Emotion and Emotionalism

20 03 2013

I remember watching Arnold Schwarzenegger’s film Commando when I was about five years old.  The news that I had seen that film at such a young age (or seen it at all!) horrified my Christian neighbors, which looking back upon it gives me a little bit of a chuckle.  One of my take home points from that is that Arnold somehow made it through the whole film without crying.  His daughter got kidnapped.  Arnold didn’t cry.  He got thrown out of a plane.  He didn’t cry.  He got flung from a car.  He didn’t even wince.  He was stabbed in the ribs, blown from a building, and shot (multiple times!) and Arnold never shed a tear.  I have high value for all of these things.

I have low value for group hugs, sitting in drum circles, tight jeans, and men crying (there seems to be a link between these things).  This of course is not a biblical conviction.  I just find these things distasteful, kind of like ketchup based BBQ.  I just don’t like it and have suspicions that such things somehow undo the moral fabric of the universe.  Nevertheless, I do have a high value for the emotional life of the Christian.  When I say this, I want to differentiate between emotionalism and the emotional life.  One is bad.  One is vital.  Let’s talk about them briefly.

Emotionalism:  

By “emotionalism,” I mean a characteristic which places highest value upon emotions, or how we feel, and interprets the world through our own emotions.  I want to say that this is bad in general and downright destructive to the Christian.  Let’s talk first about why it’s bad in general.  Consider the following from David Brooks, commenting on the moral compass of young adults:

When asked about wrong or evil, they (young adults) could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.  Rejecting blind deference to authority, many of the young people have gone off to the other extreme: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do but how I internally feel.”

­–David Brooks, “If it Feels Right” NYT

I suppose the above works in some circumstances but in others it is woefully inadequate.  For example, I have never felt like getting up at 3 a.m. to be with a crying baby, but I’ve had to because it was my duty as a parent.  Emotionalism disconnects our emotions from our obligations.  I take this to be the reason why so many young adults felt it was o.k. to document their poverty outside of wall street with their $500 Iphones.  It is hard to take seriously the oppression of someone while they’re in designer clothes and carrying smart phones.  But the objective reality makes little difference.  They felt it.

That’s why emotionalism is bad in general.  Why’s it specifically bad for the Christian?  Let me give you one real world example.  I met a young man who came back from school and informed me that he had lost his faith.  I asked him why.  He told that that in Biology 101 he learned that there is no such thing as God.  Now indulge with me a brief segue.  Biology 101 has no standard by which to evaluate whether or not there is a God or not.  Methinks the professor was feeling his oats that day.  My first question to this young man was “Why did you believe in Jesus Christ?”  He replied, “I felt it.”  If you base your faith on how you feel, when the feeling goes away so does your faith.  Whoops!

Emotion:

Faith was never meant to be based upon our feelings, rather it is meant to be based upon fact.  Consider the words of the Apostle Paul:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-6 ESV)

The core of the Christian message is the proclamation of an event.  Christianity does not first call us to feel, or to hope, or to even place our faith in something.  The first thing that Christianity does is it calls us to the consideration of an event.  The event is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Because it is said that this event happened in time and space, it can be investigated, discovered, found out, or even disproved.  The critical thing to apply at this point is that Christianity is not dependent upon how you feel.  The resurrection either happened or it didn’t.  How you feel about the resurrection has no real direct bearing on whether or not Christ died, was buried, and then on the third day was raised.

Our emotions have no bearing on the event, but the event should be brought to bear on our emotions.   Perhaps an analogy will serve the purpose.  If my wife announces that she is pregnant she has proclaimed an event.  The news of this event might make me happy, anxious, scared, or even angry.  If I heard such news and did not have an emotional response, people might rightly conclude that not all the gears were properly spinning upstairs.  The same is true of the Christian Gospel.  It is the proclamation of an event and this proclamation should elicit an emotional response.  If it doesn’t, then you have not heard it correctly.  Confessing Christians who do not have an emotional response to the proclamation that Christ died for sinners probably have something wrong with their Christianity.  It should do something to the heart.

Maintaining the Christian Emotional Life

Here is the great difference between emotionalism and rightly ordered Christian emotions.  Under the former, our emotions interpret reality.  Under the latter, reality is the basis for our emotional response.  Christians do not base their faith on how they feel.  Christians base their faith on the event of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  More than that, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus should be the basis not only for the Christian’s faith, but also for the Christian’s emotional life.  Principally, the Gospel of Jesus should make Christians (to quote William Tyndale) “happy to the low bottom of their soul.”

The importance in this is that the Christian’s emotional life is not based upon their behavior (righteous or sinful?), their faith (faithful or faithless?), or their feelings (happy or sad?), rather the Christian’s emotional life is based upon the unchanging and objective Gospel event of Jesus giving himself over for sinners and being raised from the dead for the same.  Christian’s don’t always “feel it.”  Sometimes we open the Bible and it is an empty word.  Sometimes we go to Sunday worship and just don’t feel like singing.  Other times prayer feels like a labor rather than a love.  So what happens when we don’t feel it?  What should we do?  The hymnist Edward Mote  “On Christ the Solid Rock” gave invaluable advice when he wrote:

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

Mote expresses the feeling of darkness.  Rather than rest on his feelings, he fell back on the event.  “I rest on his unchanging grace,” that is the objective reality of Christ’s life, death and resurrection for sinners.  Mote knew that the way to recalibrate the heart was not to try to drum up extra emotion, but rather to fall back on the event upon which every Christian emotion should be based.

Here’s a little confession.  I’m a reasonably emotional Christian.  If I talk about Jesus and the Gospel for too long, I will probably end up getting a little teary eyed because it has that effect on me.  On occasion, I will have people say “I wish I could feel it like you!”  What I would say to them is counterintuitive.  If you want to feel happy about your faith, quit focusing on your feelings and start focusing on the Gospel.  Think long and often about the event, who accomplished it and what it means for you, and I think you’ll find that a rich emotional life will follow from there.

The value of a Christianity that bases emotions upon Christ, rather than validating Christ by emotions, is that it brings the emotions into service of Christ because it finds him as the root of all joy, comfort, peace, and happiness.  This is the value of an emotional Christianity.


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8 responses

20 03 2013
Dave

Great post. As someone who works with young people I come across those who don’t feel their faith often.

20 03 2013
Forrest Foshee

Good differentiation between the two. I am constantly amazed though at our cradle to grave Christian brethren in “establishment” churches who criticize the showing of any emotion in corporate Church gatherings. How anyone can’t get regularly teary-eyed at the sacrifice Jesus made for us is beyond me.

20 03 2013
robsturdy

I too am amazed at that. I think the problem could be (a) they don’t know the Gospel for themselves, (b) they feel entitled (for whatever reason) to the benefits of the Gospel or (c) familiarity has bred contempt. I suppose I could add a fourth and final reason why the heart is not connected to the faith and that is they have heard the Gospel, rejected it, and substituted something else in its place. The final one is the sad state of the theologically liberal churches. Obviously, any of the above constitute a major pastoral crisis.

20 03 2013
Susalee

Very well said. Thank you.

20 03 2013
usama

Bravo sir

21 03 2013
justexcused

great help

22 03 2013
Buddy Smith

Very well said Rob. A subject of critical importance for all of us. I would question how genuine my emotions are if they show up in “spiritual moments” but not in my daily experiences with those around me. (I.e. no remorse when I say or do something that hurts my wife. Or. No sense of sorrow when I see hurting and needy people.) And maybe vice versa.

3 04 2013
Ron Greiser

I am so glad to see that you are blogging again!  This piece is very important as the emotional sensationalism in Christendom may elicit a response but rarely does it provide repentance that brings regeneration and amendment of life.  

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