would give to such a soul that is apt to set up reason [or feeling] in the place of faith is this: Whatsoever your state and condition is, never makes sense and feeling the judge of it, but only the word of God.  …It will never be well with you as long as you are swayed by carnal reason, and rely more on your five senses than the four evangelists.  Remember Job was famous for his confidence as for his patience: “Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him” (Job 13:15).

I don’t always feel like a good Christian.  I sometimes don’t think about satisfaction in Christ.  Other times I feel quite close to the Lord and am abundantly thankful for his blessings.  However, no matter how I feel, no matter what emotional state I’m in, I know that the gospel is still true.  The blood of Jesus that he shed on the cross still cleanses me from all my sin.  The tomb is still empty even if at the moment I’m not emotionally moved by that awesome truth.  My assurance stands firm because my faith rests in facts, not feelings.  Feelings come and go, but facts stay put.  As the old hymn says, “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust him for his grace.”

The above quote by Brooks is found on pages 94-95 of his Works, Volume III.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Advertisements

Feeling is not a Fruit (Or: Feelings and the Faith)

Blessed Are the Misfits: Great News for Believers who are Introverts, Spiritual Strugglers, or Just Feel Like They're Missing Something by [Hansen, Brant] In evangelical circles, there’s a major emphasis on feelings.  Much popular Christian music is aimed at making us feel good so the lyrics are aimed at the emotions.  Many popular Christian books say so much about experiences and feelings.  Preachers preach with emotion and feeling and they preach to people’s emotions and feelings.  I’ve heard sermons where preachers spend quite a bit of time telling the congregation how a verse makes them feel.  They are very passionate and emotional about their feelings.  This even happens in Reformed and Calvinistic circles.

There’s a negative consequence when feelings are over-emphasized: Christians who don’t feel that way begin to think of themselves as inferior, less spiritual believers.  When a preacher talks about how a verse makes him feel, a Christian in the pew thinks, “I don’t feel that way at all…am I a bad Christian?”  Brant Hansen puts it this way:

“It’s no wonder so many analytical types find themselves estranged from a Christian subculture that traffics in emotional appeals.  We find ourselves wondering what’s wrong with us, perhaps even begging God to make Himself real to us in the way He clearly is to others.  When we’re told we’re not ‘open to the Spirit’ or ‘leaning too much on our intellect,’ we may redouble our efforts to somehow fix what’s wrong with us, before finally drifting away.”

“…The absence of feeling is not the absence of love.  Yes, you may occasionally feel things, maybe even intensely, but when those feelings vacillate, it doesn’t mean you love God less [or that he loves you less – SPL].  He doesn’t seem to prioritize emotion.  He’s looking for obedience.  For faithfulness.  For mercy.  For justice.  For compassion on the poor.”

Hansen later says that “Jesus said if you want to judge a tree, you look at its fruit.”  “Feeling” is not a fruit of the Spirit.

“Someone might immediately, like clockwork, break down in tears of genuine emotion at the first chord of every worship song.  Wonderful.  But that’s not ‘fruit,’ biblically speaking.  A Christianity that’s one-emotional-size-fits-all simply isn’t fair.  You may have Asperger’s, like I do.  You may have gone through trauma as a kid.  You might grapple with depression and just not emote like other people.  You may be wired differently.

When one person insinuates that another must be spiritually lacking because of a dearth of feeling, it’s worthwhile pointing out this is utterly foreign to the biblical concept of bearing fruit.”

Of course, feelings aren’t necessarily bad or sinful.  God created us as humans who laugh, cry, hurt, and have emotions.  The problem with feelings and emotions is that they are not trustworthy since we are sinful.  Proverbs 28:26 says he who trusts in his own heart is a fool (NASB)It follows that we should be very hesitant to trust the emotions that arise from our hearts.  Feelings come and go; they rise and fall.  Feelings depend on how much sleep you’ve had (or not had!) in the past week.  Feelings depend on how much coffee you had today (or didn’t have!).  Sometimes feelings change when the seasons change!  Emotions often change when circumstances change.  So don’t base your Christian faith on your feelings and don’t judge your commitment to Christ on how you feel at the moment.  If your feelings don’t match that of “better” Christians, don’t panic or get down on yourself. It’s okay; it’s no big deal.

The Christian faith is based on fact, not feeling.  Dear Christian, the blood of Jesus cleanses you from all sin even if it doesn’t feel like it.  The tomb is empty even when you’re way down in the dumps and you’re emotionally drained.  God’s love for you is constant and steady, even when you feel like a pile of crap.  You are justified even if that truth doesn’t make you emotional.  You’re being sanctified despite the fact you can’t “feel” sanctification.  Believe the truth of the gospel and rest in it.  Just rest.  Don’t panic.  Feelings about the gospel may come and go, but the fact of it remains.

The above quotes are found in chapters 5-6 of Blessed are the Misfits. (I received this book to review and was not compelled to write positive remarks about it.)

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Various Ways to Faith

I’ve often heard it said that though there is only one way to the Father – through Jesus – there are many ways to Jesus.  In other words, there are various ways people come to faith in Christ.  Therefore, we should never make our experience of coming to Christ a paradigm for others when they come to Christ.  Nor should we rigidly follow others when they make their experience of coming to Christ a paradigm.  The stories in Scripture prove that conversion experiences are quite different!

Now, it does sometimes happen in Christian circles, when a preacher talks about his feelings and experience of coming to Christ and he makes it sound like you must have the same feelings and experience or you might not be a true Christian.  This kind of emotional preaching can leave Christians depressed since they don’t share the same feelings and experiences as the preacher does.  I’ve even had it myself years ago when listening to a popular preacher share his Christian feelings; mine didn’t match, so I wasn’t sure what to do with that.  Thanks to  John Newton I have a better idea about it now:

“It would be well if both preachers and people would keep more closely to what the Scripture teaches of the nature, marks, and growth of a work of grace instead of following each other in a track (like sheep) confining the Holy Spirit to a system, imposing at first the experience and sentiments of others as a rule to themselves, and afterward dogmatically laying down the path in which they themselves have been led, as absolutely necessary to be trodden by others.”

“There is a vast variety of the methods by which the Lord brings home souls to himself, in which he considers (though system-preachers do not) the different circumstances, situations, temperament, etc. of different persons.  To lay down rules precisely to which all must conform, and to treat all enquiring souls in the same way, is as wrong as it would be in a physician to attempt to cure all his patients who may have the same general disorder (a fever for instance) with one and the same prescription.  A skilful man would probably find so many differences in their cases, that he would not treat any two of them exactly alike.”

These are wise words.  If you don’t have the exact same emotions, feelings, and experiences as others in coming to Christ (and following him), don’t doubt your faith and repentance.  Don’t try to get the same emotions, feelings, and experiences of others, even if they are of a popular preacher.  Here’s Newton’s advice:

“I hope the Lord has made me willing to learn (if I can) from all, but ‘Nullius in verba jurare’ is my motto (take no one’s word as final; examine for yourself).  If you read Scripture and your own heart attentively, you will have greatly the advantage of those who puzzle themselves by too closely copying the rules they find in other books.”

John Newton, Wise Counsel, p. 120-121.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54002

Focusing on Feelings?

Christians Get Depressed TooHere are some helpful words from a helpful book:

“One of the most common tendencies for those with depression is to focus on feelings and to base beliefs and conclusions on those feelings.  This is especially true of Christians.  For example, they may feel forsaken and conclude that they are forsaken.  Also, in an effort to restore true feelings, there is the tendency to read Bible passages that address the feelings.  But such a focus on the subjective tends only to make things worse.”

“We should encourage the depressed person to move away from the realm of the subjective and to instead think on the objective truths of Christianity, things that are true regardless of our feelings: justification, adoption, the atonement, the attributes of God, and heaven, for example.”

Well stated.  This is also one more good reason for us to know biblical doctrine (such as justification, adoption, etc.)!  It helps keep us standing on the unchanging promises of God rather than our changing feelings and emotions.

The above quote is found on page 97 of David Murray’s book, Christians Get Depressed Too.

Shane Lems

Religious Affections and Experiences (Newton)

What do feelings, emotions, and religious experiences have to do with the Christian faith?  On the one hand we should have feelings and emotions as we follow Christ – we’re not robots!  On the other hand, feelings and emotions should not be the foundation or source of our faith.  The Christian faith is based on historical facts (the life/death/resurrection of Jesus) and unchanging truths (God’s love, his Word, etc.); our feelings and emotions change, but the facts and truths of Christianity do not.  Furthermore, Christians are not all the same – some are more emotional, some are less emotional.  I appreciate John Newton’s words on this topic:

The Gospel addresses both head and heart; and where it has its proper effect, where it is received as the Word of God, and is clothed with the authority and energy of the Holy Spirit, the understanding is enlightened, the affections awakened and engaged, the will brought into subjection, and the whole soul delivered to its impression as wax to the seal. When this is the case, when the affections do not take the lead, and push forward with a blind impulse, but arise from the principles of Scripture, and are governed by them, the more warmth the better.

Yet in this state of infirmity, nothing is perfect; and our natural temperament and disposition will have more influence upon our religious sensations, than we are ordinarily aware. It is well to know how to make proper allowances and abatements upon this head [topic], in the judgment we form both of ourselves and of others. Many good people are distressed and alternately elated—by frames and feelings, which perhaps are more constitutional than properly religious experiences.

John Newton, “Letter to Mrs. ***” Sept. 17, 1776.

shane lems

Feelings, Faith, Emotions, Doubt, and Assurance

If you’ve been following this blog for a few years now, you’ll recognize this book (and probably remember how much I appreciate it): God in the Dark by Os Guinness.  It’s a book that takes your hand and walks you through doubts – what they are, what the Bible says about them, and how to fight them and grow in assurance of faith.  One of the many helpful points Guinness makes in this book is that sometimes unruly emotions cause us to doubt the truth of the Christian faith or some aspects of it.  Sometimes in the Christian life, emotions take the throne and reason is cast by the wayside.  This can lead to unbiblical hyper-spirituality (i.e. “I feel the Spirit’s presence so much that I have goose bumps!”) , but probably more often it leads to doubt (i.e. “I’ve sinned again; I feel like such a failure – how could God ever love me?).  Here’s Guinness’ great approach to emotions and reason in the the Christian faith.

“Subjective elements play their part in the decision to believe.  But if faith is not to be make-believe, objective considerations must finally determine whether faith is true or misplaced.  Understanding and choice are both essential to genuine belief, and they are always more important than the emotions in conversion.”

“Needless to say, conversion may be profoundly emotional because it is a complete change involving the whole person.  But however emotional it is, the emotions alone do not effect conversion.  This is not because the Christian faith is unemotional but because this is how human knowing works anyway.  The Christian faith, in fact, has a very high place for the emotions, but in coming to believe the place for understanding and choosing truth is primary and the place for the emotions is secondary.”

“…Perhaps the greatest single human factor in explaining why faith does not go on as it began is the explosive power of the emotions subsequent to conversion.”

One way to fight unruly emotions, writes Guinness, is biological – you can fight an emotional roller coaster by getting proper sleep, avoid over-stressful situations, take breaks, etc.  Another deeper way to fight unruly emotions is spiritual.

“The second part of the remedy lies in the long-term discipline of training faith so that it is not overwhelmed by moods and emotions.  …Our faith should dictate to our emotions, not the other way around.  …The quality of our emotions depends upon the quality of our faith, just as the quality of our faith depends on the quality of our understanding.  ‘Feeling must follow; but faith, apart from all feeling, must be there first.’  This is Martin Luther’s understanding of the relationship of faith and emotions, but he also makes clear that this is not our first nature, and it will be our second only if we carefully and patiently learn it.  The lesson of faith is a lesson that must constantly be practiced and rehearsed.'”

Or, as C. S. Lewis said,

“Faith…is the art of holding onto things your reason has once accepted, in spite of our change of moods.”

There’s more to this chapter (chapter 8) on faith, emotions, and doubt, of course.  You’ll have to get the book to read more.   Many – most? – Christians who are serious about the faith struggle with doubt from time to time (some more, some less).  In my own Christian life, this book has been helpful as I fight doubt and seek to grow in faith.  I’m sure it will be helpful to those of you who often pray this from the heart: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!

God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of Doubt (Wheaton: Crossway, 1996).

shane lems

Feelings and Emotions

 One characteristic of modern Western Christianity is the focus on feelings and emotions.  Many people gauge their faith by their feelings; they also judge worship based on how it makes them feel.  The former can lead to depression (i.e. if you don’t feel saved maybe you’re not).  The latter can lead to superficial emotionalism divorced from doctrine (i.e. worship becomes a matter of getting a good feeling usually based on ambiguous emotional songs).  Lloyd Jones has a good word on this.

“Avoid the mistake of concentrating overmuch on your feelings.  Above all, avoid the terrible error of making them central.  Now I am never tired of repeating this because I find so frequently that this is a cause of stumbling.  Feelings are never meant to take the first place, they are never meant to be central.  If you put them there you are of necessity doomed to be unhappy, because you are not following the order that God himself has ordained.  Feelings are always the result of something else, and how anyone who has ever read the Bible can fall into that particular error passes my comprehension.”

“The Psalmist has put it in the 34th Psalm.  He says: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’  You will never see until you have tasted; you will not know it, you will not feel it until you have tried it.  That is something that is constantly emphasized everywhere in Scripture.  After all, what we have in the Bible is truth; it is not an emotional stimulus, it is not something primarily concerned to give us a joyful experience.  It is primarily truth, and truth is addressed to the mind, God’s supreme gift to man; and it is as we apprehend and submit ourselves to the truth that the feelings follow.  I must never ask myself in the first instance: What do I feel about this.  The first question is, do I believe it?  Do I accept it, has it gripped me?”

“Very well, that is what I regard as perhaps the most important rule of all [in fighting spiritual depression], that we must not concentrate overmuch on our feelings.  Do not spend too much time feeling your own pulse taking your own spiritual temperature, do not spend too much time analyzing your feelings.  That is the high road to morbidity.”

Well said.  Emotions come and go like the tide; feelings wax and wane like the sun.  The truth of the gospel, however, is constant truth.  Jesus died and rose again to save sinners.  This is an objective, historical, unchangeable truth, not an inner subjective feeling.  Once again in the words of Lloyd Jones: “We are never told anywhere in Scripture that we are saved by our feelings; we are told that we are saved by believing.”

The above quote can be found in Spiritual Depression, pp. 114-116.

shane lems

sunnyside wa