Overwhelmed by negative feelings

A sermon by Rev. Rod Benson, 22 September 2019.

1 John 1:5-2:2; 2 Corinthians 5:17

In his brilliant book, Faithful Feelings,author Matthew Elliott says, “Everything we do, say, and think is, in some sense, emotional. We describe ourselves and our experiences in terms of how we feel.”[1] In the Bible too, most of the main characters, including Jesus, display a wide range of emotions through their words and actions, and through what we know of their thoughts.

Counsellors refer to the “basic emotions” – feeling glad, sad, mad, bad or scared. Our emotions colour our experiences, tell us what we want or don’t want, and provide motivation or impetus for action. I feel angry, so I thump the table. I feel thirsty, and I pour a glass of water. I feel nervous, and I stop speaking.

We all know an emotion when we feel it. We may think of it as the mind’s interpretation of a physical sensation based on the context. But emotions are notoriously hard to define, because the five components of emotion (physiological, expressive, cognitive, behavioural, and experiential) don’t always work together in the same way, or with the same result, either in one person over time, or among people of different cultures. And complex emotions like guilt and shame are strongly determined by cognitive factors such as what we think about ourselves, what we think others think, and social rules we have internalised.[2]

Feelings of guilt and shame are common for many of us from time to time. We feel overwhelmed, unable to measure up to the high standards of our Christian culture. Or we listen to the devil’s subtle lies, and begin to doubt God’s love, and question the reality of our salvation, and convince ourselves that we are no good, and couldn’t possibly pursue this or that ministry, or use that spiritual gift, or pursue that vocation.

Today I want to consider the theme of assurance of salvation, and suggest some biblical principles to help combat these dangerous and disempowering thoughts, and the negative emotions that drive them.

  1. Assurance is possible

Some Christians believe that assurance of salvation is a sign of false spirituality, and lack of assurance is a sign of Christian humility. But Scripture points in the opposite direction (Ps 46; 102; 130; Jn 10:1-4; Rom 8:28-39; Heb 11:1; 1 Jn 5:13).

God wants each of us to be sure of his love for us, and confident in his protection and care – whether we feel it or not, and especially when we feel overwhelmed by doubt, fear, guilt, shame or confusion. And God wants that holy confidence and peace to grow, and be strong and enduring and fruitful.

The devil wants the opposite to whatever is God’s will, as he always has done since that fateful day in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:1-19). Satan wants you to doubt God’s word, his promises, his costly devotion to you, his plans for you, his love for you.

Listen to God’s word. Trust in his goodness and love. Know that God alone looks beyond the outward appearance, and knows your heart (1 Sam 16:7; cf 1 Kg 8:39; Isa 11:3). Don’t be guided by feelings alone.

  1. False assurance

Jesus warned about false assurance (Mt 7:21-23). Sinclair B. Ferguson puts it like this:

Saving faith is not a matter of our claim to have served Christ well and called him ‘Lord.’ Rather it involves allowing him to know us, giving him the personal, intimate access to our lives that flows from our yielding ourselves to him.[3]

Assurance is not grounded in self-confidence, but confidence in Christ and what God has done for us through Christ. But assurance itself is not a sure sign of regeneration. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day were convinced they were God’s chosen ones, and in God’s kingdom, but Jesus told them they were wrong (Mt 23:13).

Like the Pharisees, we too can be noted for our morality and religiosity; we can be well regarded for our generosity, enthusiasm and dependability. I may try hard to be a good person, and devote myself to doing my best. Or I may have spiritual experiences, or see visions, or hear voices, that give a sense of assurance that God is on my side, and I feel assured of salvation. But this may simply be because I don’t question my spiritual judgments, and it never occurs to me that my presuppositions might be only half right, and my thinking might be wrong.

Or it may be because I have not applied the message of the cross to myself, and have completely misunderstood God’s promise of grace. I may believe the lie that God’s gift of salvation is a license to sin, and that my sins are excusable, explainable, or of no real consequence. I may reassure myself that I am a child of light, not darkness, but show by my actions and decisions that I am not following Jesus. False assurance of salvation is a real possibility.

The devil doesn’t need to attack the assurance of the unregenerate, whereas Revelation 12:10 teaches that Satan accuses God’s people day and night. If you never feel the enemy pressing in, threatening harm, be worried. If you do experience such spiritual attacks, rejoice that God has brought you into his kingdom!

  1. Lack of assurance

For God’s children, there is the real possibility of lacking a sense of assurance of salvation. This is not uncommon; it is merely human.

Some of us tend to think about life negatively. We think like this about the Christian life too. Assurance of salvation can become elusive, or it may never have settled and taken root in our hearts and minds. But from a biblical point of view, assurance of salvation is not a problem to be solved but a privilege to be enjoyed. We live by faith, not by sight, and not by feelings (2 Cor 5:7). It is faith in Christ alone that makes us right with God. It is Christ alone who saves us through faith.

Assurance is not an essential part of the saving process; assurance is our enjoyment of it. If you are a Christian, and lack assurance of your salvation, be patient; ask God to confirm his love and grace to you; ask God to assure you that you belong to him.

The subjective experience of our assurance is uncertain, but the objective ground of our assurance is “rooted in the work of Christ and in appreciating the true character of our heavenly Father. It does not lie in us [or in our feelings], but in him.”[4]

We have seen that assurance of salvation is possible, that false assurance is also possible, and that a lack of assurance is to be expected from time to time because we are human. What does this mean for us today? God wants you to pursue spiritual experiences to develop your faith, but don’t rely on feelings to prove that you are a Christian.

Some of us often feel like spiritual failures. We know the ideal set out for us in Scripture. We know we are called to be Christlike, to imitate God, to walk in the Spirit. We read about great Christians of the past; perhaps we know great Christians living today. What is their secret? Do they have the same struggles I have? Do they get overwhelmed by feelings of fear and failure, guilt and shame?

Gerald McDermott, whom I quoted in my previous sermon, says, “Many Christians have become discouraged because they equate spirituality with feelings and consider themselves unspiritual or even damned because they feel sinful rather than spiritual.”[5]

Don’t be discouraged! We walk by faith, not by sight, and not by feelings. Even the Apostle Paul wrestled with this kind of challenge, perhaps on a daily basis, but he knew himself, and he knew the power of the gospel. He said, “I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (Rom 7:18).

And he also said, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord … Therefore, there is now no condemnationfor those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 7:25, 8:1).

“Christian practice does not mean never falling. Instead, it means getting back up after falling and continuing on … True spirituality is not moral perfection. It is recognizing that we are imperfect and looking for grace for forgiveness and power to carry on.”[6]

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:8f).

Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3).

Jesus said, “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (Jn 6:37).

Philosopher and theologian Norman Geisler, who died on July 1, 2019, beautifully sums up why every Christian person should celebrate and treasure their assurance of salvation:

When by faith one receives the initial act of salvation (justification), at that very instant he or she is sealed by the Holy Spirit, baptized into the body of Christ, redeemed, regenerated, born again, adopted into God’s family, reconciled to God, and forgiven of sin based on the mediation and atonement of Christ … Salvation does not end with a single act of justification; this is only the first stage, by which one is saved from the penalty of sin. Salvation also involves a lifelong process of sanctification, by which we are saved from the power of sin. At death, our redemption climaxes with an act of glorification that saves us from the very presence of sin.[7]

Let each of us learn to shape our faith according to our convictions rather than our feelings.


Sermon  copyright © 2019 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 22 September 2019. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Matthew A. Elliott, Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament(Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2006), back cover blurb.

[2] Gillian Butler & Freda McManus, Psychology: A Brief Insight(New York: Sterling, 2011), 75-83.

[3] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Maturity: Growing Up and Going On in the Christian Life(Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019), 60.

[4] Ferguson, Maturity,64. See Rom 8:31-39; Gal 2:20; 2 Cor 5:17-19.

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

[6] McDermott, Seeing God, 227.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume(Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2011), 869.

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