emotion in religion

puzzle heart emotional or medical solutionThis post contains my leftover thoughts that went on too long to include in the review of Stuart Olyott’s book, Something Must be Known and Felt. I refrained from titling it ‘totes emosh.’

Over-emphasising the emotions

Someone still needs to write a book for our times which explains that the emotions are not paramount in the Christian life. If the emotions are granted unique priority in the Christian life, the danger is of a lopsided version of Christianity which causes needless trouble to believers and diverts the focus away from the worship of the Saviour.

In the first instance, we are justified by faith, not by feeling. Then as we go on, we walk by faith, not by sight or sense. Faith, that is, in Christ as he is revealed in the Word – not the absolute, unmediated God, not a Christ of our own imaginings, but the personal Word made known in the inscripturated Word. Losing our conviction on this leaves us in danger of mysticism.

For believers, it is also helpful to remember that some people are naturally temperamentally more emotional than others – more able to enthuse about what’s important to them, more susceptible to tugs at the heart strings. This doesn’t necessarily change when they become believers, as obviously it’s not a bad thing, but neither does it make them more saintly believers when they feel things (or seem to feel, or say they feel) more movingly than other believers. The copious shedding of tears is no guarantee of sincerity of anyone’s repentance, nor the exuberance of their joy any sure sign of having an honest and good heart. What’s important is that the affections of the soul are genuinely drawn out, and in the right direction (to love the Lord, hate sin, etc), not how intensely – to be rightly affected, more than to be deeply affected. Any tendency to forget this leaves us in danger of sentimentalism.

Again, it is surely a fact of Christian as well as human experience that although after a dramatic discovery (such as the gospel, or the liberty of the gospel, may be) our hearts will initially be full of lively reactions, yet over time things calm down, and the excitement gives way to a more settled kind of satisfaction and steady appreciation. When long time believers discern less passion and enthusiasm in their hearts than they used to have for the things of grace, this need not automatically be taken as evidence of a cold dead backslidden state. In the realm of the emotions, an unswerving attachment to the Lord and ongoing opposition to (their own) sin can be the older Christian’s time tested counterpart to the newer Christian’s irrepressible enthusiasm. Similarly, we usually aren’t capable of living at emotional extremes for very great lengths of time. Whether it’s an exalted mountain top experience, or plumbing the depths of sorrow, it doesn’t last all our lifetime. So the fact that at some given moment a believer isn’t consciously consumed with overflowing love for the Lord or prostrating grief for sin is again hardly automatic grounds to write them off as lacking in spiritual life, if, like Peter, they can ultimately appeal to the Lord as to whether they have any attachment to him, and have an abiding weariness for this body of death. Failing to recognise this leaves us in danger of binding hard to bear psychological burdens on ourselves and others.

Finally, there’s something undeniably interesting about yourself and what’s going on in your life, including your inward life. That slightly narcissistic instinct to take magazine quizzes designed to reveal your personality type, or whatever drives you to find your own medical conditions quite fascinating, doesn’t instantly disappear when someone becomes a believer. Instead it can resurface in the form of wanting to monitor your own spiritual condition all the time – only listening to the minister in the hopes he’ll describe your own case and spiritual experience, and only using the Bible to find passages which you can use to gauge how high or low your own spiritual liveliness might be right now. Although there is a place for ministers to describe cases (for reassurance) and although self examination is necessary, a constant emphasis on the inward only tends to encourage people to pursue the thrill of self discovery, always to fallen nature an easier and more enticing prospect than to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings. It tends, in other words, to introspection.

Under-emphasising the emotions

However, someone also still needs to write a book which explains that the emotions are not irrelevant in the Christian life. If the emotions are completely disregarded in the Christian life, the danger is of an underdeveloped version of Christianity where believers don’t grow in a well rounded way and even detracts from the worship the Lord requires, the kind that engages the whole soul.

On the one hand, then, there is the lure of activism. This was Olyott’s original insight about methodology taking the place of experience in contemporary Christianity. Where there is no encouragement to believers to develop their relationship with the Lord, something has to replace it, and often the readiest replacement is shifting the focus away from how the Lord can bless us, and instead on to how we can do great things for the Lord – winning souls, maybe, or lots of busy worship services. Communion with the risen Christ is something that needs to be cultivated – it involves setting aside time for Bible reading, prayer, sermon hearing, sacrament partaking, fellowshipping with the saints, and meditation – and all of these with more of an eye to what we can get from the Lord than what we can give. But the outcomes are barely tangible, at least in the short term, and if you’re reporting in metrics that unbelievers can recognise or appreciate – assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, perseverance therein to the end, and the like. Rather than sitting down with David from time to time to reflect wonderingly and adoringly on the freeness and glory of the grace of God to us, the preference is for action, busyness, doing, and works. If it can’t be overtly observed and measured in earthly terms, it hardly seems worth the effort – even though we purport to serve a God who is more interested in the heart than in the outward appearance – who, even when he gifts a Paul or Apollos, reserves the right to bless as he sees best – and who carefully, tenderly bends his ear to hear poor pitiful cryings from miserable dark places long before he acknowledges the thank yous from people who are too busy with their religious activity to see any particular need of his mercy right now.

And on the other hand, there is the temptation to formalism. This is where believers (especially those who aren’t attracted to activism) pare things down to just doctrine and ethics, and refuse to give experience or the emotions any house room at all. This is, of course, neither good doctrine – as the Scriptures (and our creeds) recognise us and address us in the whole person, not intellect alone, not will alone, and not emotions alone – nor good practice – as formally correct behaviour which doesn’t flow from a heart that’s right with God doesn’t qualify as the obedience of faith at all. While we rightfully want to avoid the pursuit of illegitimate religious experience, this shouldn’t be at the expense of repudiating legitimate religious experience as well. Scripture teaches us, it stands to reason, and a renewed will should choose it, that we should love the Saviour, be kindly affectioned one toward another, sorrow for sin, mourn when God’s law is broken, be refreshed when the Lord makes his face shine on us, and rejoice not in iniquity but in the truth.

In conclusion

Because we are human, we are feeling, affective, emoting beings as well as rational and volitional. Our emotions can be abused (by ourselves or others) when too much prominence is given to what we feel about religion, or in religion – but when the emotions are stifled, this has a bad effect on our souls (and our religion) as a whole. Our feelings as much as our mind and will need to be guided by Scripture – so that we feel, know, and choose as much as Scripture says we should, and at the same time feel, know, and choose only up to the point that Scripture permits. (That’s something for believers, at any rate. As unbelievers we obviously first need regeneration in order to feel, know, and choose anything right in any degree whatsoever.) Our God has planned, accomplished, and is applying a redemption that takes care of the whole person – the whole body and the whole soul – and the thankful response we owe to him for this should now, and will eventually, engage us to the utmost of all our capacities. (‘While I live I will praise the Lord. I will sing praises unto my God while I have any being.’)

8 thoughts on “emotion in religion

  1. Does Olyott make any distinction in regard to the sexes about this? Sometimes, we men will dismiss women as the “emotional” ones while uplifting ourselves as the “intellectual” ones – we’re the “cool-headed” sex. Yet, men are just as susceptible to being controlled – and fooled – by their emotions as much as women are. So, I’m wondering if Olyott makes any sex distinctions about this and how this relates to the Christian life.


  2. Olyott doesn’t, that I noticed anyway. He includes lots of brief anecdotes about people’s experience, but without going through it systematically my impression would be that they’re evenly matched between men and women.

    It’s probably easy to overstate gender differences on this. One of the Puritans apparently said that ‘souls have no sexes,’ and although there are undoubtedly gendered ways of expressing emotions (as there are no doubt age related and cultural differences), emotion is something we all share as human beings.

    And if we take Scripture as a template for the emotional life of a Christian, it’s predominantly a record of the emotions of men. There’s Hannah’s anguish and Michal’s scorn and Mary’s rejoicing, but apart from that, we’re not exactly bombarded with scenes of emotional women (what butterflies might have bothered Abigail as she rallied her men and dashed off for diplomatic negotiations with rampaging David is only left to the imagination). The woe of Job, the lamentations of Jermiah, the prayers of Paul, not to mention the psalms of David, all have much more prominence and provide a much fuller picture of what does and should go on in the inner life of a believer.

    What are your own thoughts?


  3. I guess the emotions of men would be prominent in Scripture since men are, for the most part, the major actors in the Bible. I don’t have any other thoughts, I guess, beyond what I posted before – especially about men and women being, at times, equally fooled by their emotions. I’d add though that both our intellects and our emotions are given to us by God, being part of what it means to be made in His image, and that – unlike for Him – balancing the two can be tricky at times. And that includes both sexes.


  4. Oh. Hello Mrs Cath. Mrs? I stop reading your blog for three years and you get married? Of all the nerve. Living in London as well eh? I can’t advise that.

    It all came flooding back. Someone left a comment on a very old blogpost (I have some posts left up as a kind of legacy lol). These days I just post a pastoral letter once a month on the church website.

    I have now clicked the ‘follow’ button, like one is supposed to.

    Blessings on your head, etc.


  5. Well hello! (Wait, you stopped reading?!) Yeah, big changes. Married and living in the deep south, commuting in to London from leafy Kent. Funnily enough I was just thinking of your blog not that long ago. Those were the days!


  6. Strangely enough, Cath, I just read this about emotions, generally, in my devotional reading today. It’s by Alexander Maclaren (1826-1910), from a meditation on Mark 14.37 –

    “Let us note, too, the slight value of even genuine emotion. The very exhaustion following on the strained emotions which these disciples had been experiencing had sent them to sleep. Luke, in his physician-like way, tells us this, when he says that they ‘slept for sorrow.’ We all know how some great emotion which we might have expected would have held our eyes waking lulls to slumber. Men sleep soundly on the night before their executions. A widow leaves her husband’s deathbed as soon as he has passed away and sleeps a dreamless sleep for hours. The strong current of emotion sweeps through us and leaves us dry. Sheer exhaustion and collapse follow its intenser forms. And even in its milder, nothing takes so much out of a man as emotion. Reaction always follows and people are, in some degree, unfitted for sober work by it. Peter, for example, was all the less ready for keeping awake and for bold confession because of the vehement emotions which had agitated him in the upper chamber. We have, therefore, to be chary, in our religious lives, of feeding the flames of mere feeling. An unemotional Christianity is a very poor thing and, most probably, a spurious and unreal thing. But a merely emotional Christianity is closely related to practical unholiness and leads, by a very short, straight road, to windy, wordy insincerity and conscious hypocrisy. Emotion which is firmly based upon an intelligent grasp of God’s truth and which is, at once, translated into action is good. But, unless these two conditions be rigidly observed, it darkens the understanding and enfeebles the soul.”

    What say you?


  7. I say fair enough :-) Strong emotions are tiring.

    I wonder what exactly he might have had in mind when he says ‘a merely emotional Christianity is closely related to practical unholiness’?

    V important point that emotion needs to be firmly based on an intelligent grasp of God’s truth. Should have probably emphasised this more. Christian experience in general only qualifies as such (as Christian) to the extent that it is a response to the truth. Or even more specifically, a response enabled by the Holy Spirit to the truth, but even then the Holy Spirit only works by opening up the truth and impressing the truth more firmly into the soul.

    Barring the qualification ‘at once,’ that’s also a useful point that emotion needs to be translated into action. If ye love me, keep my commandments. If truly sorry for sin, where’s the turning from it with full purpose and endeavour after new obedience. Etc.


  8. On “a merely emotional Christianity is closely related to practical unholiness” – perhaps Maclaren was witnessing tendencies among his hearers that might have been forewarnings of the coming Pentecostal movement (which started here in the US in 1906, three years after Maclaren retired). Just a guess.


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