Jonathan Edwards, one of the top American theologians, wrote a work entitled The Religious Affections (1746) in response to the revival that occurred in his congregation and some pretty wacky things that accompanied it. The question was, how could one determine if the emotional responses of these people were accurate or not?
It’s a good question, and one that Edwards treats extensively. Yet notice the key assumption that’s foundational to his whole project: there are, in fact, affections; emotions are a natural response to the movement of the Spirit.
By personality, I am more rational than emotive. Yet, I quickly turn to this as an excuse. Emotions in spirituality quickly make me feel uncomfortable, and so I start to treat them as if they are not a necessary part of being a Christian. I read the word joy in the New Testament and translate it as simply a mindset that remembers that God is in control. In other words, I turn religious affections into ways of thinking about things.
There are certainly places and times to be appropriately cautious of an overly-emotional or hyper-emotional state linked to spirituality. Yet perhaps you are like me: we swing the other way, ignoring the emotions altogether, until one day we stop and realize we don’t love Jesus. We respect and admire him. We confess that he is the Son of God. But our hearts are not warmed by the thought of him. His regular presence with us fails to bring a smile to our lips.
We miss out.
I’m convinced Jesus wants to offer us so much more. He loves that we seek to understand him more deeply. He delights that we ask questions about him. But even more so he wants us to sit, stop asking questions, and be with him. However, without affections for him such a practice is unbearable. Being in the room with Jesus is uncomfortable when we would much rather be on the other side of the one-way glass, looking in and studying in abstraction.
It’s not about stirring up some sort of emotional response just for the sake of having emotion. We do not love Jesus by method acting – trying to imaginatively recreate a time when we found ourselves highly emotional. We love Jesus (in the truest, affection-ful sense) through reflection upon the fact that he first loved us. We look upon the cross, and feel our emotions stirred. Self-sacrifice, love, suffering.
The beautiful thing is that it is through thoughtful reflection that the emotions are stirred. We serve a God of both/and. We do not check our hearts or our brains at the door, but bring both into the holiest place, his very presence.
We have to let go of our hardness, of our fears, and fe