One of the most obvious aspects of a lot of contemporary Western Christianity (American, Australian, European) is the emphasis on feelings and emotions. All you have to do is look at the lyrics to popular worship songs, listen to many sermons, or witness many Christian concerts and worship services to see what a huge part of our Christianity we deem our emotions to be. The picture of true Christianity that many paint is the picture of someone who is always emotionally engaged and filled with things like visceral love and passion. We want tidal waves, not ripples.
But what happens when you don’t really have those feelings for God or the Christian life? Or what if you do sometimes, but not other times? Can you walk with Jesus when the emotions aren’t running high? What about when you feel your passion ebb? Or what about if you are just more of an even-keeled person? Are you less spiritual than the person who’s emotional dial always seems to be at 10?
Once again, here’s Richard Baxter with some sound insight. He notes that it is true that, at some point, passion for God is part of serving God(that’s what he means by our “duty”). And yet, he says…
Do not value too highly the passionate aspect of duty, but understand this: judgment, will, practice, high esteem of God and holiness, resolute choice, and sincere endeavor are the life of grace and duty; felt emotions are lesser and uncertain things.
You don’t know what you do when you so emphasize the emotional aspect, or when you strive so much for deep and transcendent revelations. These are not the important things or the essentials of holiness. Too much of such feelings may distract you. God knows how much you are able to bear. Passionate feelings depend considerably upon nature [meaning, our personal natures]. Some persons are more expressive than others. A little thing affects some deeply. The wisest and most worthy persons are usually the least passionate. The weakest hardly control their feelings. [The editor notes here: “I believe Baxter is here arguing for self-control, not absence of expressed emotions.”]
God is not apprehended by our sense, and therefore is better experienced through the understanding and will than through the emotions.
Notice Baxter’s discussion of these three points. If, in our day, many assume that God is best “apprehended” by our emotions, what are we missing if the truth is that we also need our understanding and (think about it!) our will to truly know God as well? In fact, what word is most used when people talk about what Baxter seems to mean by “apprehending”? Isn’t usually the word experience? There is a lot of talk (and singing) about experiencing God, but it is typically only speaking about an emotional experience with God. But by “apprehending,” Baxter means something more like grasp or lay hold of or know relationally. And all that includes, not less, but more, than emotions. He continues:
The holiest soul is the one most inclined toward God, resolved for him, and conformed to his will, not the one affected with the deepest griefs, and fears, and joys, and other such transporting emotions.
Even if it’s becoming common in many circles to define holiness by the perceived depth of emotional experience revolving around God, this is a great reminder not to have our views of God colored by all of that. And yet, Baxter is not saying emotions are worthless. He just wants to encourage all of us who aren’t often surfing the tidal waves of feelings…
Nevertheless, it would be best if holy emotions could be stirred up at will, to a degree that would best equip is for duty.
But I have known many who complain, for lack of deeper feelings, who if their feelings (as they call their emotions) had been more intense, might have been distracted. I would rather be a Christian who loathes himself for sin, resolves against it, and forsakes it (though he cannot cry over it) than one of those who can weep today and sin again tomorrow, one whose sinful emotions are as quickly stirred as his better ones.
What great insight! Don’t worry about your emotional level. God knows what each of us can handle in terms of feelings. Better to actually grow in holiness (for instance, in getting sin out of our lives) than to experience huge emotions that can flip either way.