Friday, March 6, 2009

The Gift of Emotions

Weekly Article
by Matt Kennedy

We've been hitting “feelings” pretty hard lately in sermons and in the adult ed class...and for good reason. In so many ways ours is a culture that lives, dies, thrives and decides on the basis of how we feel at any given moment. The “I'm not 'in love' with my spouse anymore so I'm filing for divorce” syndrome is widespread. Work commitments, promises, friendships, and marriages end because people no longer “feel happy” doing the work these things require. Carried over into the Christian context the “I'm not 'in love' with my spouse anymore so I'm filing for divorce” syndrome easily becomes, “I'm not 'getting anything out of' church anymore so I'm leaving” or “Christianity isn't 'working for me' like it used to so I'm looking for something else” or “My God wouldn't want me to stay in a relationship that makes me unhappy”

Following Jesus often means not following our hearts. The prophet Jeremiah warned, “the heart is deceitful above all things”. We often feel pretty good about things we should be ashamed of and ashamed of things we should feel good about. So we can't rely on feelings to guide us in our decision making. That is as true for believers as it is for non-believers because even as God transforms believer's minds and hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit, we're often drawn toward things that displease him. Sin crouches at the door.

All of this being true, emotions are not bad things. God created feelings. The feeling of being “in love” is a good thing. The experience of God's presence in worship is to be relished and treasured. Satisfaction at a job well done is to be savored. Anger at injustice, sadness at the loss of a loved one, jealousy in marriage—all of these emotions, when they are rightly ordered, serve good and necessary purposes and often add beauty and poignancy to life.

Feelings are not to be killed off—Christians are not stoics—but rather channeled properly and enjoyed. They are not ends in themselves—we should not strive to evoke or generate a given emotion—but they are natural byproducts of a full and wholesome life rightly lived.

Marriage is a great illustration of this principle. We often marry someone because we fall in love. Being in love is deeply enjoyable emotion. But when you stand at the altar and make your vows, you do not promise to be “in love” with your spouse till death do you part. You promise, rather, to “agape” your act with sacrificial, self-giving love in your marriage. It is certain that the feeling of “in love-ness” will fade but so long as you are committed to “agape” your spouse, it will not fade forever. It comes and goes, ebbs and flows over the course of your relationship. It is not a feeling that you can seek out or gin up. It's something that comes naturally in your relationship as you live out your commitment. Enjoy passion when it rises but don't chase after it. Let it come and let it go. Love—or “agape”--your husband or your wife and the feeling of being “in love” will follow.

The same could be said of your relationship with Jesus Christ. Agape Christ. Serve him and sacrifice yourself for his sake, study and pray and participate in his body and the feelings of rapture, love, zeal, exhilaration, will come naturally and go naturally. You will go through “dry periods” and you will experience emotional highs. Don't seek either one. When the “feeling” is gone it's not time to find another church, another retreat center, another motivational speaker to gin it up again. Seek Christ, agape the Lord, and your emotions will order themselves.

People often ask me how they can know God's will or purpose for their lives. Often this question is expressed with a great deal of frustration and confusion. The first question I'll ask in response is: have you been reading and studying your bible? Usually, the answer is no. Then I'll ask “How consistently do you pray?” And most often the person has not been praying daily. Finally, knowing the answer, I'll ask, “Do you consistently participate in the worship life of the Body of Christ?” and the answer, usually, is no. How can anyone expect to know God's will or purpose while consistently neglecting the means through which and by which he has promised to reveal himself? The more you know God as he reveals himself through scripture, prayer and the church, the easier it is to know his will not simply in a general sense but in a very specific and personal way.

I think the same principle is true for Christian “experience”. How can you expect to feel the “love” of Christ and the “joy” of being an adopted son or daughter of the Father if you ignore the very means through which and by which God has promised to breathe his life and grace and love into you? When you “love” or agape the Lord by daily spending time in his Word, daily spending time in prayer, and weekly worshiping him in the fellowship of other believers, then you've opened yourself to feelings of wonder, awe, devotion, and peace. Commitment and covenant keeping precede and set the foundation for the experience of God. If you chase religious experience apart from disciplined commitment, you will find yourself increasingly frustrated.

But if you seek Christ, serve Christ, agape Christ, all of these things will be added to you.


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