Fake Christian Emotions and Real Christian Affections

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Over at First Things, Benjamin Myers writes about why so many evangelicals in America fall into the “sentimentality trap.”

Many Christians seem to believe that what Scripture means by “pure” and by “lovely” is merely the pleasant and the naive, the Hallmark Channel, not the reality of a world in need of redemption. Yet, looked at through the initially disorienting but ultimately corrective lens of Scripture itself, what is more pure and lovely than the Cross? One might answer, “the Resurrection,” but there is no Resurrection without Crucifixion.

The Christian sentimentalist wants the bliss of Easter morning without the pain of Good Friday or the sorrow of Holy Saturday, reducing the great joy of Easter to the pleasantness of a sunrise or spring flowers. The sacrifice of our savior is lovely. His blood is pure. If we can look on these things and know they are good, then we, in a deeply Christian art, should not fear looking at the hard realities of our fallen world. The Christian artist who wraps himself in sunbeams and daffodils fails to be Christian at all, producing a bloodless, lifeless art that pleases a middle-class consumerism, not an authentic Christian encounter with a hurting world.

American evangelicals have a conflicted view of the emotions. On one hand, sentimentalist literature, music, and “art” are among the biggest sellers in the Christian market. On the other, it is a staple of evangelical rhetoric that you “can’t trust your feelings.” The basis of our faith is not our feelings, countless sermons have told us, but the Word of God.

That is undoubtedly true, in the sense that our feelings about faith will fluctuate, but the Word does not change. But if feelings are irrelevant, why did Jonathan Edwards tell us, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections”? Edwards could be as hard-nosed a preacher as anyone (see “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Surely he was not making a case for sentimentalism?

No, he was not. What Edwards meant was that true religion consists of an emotional response to the whole truth about God, and about us. That truth includes the reality of sin and judgment, and the horrible, unjust death the Savior had to die to bring us salvation. We grieve over our sin, the pain it causes, and over Jesus’s suffering, before we get to the resurrection and heavenly bliss.

“Affections” are the human spring of action, in Edwards’s estimation. Why would we strive for holiness, or live sacrificially for Christ, if we are emotionally neutral regarding the truths of the gospel? But if we see ourselves, poignantly, as sinners rescued by his death on the cross, and if we rejoice in his triumph over sin and death in the resurrection, then we are prepared to act. That’s why we need the right kind of emotions, passions, and affections, which are typically stirred under exposure to the truth of the Word.

Prosperity gospel preachers would tell us that the point of the Christian life is to escape pain, suffering, and grief. And we should not deny that God has plans to “wipe every tear” from the eyes of believers. But in this life, realistic grief and sorrow are as much a part of the godly affections as are happiness and contentment.

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