Faith and Feeling
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.