Do you ever feel the real tension between duty and feelings? Like when we’re ‘supposed’ to do something, but just are not ‘feeling it’ that day? Sure, we go through the motions, if we can control ourselves and will our bodies through the routine. Question: is this how God envisioned the Christian life? Or did Jesus really mean it when He said to “love your enemies” — that He wanted us to genuinely feel something good towards other people, and towards God?
The Bible talks about emotion just like we do in everyday conversation.
There is no special category for “Christian love,” that agape kind our Christian leaders like to talk about — intellectualizing an emotion into a philosophical ideal. Love, hope, joy—and even hatred—in the Bible are not lofty ideas and concepts; they are feelings and emotions, just as we know them in our own lives and talk about them with our families and friends.
There is a great example of what I am talking about in Romans 12: “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never by lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!”
See what I mean?
In these eight verses, Paul mentions emotions or uses emotional words a dozen times or so. They are mixed in naturally with the normal flow of his writing.
Really love people.
Hate what is wrong.
Love with genuine affection.
Delight in honoring each other.
Serve the Lord enthusiastically.
Rejoice in hope.
Practice hospitality eagerly.
Commands to love and to be in prayer and to be joyful and not to be lazy are all jumbled up together. In the midst of a plea to keep our spirits boiling passionately, Paul tells us to have great empathy for others, to feel what they are feeling. If we are going to be enthusiastic in serving God, we have better feel others’ joy and pain as if it were our own.
It occurred to me that our spirituality is all about how we are feeling — whether we are feeling life or numb to it. If we are not feeling as we should, something is wrong with our relationship with God.
Paul takes no time to explain what he means by love and joy and hope and hate and sorrow. He doesn’t try to tell us that joy is not a feeling or that love is just a choice. He speaks in plain language and assumed that emotions are simply recording our feelings — the stuff of life that God has given us. Paul assumes we will know that joy and love feel like, and he exhorts that if we live by God’s standards, there are certain kinds of feelings that will fill our lives.
This is not rocket science to Paul; it’s clear and normal. He has no embarrassment, no hesitation, no theological barrier to putting pure emotion front and center. He tells it like it is in real life.
I wondered at all the sermons I’d heard and if I’d ever heard a pastor say, “Feel!”
Without any qualifications.
Without any theological rhetoric.
Without any attempt to redefine the word.
I wondered how I’d react if I went to church one Sunday and heard, “God is telling you that next week you should be filled with happiness and good cheer; you need to give genuine, warm hugs every night to your family, and if something really bad happens to a friend in the church, you need to be over at their house crying with them. No, I don’t mean dropping by a card and a casserole for dinner, your Christian duty. I meant entering into their pain and really crying with them.”
Paul is that preacher. And that is what I learned from him in Romans. To him, a Christian’s emotional life is all rolled up in and with and around how we should behave and how we should think. For Paul it’s not different to say “cry with the grieving” than to say “don’t lie.” Duty is there, but not devoid of passion and true emotion. It’s all one.
So feel. And feel deeply.