The Romance of the Christian Faith
One sometimes meets Christians who use scriptural words and thoughts with no more feeling than if they were licking stamps. They seem to belong to a religious world whose citizens live always north of the Arctic circle of emotion. Their spiritual affections are buried beneath yards of ice and snow.
When they venture to talk about the things of God they use good words and express sound ideas, but they are evidently in complete control of their own emotions at all times. In such company the doctrines of God’s Word have the fascination of an ice-crystal or a snow-flake. The truths of Scripture look beautiful but feel icy cold. One senses that it would be an impertinence to breathe a sigh in their presence or to utter a stifled sob. To shed a tear would be unpardonable.
No doubt emotion can be overdone in religion as in all else. Not everything we say on biblical subjects need be said in a gush of tears or punctuated with a solemn Amen. We concede readily that some spoil our appetite for holy emotions by their working too hard at them. We remember hearing of a preacher whose every sentence almost was greeted by an Amen from someone in the gallery. It was perhaps tolerable, if only just.
But the voice in the gallery gave itself away at one point in the service by shouting Amen when the number of the next hymn was announced. The ardour was artificial. It was scarcely more significant as an expression of religious feeling than a twitch of the face or a nervous habit of coughing. For false emotions of this or any other kind we make no appeal here. But we do put in a plea for more expressions of genuine emotion both in the pulpit and out of it.
Dare one venture to state that it is scriptural and sound for a Christian to give vent at times to profound religious feelings? Admittedly, allowance must be made for temperament and for the differences between national characters. The ‘stiff upper lip’ is part of some nations’ philosophy of life. Other countries have no such tradition.
No one doubts that maudlin sentimentality is a weakness. We are right to dislike and distrust it. But great natures are capable of great feeling and no subjects under the sun should rouse us to great feeling like the subjects of which our Christian faith speaks: the being and attributes of God, the eternal decree, the covenant of grace, the person and work of Christ, the judgment to come and the life everlasting. To think and speak of these transcendental themes in a matter-of-fact way is to betray a fearful meanness of spirit and smallness of soul. All subjects of divinity oblige us to awe and reverence by the very majesty of their content.
It is not difficult to show from Scripture that outward expressions of emotion are proper and right at times. Saintly men whose calling in life involved them in great responsibility and self-control are occasionally represented in the Bible as overcome with profound feelings, either of sorrow or of joy. No-one who has read the story of Joseph’s self-disclosure to his brothers could ever forget the power which this passage possesses:
Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him . . . And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard . . . And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept . . . Moreover he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them. –(Gen. 45:1, 2, 14, 15)
Nothing in this lavish outpouring of emotions has any connection with emotionalism. It is a scene of holy and spontaneous affection, the springs of which are both earthly and heavenly: love of his own family so long parted from him; delight at seeing Benjamin, pleasure at hearing that his father is still alive; inability to do other than forgive their past conduct towards him; realisation that his brothers were better men than they once were and, above all else, a sublime realisation that God had fulfilled his earlier dreams by giving him pre-eminence over his brothers. Never do our feelings rise so high as when we come to some such great crisis or climax in life. When God’s hand of providence becomes visible we must have a sense of destiny which stirs us to the depths. If we are not so stirred we must be either little men or men of stone.
David’s emotional experience must be safe for us to learn from, not least because he was a ‘man after God’s own heart’. The various inflections in David’s feelings are worthy of more study than they have received. His affections were as capable of variation as the melodies which he played on his welltuned harp. To our information in the Books of Samuel must be added all that we learn out of the Book of Psalms. The emotional life of this holy man was played out on an instrument of ten strings, now soaring to the heights and now plunging to the depths. We may select one incident out of many to illustrate this emotional side of the Psalmist: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Sam. 18:33).
Again, as with Joseph above, we must see here spontaneous and profound feeling. David is more violent than Joseph. This is partly, perhaps, because he was a man of war, but partly too because the occasion of his emotions was much darker. He saw the sin of Absalom, his beloved son, as the immediate cause of death. But David perceived the finger of God to be pointing also at his own prior sin with Bathsheba. It was one of those moments in life which possess a high sense both of drama and destiny. The ‘sword would never depart from David’s house’ (2 Sam. 12:10). God was pursuing his quarrel with David and the recent dramatic death of Absalom was a poignant reminder to the king that every syllable of God’s Word is as right and just as it is inescapable. The tears which flowed down the face of that noblest of men were salted by thoughts of self-reproach more than by anything else. It is those who love God greatly who smite most violently on their own breast when they see what their past folly has brought on other men’s heads.
The Apostle Paul is the greatest example we possess, apart of course from Christ, of a man in whom strength of intellect and strength of feeling are matched. He is the living proof, if proof is needed, that logic and emotion are not mutually inconsistent. No man ever lived who was more perfectly the clear-headed theologian and the calm biblical scholar while at the same time the passionate lover of Christ and souls. Where truth and souls were at stake Paul was immovably firm. On Elymas the sorcerer he can pronounce a fearful woe as we read in Acts 13:10-11.
It is the same holy indignation which constrains him to warn the Galatians twice over: ‘Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed’ (Gal. 1: 8-9). This is emotion, a sanctified jealousy for sound doctrine, mingled with indignation at the audacity of the false teachers who were ready to invent ‘another gospel’ (Gal. 1:6). The church of Christ could do with a baptism of this holy jealousy for God’s truth at this present hour. Let it not be thought for one moment that Paul was a ‘hard man’. With young converts he was as tender as a nurse-maid with her children (1 Thess.2:7). Even as he warned them away from error he wept, shedding tears of sorrow for those who are spiritually blind: ‘I tell you, even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ.’ (Phil. 3:18). He speaks of ‘serving the Lord with many tears’ (Acts 20:19), of ‘warning every one night and day with tears’ (Acts 20:31) and of writing to believers ‘with many tears’ (2 Cor. 2:4).
Paul sighed as he prayed for the conversion of the Jews (Rom. 9:1-2) and ‘travailed in birth’ till ‘Christ was formed’ in his converts (Gal. 4:19). His own great heart beat in fullest sympathy for the saints, whatsoever their feelings were (2 Cor. 11:28-29). He yearned for the spiritual good of every particular believer ‘in the bowels of Christ’ (Phil. 1:8). ‘The love of Christ constrained’ him in all his labours. The world was his parish. Holy desires for God’s glory and man’s good poured out of his soul with immense energy. It is hard to say whether passion for truth or passion for the lost is the stronger emotion in his life. No doubt they were both mighty in him.
In the examples we have taken of holy men in whom emotion and feeling were strong, we have confined ourselves to men of like passions with ourselves. It would not, however, be difficult to show in the life of our blessed Lord himself that emotion and feeling were an integral part of his experience on earth—albeit in his case the emotions were sinless. Our Redeemer knew emotion in its complete spectrum from darkest gloom and sorrow to ecstatic joy and rejoicing. His sympathetic compassion draw tears from him at a graveside (John 11) and over poor, blinded Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Our human miseries were his daily concern whilst here below. Nothing that touched mankind was an irrelevance to him. If his more frequent emotions were of sorrow because of man’s piteous plight, he was no stranger to times of joy also (Luke 10:21). All this he voluntarily undertook for us, for his eye was on the prize of all these sufferings—the purchase of a church to be his bride. This was the ‘joy set before him’ for which he ‘endured the cross and despised the shame’ (Heb. 12:2).
To our mind the evidence is compelling. Emotion is a proper part of the Christian’s life. It is not to be stifled but educated. We are not to teach ourselves how to suppress our feelings but how to express them unto edification, both our own and others’. To that end we would offer the following suggestions.
1. The Christian would do well to make it his habit never, if possible, to speak or think of God without deep reverence and affection. At least, he should refer to God feelingly when his circumstances permit him to do so. Let him set before his mind the greatness of his debt to God both for his birth and for his new birth, for his election from Adam’s fallen mass and his redemption by Christ. He should set aside time regularly to meditate on the truths most fitted to excite and enthrall his soul. What moves one man may not move another. Let each Christian dwell frequently on those texts, doctrines and experiences which much excite and enliven his own heart and set in motion the wheels of elevated feeling.
2. Then, we would suggest that the Christian should avoid all excess of laughter, or at least, such laughter as is associated with trivial amusement and worldly humour. There is laughter which flows from pure spiritual joy. It is probable that we cannot have too much of that. But it is not common. The habit of laughing at the slightest opportunity is not only unedifying to others, but also it is harmful to the cultivation of the profounder emotions of the soul: awe, fear of God, sense of the nearness of Christ’s Spirit, gravity and nobility of character. It ill befits the princes of a great King to laugh over trifles. They are likely, if they do so, to appear to others to have forgotten their station in life and their high standing.
3. We believe that it is good for the soul to develop the habit of expecting to feel great emotion from time to time in the use of the means of grace, especially under preaching, in secret prayer and at the Lord’s Table. The habit we refer to is to expect that God will periodically fill our hearts with wonderful melting and heavenly comfort. We believe that those who do not expect such experiences are not likely to have them. But this is much to their loss. Christ is able to fill the heart to overflowing by his felt presence and grace. The great saints of the past have had frequent experience of such gracious visitations and we are to seek to grow up into Christ as they did till we have similar spiritual exercises.
4. In conclusion, we should not seek God for the sake of gracious experiences but rather seek God for his own sake. A child who loves his mother does not love her company for ulterior motives but for love’s sake alone. So the Christian delights in God for no other reason than that he is God, most delightful to contemplate and most worthy of our highest affection and obedience.
There cannot be any serious doubt that the romance has gone out of the Christian life for too many believers. We have forgotten for too long that every doctrine of Scripture should have its corresponding echo in the soul. Truths of theology are not bare philosophical speculations but powerful influences. ‘The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life’ (John 6:63). A large part of the Christian’s joy and comfort is to ‘feel’ the force of these truths and to become familiar with them till they fill his heart with their heavenly music.
When doctrines are preached with feeling, warmth and passion they will be felt in the pew, not by all, but by those who have a soul which thirsts after God. Those who blow the gospel-trumpet have the highest privilege on earth. It would be good to see congregations everywhere thrilled and excited by the Word of God. Such emotion is sanctifying and exhilarating. It is also infectious.
Christ counted it his joy to save us from sin. We should count it our joy to suffer on earth for his sake. Once we come to that point we have recovered the romance and may well be close to recovering the blessing also.
Of Further Interest
The Saints' Knowledge of Christ's Love
One sometimes meets Christians who use scriptural words and thoughts with no more feeling than if they were licking stamps. They seem to belong to a religious world whose citizens live always north of the Arctic circle of emotion. Their spiritual […]