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Faith and Feeling

2008 November 16
by Julie Clawson

I have always hated the train illustration at the end of The Four Spiritual Laws. (okay so I have issues with the whole thing, but that’s beside the point). Placed at the end of the evangelistic tract, the train illustration tells us that the Christian life starts with the facts, in which we place our faith, and from which we experience feeling. We can live without feeling, but it should never be our main focus. I dislike the assumption that we are compartmentalized people that in truly modern fashion can step outside ourselves and objectively encounter religion sans emotions. It’s absurd on many levels, but a conversation I had the other day made me wish for a re-imagined version of this diagram.

At MOPs on Friday we had the once a semester evangelistic talk – i.e. the Gospel according to penal substitution. In our small group we were asked to share about how our relationship with Jesus has developed since we said the prayer. (once again, a lot of things I could say there, but I’ll move on). The general assumption was that our personal relationship with Jesus was the central aspect of our faith. How he made us feel (at peace, secure, joyful..), demonstrated the intimacy and intensity of our relationship with him. Nothing should ever get in the way of that relationship. Anything that challenged the serenity or intensity of that relationship should be given up in order to get us back on track with Jesus. Basically that the point of our faith is FEELING close to Jesus.

Not being a fan or dichotomised living that negates feelings (as in the Four Spiritual Laws), I could deal with the general sentiment being expressed. It was when some of the women shared about the things that diminish their feeling of the relationship that I became uncomfortable. One woman shared that she felt pulled apart from just being with Jesus when she was expected to perform for him – like do good works. Another described how hard theological questions she encounters make her loose the feeling of closeness with Jesus. I understand that these are real issues they are struggling with, but I was disturbed with the implication expressed that if they want to keep the feeling up, they have to avoid the compulsion to do good works or explore tough theological issues. What I felt expressed was that the feeling of relationship always comes first and trumps even good works and the study of God. (I have no clue what these women really think since the conversation was short, I am just responding to what I heard).

While I affirm the necessity for feelings as part of our faith experience, I have a hard time justifying abandoning the mandates of Jesus or the pursuit of truth for the sake of our feelings. Maintaining a generic feel-good sort of religious experience that doesn’t accept hardship or the wrestling with God required of faith isn’t the sort of faith I desire. If my faith doesn’t ask anything of me or if I fear exploring truth wherever it may be found, it doesn’t seem like much of a faith to me. Sure, I might feel all warm and fuzzy with Jesus as my best friend, but that seems like a pretty shallow reason to believe. If the substance of my faith is just feelings and not truly following Christ in all ways, is my faith really in more than just myself? God just seems much bigger than that.

A Christianity based just on feeling has the disturbing outcome of placing ourselves at the center of our faith. Feelings and relationships are good, but they are not the main point of following Jesus. There is more substance to our faith than that. I’m not advocating a return to the unrealistic train model that glorifies “objective” facts, just a faith that has no boundaries. A faith that isn’t confined to the balance seeking serenity mindset of the contemporary American church that places our personal spiritual needs above all else. But a faith that isn’t afraid of being pushed, or working hard, or stepping out into the unknown. A faith that is willing to put even itself on the line for the sake of following Jesus. A faith that cares more about being a disciple of Jesus than his friend. A wild, uncharted, emotionally messy faith that has few answers. A heart-wrenching, disturbing faith that is neither safe nor tame. The sort of faith one can hardly bear to live with but can’t imagine living without. A faith that scares me to death, but is still my deepest desire.

This is the sort of faith I wished we talked about in small group settings. Instead of asking how close to Jesus we feel today, we should be asking how God has kicked our butts recently by pushing us outside our comfort zones. Or in what ways we, like Jacob, have wrestled with God recently and been blessed by it. Or how we are so in love with Jesus that we are constantly seeking to understand him more even when that challenges every assumption we might previously have held. Forget about facts, faith, and feelings – let’s just live it out, come what may.

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21 Responses leave one →
  1. November 17, 2008

    I like the faith you discribe wanting. I too want that kind of faith and those kind of discussions. So, know that I find myself not pushing conversations in that direction, B UT do you push conversations in that kind of direction? You’ve discribed a couple other conversations that sound similarily shallow on this blog before. Is this a frustration for you (as much as it is for me)? My solution more and more is to quite attending such groups but then I begin longing for fellowship and…Argh!

  2. November 17, 2008

    Shallow was maybe too harsh and judgemental a word. (May be why I get into trouble in small group conversations and on blogs and…

  3. November 17, 2008

    I’ve always hated the stupid train, too. You point out to problems with swinging to the other extreme — a shallow focus on feel-good “relationship”, etc. Personally, I think evangelicals tend to operate with a basic contradiction on this issue. We preach the train — focus on the facts. But our notions of Christian life are all about feelings (our testimonies, worship songs, what we share and pray about). Then when the good feelings go away, for whatever reason, we think we’ve lost our faith. In the end, I think we have no vision for how emotions can be formed by the Gospel. It can’t be done by the intake of information so it doesn’t fit our models of teaching/preaching — so then you get the occasional sermon that goes back to the train picture and tells us to focus on the facts.

  4. November 17, 2008

    hey julie, i read this and i had to add my two cents because i just spoke at a mops group here in town last week & had this fresh on my mind. i don’t go very often but if someone asks me and i get a chance to stir the pot a bit, i will usually go. they asked me to share on getting unstuck with God and it’s a favorite topic because it’s the place so many people live but are kind of scared to say out loud. i won’t go into the details but the bottom line is that the women connected with the conversation but the older mentor moms (titus women, i think they used to call them) were appalled, like appalled, at what i was saying about being more honest about God, living in the tension of doubt & confusion, and being more free to not expect that our relationship with God will always feel connected & exciting but that true intimacy is usually built through conflict. they kept wanting to interject and somehow make clear some scriptural platitude. i know their hearts were so sincere but i was sad for the women there because their guides won’t be too helpful in the real-life-wrestling that happens in our faith journey. i sometimes think there needs to be a new strain of mops-like gatherings where women can be more honest about their journey & not get pressured to shut it down. sorry for the ramble. personally i think you are very brave to even go but i know it’s a nice way to meet some other mommies…

  5. November 17, 2008

    i sometimes think there needs to be a new strain of mops-like gatherings where women can be more honest about their journey & not get pressured to shut it down.

    This is what I keep saying. I really wish there was something like that around here that Julie could go to instead of MOPS.

  6. Jenn permalink
    November 17, 2008

    This was a major reason why I hung up my coordinator hat. :)
    I coordinated for 4 yrs and really loved connecting with other moms and seeing them connect and build relationships with each other but that’s where it stopped. Most people in evangelical circles are clearly uncomfortable (and fidgety in their chairs) when it comes to talking about the real issues in real life. That’s not to say that toilet learning isn’t a real issue (3 yr old JUST got it down, hehe) but at some point, we have to be willing to journey with people in asking the tough questions. Tough questions we may never have the answers to. We need to come back to a place of true faith where sometimes there isn’t a good answer.
    I’m so glad I’m not alone in finding these settings so frustrating a lot of the time.

  7. November 17, 2008

    I do enjoy MOPs, although I don’t always agree. The women are great and I have a good time there.

    I just wish that I had some sort of outlet for real conversation these days. I go to MOPs and get churchianity lite or I go to church and am dealing with the kids all morning- those are my only outside the house/ be with other adults moments these days. I’m going slightly crazy and would love real interaction with people one of these days.

    so i just have to make do online…

  8. Carol Mount permalink
    November 17, 2008

    Julie,

    I love this comment: A Christianity based just on feeling has the disturbing outcome of placing ourselves at the center of our faith. Feelings and relationships are good, but they are not the main point of following Jesus.

    When I was deeply depressed I had no feelings of faith…just head knowledge and that was what pulled me through. God was who He was despite my situation and I praise Him for it! Peace,
    Carol.

  9. Sam permalink
    November 18, 2008

    This is not a criticism of the women at MOPs as individuals, but as a group they can drive some women a way. I know they drove the mother of my children away. I called it MMOP: Militant Moms of Preschoolers.

  10. Sam permalink
    November 18, 2008

    Argh (ugly typo):

    This is not a criticism of the women at MOPs as individuals, but as a group they can drive some women a way. I know they drove the mother of my children away. I called the group MMOPs: Militant Moms of Preschoolers.

  11. Megan permalink
    November 19, 2008

    I like that you question the train illustration, which I also dislike. But I had a different experience with a completely different group of women.

    For years I was the token liberal among a group of conservative fundamentalists. These women did all the right things: they homeschooled their children, voted pro-life; one was a former MOPS coordinator who’d become politically involved. One evening these women shared their concept of God. It was anything but warm and fuzzy.

    God, they said, was unforgiving, incapable of healing us from our past and had a particular vendetta against women. The way these women described God matched the way I would have described Satan. Needless to say, I left that Bible study.

    I think it comes down to the story of Mary and Martha. Do we focus on doing the right things or on knowing the right God? At the risk of appearing “shallow,” my experience suggests the latter is the best choice. Only as we come to know Christ can we imitate him and trust him enough to take risks in our life.

  12. November 19, 2008

    This post rocks my socks off. Thank you for your wonderful description of the kind of faith you wished the small group talked about.

  13. November 20, 2008

    Very well said.

    I am very afraid of the trend in American evangelicalism of letting feelings drive our faith. While feelings and experience should play a small (very small) role in our theology, the essence of our theology as Christians should be what we feel about God, or our “relationship” with Jesus, or any of that. Christianity is about one thing: Jesus Christ crucified as a sacrifice for our sins.

    Patrick
    http://www.theologyofomaha.com

  14. November 22, 2008

    As Don Cupitt writes in “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” the church is our work of art. He writes that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” Today, psychology is providing evidence that behavior, e.g., worship, produces feelings. For example, in “Feelings,” James D. Laird argues that feelings do not cause behavior, but rather follow from behavior, and are, in fact, the way that we know about our own bodily states and behaviors. James W. Pennebaker points out that emotions, motivation, and other private feelings are inferred from our behaviors rather than being directly perceived. Thus, it follows that religion is about how we deal with our behaviors and the feelings they produce. The “facts” of religion are secondary.
    However, if our awareness of God comes from our feelings and experiences, we soon learn that supernatural ways of thinking “improve” our God experiences, preserving them perfectly and unchanging, as Peter would have done on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’ light shone before the disciples. But, of course, as Jesus knew, experiences can’t be preserved, but must be lived, even to death.

  15. March 22, 2010

    Good stuff. Believe it or not…I was looking for that train illustration. I googled it and came to your blog. God works in mysterious ways. Thanks for sharing your heart. I am reading a book called “Fearless” by Max Lucado right now and we are talking about different types of fears we have. I was looking for an illustration about how we are to not always rely on our feelings. I am going to use some of your statements from your blog! I will give you the credit :).

    God bless sister,

    M

  16. March 29, 2010

    I too was looking for the Fact – Faith – Feelings train illustration when I came across your blog. Not so that I might contradict the illustration, but in order that I might use it. The reason being that I have a firm conviction that too much of our American Christianity is feelings oriented and NOT firmly planted in the Word of God. Honestly, while I appreciate your wrestlings and your “bravery” to address openly your feelings, it seems to me that we must return to the infallability of the word of God. That has been purified 7 times over like silver, it is trustworthy, it is God-breathed, it is infallible, it is “factual,” it is the only thing, next to my personal relationship with Jesus Christ that cannot be taken away from me. That is the place of real security, which as I read your comments, is what you are all looking for.

    Insecurity is placing my trust in things which can be taken away from me – cars, houses, money, relationships (people), jobs, retirement accounts, positions (promotions of leadership), reputation, health, feelings (warm fuzzies), emotions (at a concert or in a “worship” service) – you fill in the blanks. Security comes from placing my trust in things that cannot be taken away – and as far as I’ve been able to investigate this, there are only two things that fit this category – my “relationship” to the word of God – Living Word (Jesus) and Written Word (the Bible). Study church history and the trail of the martyrs (still happening to believers in other countries around the world) – you will find that while suffering for their allegiance to Jesus Christ, there were only two things that sustained them – Jesus and His Word – the Bible. Remember Corrie Ten Boom in the Hiding Place – the copy of the scriptures they read from while in Ravensbruck. Have you read the Voice of the Martyrs testimonies? Their “stay,” their anchor was and still is God’s faithfulness, not to give them a feeling, or to sustain a feeling – many of them did not “feel” like dying, but they KNEW based on the scriptures, that God was and is faithful.

    We had better wake up in America and realize that this Christian life is NOT “all about me.” And my relationship with Jesus is NOT based on feelings – certainly they will all be involved in my salvation “experience” – conviction, guilt, lostness, weeping, joy, freedom, peace, satisfaction, rest. Certainly being justified before God through Jesus Christ will involve mind, will and emotions – it is mental, volitional, and emotional – but the foundation of your FAITH cannot, and must not be your emotions or feelings – they will change. Jesus did not rely upon His feelings when addressing Satan in His temptation in the wilderness – He used the Word of God. It must be your firm reliance upon God’s faithfulness and trustworthiness to keep His Word as revealed in the Bible – faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. This is not merely a mental assent to what the Bible teaches, it is an absolute reliance upon God to keep His Word. It is His new covenant based upon the sacrificial death of His Son, Jesus, once, for all at Calvary. Forever, Oh Lord, Thy Word is settled in heaven. Psa. 119:89

    As for me, I think the FACT, FAITH, FEELINGS train is still a good illustration.

    • Steve permalink
      November 13, 2010

      Similar to M and Tim, I found this site in search of the train illustraition. I have to concur with Tim. The illustration is still useful if used appropriately. I view it as a way to guide our walk with God through Christ and the Holy Spirit. As Tim mentioned, our walk cannot simply be based on how we feel in that relationship. It must be grounded in facts…God’s Word. As we “walk” and spend time in His Word and as it grows our faith, the facts that we learn from His Word ought to guide us throught issues in our life or decision or conflict…etc. If we’re not sure what it says, we should first study Scripture to determine what it has to say about it. Those facts are the engine that fuel our faith and become the lens through which we filter our feelings. I think that too often, we let our feelings try to lead our faith and the facts get left behind until we’re in a serious ditch.

      My 2 cents…

      Blessings,

      Steve

  17. Ruth permalink
    June 22, 2011

    Well said Steve!

    If I may intercept here with my thoughts. Earlier today I was thinking about someone close to me who is a believer, they had confess to me that they had lied to someone and asked Jesus to forgive them. She then asked me if He did in which I quickly thought of the verse If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (I John 1:9) So I reminded her of that verse. Later the train came to me but in a positive way…
    if we went by our feelings: I don’t feel He forgave me or as in the serpent beguiling Eve with “did God REALLY say that?” we’d be placing the feelings car before the faith car. Thank God we have the Word to remind us of what God says… that is putting faith before our feelings when we look to His Word for the standard. Just like what God said to me a couple of years ago look at what teachers say or in this case speakers through the lens of the Word. That of course goes for everything in life. BTW on the subject of MOPS been there, done that no thank you!

  18. Ruth permalink
    June 22, 2011

    Julie,
    BTW I came across your site as I was searching for the train illustration. A dear lady shared it with me when I came to Christ nearly 2 decades ago. The way she explained it was how fickle are feelings can be and we need to base things on God’s Word not our feelings. As we grow in the Lord our feelings follow. It’s so awesome that after all these years the Holy Spirit brought this
    to my remembrance when talking with this lady.
    Thank you so much for sharing. You are so right God wants people of substance not shallowness. He’s coming back for a bride! :)

  19. September 28, 2011

    Hi Julie! I came across your blog looking for a train picture, too! I really liked what you had to say. My blog says something similar with a LOT fewer words. ;-)

    While I feel no need to defend the train, I will say I appreciate it for my own use. I used to be so ruled by my emotions. I just blogged about doing something I did not want to do because God was asking me to do it {inseart train here}. :-)

    Thanks for the visual.. and the wise words!

  20. Julia Duin permalink
    November 8, 2011

    . . . It all reduces to this: a cartoon diagram showing a toy locomotive engine labeled “fact,” pulling a freight car labeled “faith,” followed in turn by a superfluous caboose tagged “feeling.” —But think about your comments and you will suspect that it is the caboose that is pulling the train, and pulling it backwards! Faith is based “firmly” upon feeling, and certain notions are postulated as “fact” because of the security they afford the soul who seeks a port in the storm. . . This conviction arises from purely subjective factors, and is in no way different from the teenage Mormon door-knocker who tells you she knows the Book of Mormon was written by ancient Americans because she has a warm, swelling feeling in her stomach when she asks God if it’s true. Her enterprise is completely circular, since it is a subjectivity described in terms of Christian belief (Holy Spirit) that supposedly grounds Christian belief but actually holds her faith on purely subjective grounds, but maintaining that she is lucky to discover that the facts, “objectively” considered, happen to bear out her faith? —That, whereas theoretically her faith might not prove true to the facts, in actuality (whew!) it does.

    Julia

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