Underwhelmed by lack of feelings

A sermon by Rev Rod Benson, 8 September 2019

2 Corinthians 5:7

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On the shelves of the library at Moore Theological College, where I work, there are lots of books about intellectual subjects, about awesome and awful ideas, and especially about arguments. But the library also contains lots of biography and history, and lots of books about experience, emotion and imagination. A catalogue search for books on emotions will list titles like:

      • Understanding Your Emotions
      • Managing Your Emotions
      • Unlocking the Mystery of Your Emotions
      • Emotions: Can You Trust Them?
      • Healing for Damaged Emotions
      • The Emotions and the Will
      • Spiritual Emotions
      • Morality and the Emotions
      • True Feelings
      • Why Did I Do That?

Emotions are at the heart of what it means to be human, Christian, and evangelical. Today I want to reflect on the common experience of feeling underwhelmed, and discouraged, because of a lack of spiritual feelings.

As a pastor and chaplain these past 25 years, people have come to me and said things like:

      • “There’s a disconnect between my beliefs and my feelings. What’s wrong with me?”
      • “I know what I shouldbe feeling as a Christian, but it’s not what I actuallyfeel. How do I experience those feelings?”
      • “Am I a fake Christian? Is God even real? How can I know? How can I be sure?”
      • “These feelings I have are the result of chasing desirable experiences. They don’t give me confidence that I’m a Christian, or that God is real. It’s just brain chemistry. What’s wrong with me?”

One solution to these dilemmas is found in 2 Corinthians 5:7 – “We live by faith, not by sight.” Because of who Jesus is, and what he has done for us, our salvation is assured. But our salvation is a process, as Paul outlines in Romans 8:30: “Those [God] predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Our salvation is assured, but we are not yet with Christ in glory. All those believers who have died are, but we are not. We live in the long moment between our justification and our glorification.

And in this long moment, we can’t always trust our emotions. We can’t always persuade our emotions to confirm the beliefs we hold. We can’t always expect our mind, will and feelings to be in harmony. 

We live by faith, not by sight. We are governed and inspired by faith, not by shallow perceptions, and not by feelings. It’s our Christian calling. It’s our fuel. As Eugene Peterson paraphrases 2 Cor 5:7, “It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going.” To live by faith inspires and motivates us to persevere, knowing that the end of all things is assured by God, and unimaginably glorious. 

The great American philosopher and theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is known for the way in which he combines a keen intellect with genuine spiritual passion. He is perhaps best known for his book, The Religious Affections, in which he distinguishes between mere human emotions and what he calls “Christian affections.”

Emotions are fleeting, superficial, sometimes overpowering, and often disconnected from the mind and will. Affections, by contrast, are enduring, deep, consistent with beliefs, and always involve a harmony of mind, will and feelings. But we can also be subject to “unholy” (bent) affections: all feeling with no thinking; all thinking with no feeling; or mere doing, in the absence of thinking and feeling.[1] Which of those best describes you?

In Scripture, the Psalms perhaps best articulate the tension between belief and emotion, and between the highs and lows of spiritual experience. Notice how the Psalmist talks to his soul in Psalm 42:5-6:

Why, my soul, are you downcast?

Why so disturbed within me?

Put your hope in God,

for I will yet praise him,

my Saviour and my God.

Have you ever felt like that, and discovered that a fresh sense of spiritual vision, or a new awareness of what is really going on beneath the surface, or a new perspective of God and the world, makes all the difference? That is the Holy Spirit at work.

When our emotions are out of sync with spiritual reality, we need to preach to ourselves as the Psalmist did to himself. We need to understand that we are having such-and-such an experience, own the feelings (or lack thereof), and do something constructive that brings about change.

Easier said than done. But part of growth in spiritual maturity, as pastor and writer Andrew M. Davis says, “is to recognize how frequently our emotions are out of step with spiritual reality as revealed in Scripture, and to use the truth to bring them back in line.” He goes on:

A significant part of spiritual maturity is having our emotions constrained by our new nature in Christ, through our understanding of God’s word and his plans. There must be emotional balance, not excess, on either side: lack of appropriate emotion can be evidence of a hard heart as much as excessive, unbridled, ignorant, or ungodly emotions are evidence of an immature heart … No matter where you may place yourself on this emotional spectrum, there is some measure of healing that needs to occur.[1]

In the passage we read earlier, 2 Corinthians 5:16-17, Paul presents a contrast, or irony, between the past and present. There was a time when, as a zealous and confident Pharisee, Paul judged Jesus from a worldly point of view, and found him wanting. He devoted his life to hunting down and exterminating those who took the name of Christ and identified as his followers.

Now, ironically, Paul is the subject of a similar disdain, disregard and rejection by some of the members of the Corinthian church. They observe his weakness in appearance, his lack of oratorial skill, and his perpetual suffering (“afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, struck down,” see 4:8; cf 11:23ff), as proof that he is neither honorable nor genuine.

He responds with the famous words of verses 16-17. Because of Jesus, and the good news he brings, we are done with shallow, external, carnal, misguided perceptions of God and others. We live by faith, not by sight. We have been renewed, and we are being transformed. We participate in a new creation, inaccessible to the uninitiated. The old has gone, and all that we now have, and will always have, “is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ” (v 18).

Because God is holy, and we are not, we fall far short of God’s ideal for us. But that is the experience of every Christian. The greatest saints of every age, and every century, have testified that the closer they draw to God, the more clearly they see their own sin, and the thoughts and impulses that lead to that sin. “Blessed are the poorin spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).

If you feel underwhelmed or discouraged because of a lack of spiritual feelings, there’s help in reflecting on Scripture and sharing in Christian community. Scripture is a sure guide to correcting faulty emotions and healing emotional wounds, and participating in Christian community is a spiritual discipline guaranteed to transform and renew you.

Perhaps you are unconsciously withholding your affection from God. Open wide your heart to God, and invite him to change and renew you.

Perhaps you have come to equate spirituality with feelings, and you feel unspiritual or even damned because of a lack of feelings. Embrace the Christian affections, linking heart, mind and will until they produce their beautiful, natural harmony.

Perhaps you crave experience and emotion as addicts crave drugs. Where is God in that? Crave intimacy with God, and let him transform you and sharpen your hunger for the Christian affections.

God often asks us to walk in the dark where we don’t understand what he is doing, and we cannot see or sense his presence (see Lam 3:2, 8; Psalm 13:1).

The great biblical saints mentioned in Hebrews 11 were not known or rewarded for their emotional exuberance but for their faith. Many great saints in church history learned not to trust their feelings. They were at times oblivious to God’s presence and guidance, or even his love. They knew God’s presence only by faith in his promises. But “they learned not to conclude that they were unspiritual because they couldn’t feel God’s presence – and not to think that God didn’t love them because he hadn’t revealed himself recently.”[2] We can learn from their experience.

We can also learn from other leaders like Paul. He knew where his ultimate confidence lay (2 Cor 4:6), and the source of his eternal security (5:17), and the wisdom and glory of living by faith, not by sight (5:7).

I close with a quote from C. S. Lewis’s allegory, The Screwtape Letters,where Screwtape advises his demonic nephew how to thwart God’s will and sap the joy of their Christian charge:

The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it into action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it … No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.[3]

Where can I find help when I feel underwhelmed by a lack of spiritual feelings, or when the feelings I have don’t give me confidence that I belong to God or even whether he’s real?

      • reflect and meditate on the words of Scripture;
      • ask God to open wide my heart to deepen and strengthen my relationship with him;
      • actively participate in a Christian community where I have opportunity to grow and change; and
      • engage in effort, in purposeful work, in constructive ministry – for the benefit of others and for the glory of God.

Sermon 765 copyright © 2019 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 8 September 2019. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Andrew M. Davis, An Infinite Journey: Growing Toward Christlikeness(Greenville, SC: Ambassador International, 2014), 253, 254.

[2] Gerald R. McDermott, Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2000), 226.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Best of C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), 53.

Image source: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/edward-hopper-realism-painter-50-death-anniversary-urban-loneliness-art-a7744356.html