Friday, February 1, 2019

Reason and Emotion in the Christian Life


People are on a sliding scale between the rational and the emotional, but each of us tends more toward one side or the other. That is not a bad thing, but it can become a problem if we let it. There needs to be cooperation in our faith between timeless truths and deep feelings. Otherwise, we cannot fully live the life to which God calls us.

The key takeaway from my last article was that it is vital for Christians to know the facts of what we believe. It is something that I write about a great deal because we face so many challenges from rationalistic movements. History, science, and philosophy are often turned against us. We have to understand these areas and how they confirm our faith rather than contradicting it. But it always remains a faith. None of us personally witnessed the things we find in Scripture. Also, none of us knows the future. Ultimately, we must choose to believe in what God has done in the past and in what He promises to do in the future. Wisdom requires that we do so on the basis of evidence, but a leap must be made at some point. It is a matter of trust.

Suspicion of Emotion

That said, I do tend to stay toward the rational end of the Christian faith. That’s because the opposite of rational is emotional. Maybe it is just a function of personality. It is not that I never feel, but I do prefer to think. And let me be clear that it is a preference. Right and wrong have nothing to do with it. It just so happens that I am not emotional. As a result, I usually steer clear of the emotional aspects of faith except to warn against its abuses.

And emotion does have its abuses. It is just so subjective. Since, by definition, it depends on internalized experience, it can open the door to personalized faith. It invites people to seek what feels good rather than what is good. It leads to groups that celebrate his truth, her truth, your truth, my truth, rather than the truth. Faith based in emotion quickly and easily becomes an idolatry of the self. God is what you want Him to be and does what you want Him to do, rather than being and doing what He has revealed of Himself.

I think it is important to remember the risk, but I also have to remind myself that the risk is not inherent. Feelings are not bad in and of themselves. They only become bad when they are misused. Truth be told, reason has that same propensity and I am less on guard for it. That means it is actually worse, at least for me.

Achieving Balance

What each of us has to keep in mind, regardless of the direction our personalities lean, is that reason and emotion are part of God’s character and therefore are necessary parts of our nature. Both have to be present for us to have the fullest experience of our faith.

It’s easy for me to offer balance when there is a risk of overly emotional expression. Maybe a religious practice feels right to someone. But is it in tune with Scripture? If not, it is illegitimate. The evidence backing up the Bible as God’s revelation to mankind is too strong for us to go substituting our own views. Anything that contradicts His word must be refused, even if we feel like it is worshipful. We have to trust Him more than we trust ourselves.

The opposite error of leaning too hard on the rational side of things is that you wind up with a lifeless faith. Many people say that the Bible is not a textbook or a rulebook. They’re wrong. It offers a great deal of information, and it tells us how we ought to live. Those things are necessary to have. But those are just supporting aspects. Above all else, the Bible is a love letter. It is how God expresses how much He cares for us and invites us into relationship with Him. I can miss that big picture sometimes if I get too caught up in the details. And I know I’m not the only one.

I said earlier on that Christianity is a faith because we have to believe what has been reported from the past and we have to believe what has been promised for the future. More importantly, and far more personally, it is also a faith because it is about trusting God. Not what He has done or what He will do, but Him Himself. That is very subjective, but so are human relationships. Each of us has to experience God on our own as our hearts are drawn to His.

Facts and Feelings

Two of my favorite verses in the Bible are Rom. 5:5–6. If you read them in context, they do not really go together. Verse 5 finishes one thought about growing in faith, while verse 6 starts a new one on understanding the basis of our salvation. But that is why I love them being side by side:

This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

This Trinitarian statement represents the necessary joining of our emotional and rational faculties. On the one side, we have facts. Jesus lived, died, and rose again for us. Those are things we can know, things for which the historical evidence is strong. The fact that they happened is solid ground, along with being the reason why it is possible to be reconciled to God. They are objective.

But along with them comes the subjective. The Lord did not merely do these things at one time for all people. He is also present at all times with each person that trusts in Him. We do not merely know about His love. We feel it because the Spirit is with us. That feeling is personal, you can only experience it for yourself, but it is no less real as a result.

We need both. Praise be to God, He gives both. Some of us lean more one way than the other, and we need this reminder to draw us back between them. And of course, that is just the general trend. Most of us will be too hot one day and too cold another. But we have the gospel of the Son and the presence of the Spirit to bring us back to the Father from whatever error we might be caught in at a given moment. It’s an unchanging truth that feels wonderful to know.

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