RELIGIOUS FEELINGS versus
“I don’t feel like it is necessary for me to do so.…” “I can’t forgive him anymore, he has failed me too many times….” “I feel it is alright for me to continue where I am.…” “I feel that she was not telling me the whole truth.…” “I feel he may have some ulterior motives.…” “I feel that it’s not fair.…” “I feel like a hypocrite if I have to behave in any other way than what I am doing now.…” “I feel the Holy Spirit leading me to do it.…” “I no longer feel for her as I did before….” “We feel that there are so much differences between us that it is best we go our ways….”
Few of us would deny that these statements are commonly heard from Christians today. In fact, it is likely that we may even have used them or the like ourselves, in our interaction with fellow believers. They are so common-place that we hardly raise an eyebrow when we hear them being used. Indeed, feelings are so much a part of our make-up that few of us would question whether it is right for us to base our decisions and actions on how we feel. Some may even ask: Christianity is about feelings, isn’t it? It is about religious affections, isn’t it?
While we do not deny the importance of religious affections in the Christian life, we are concerned at how feelings are so often pitted against duty today. Is it not true that the average believer today will judge another by how sincere he is rather than by how true he is to the Scriptures or by his fruits (Mt 7:16)? Also, while we do not deny the place of the conscience in the Christian life, is it not true that the name of conscience has often been used to justify sin? When this happens, feelings, which are the essential part of our being and have a right and proper place in our Christian life, are abused.
In this article, we shall look at three ways in which this frequently happens.
Several weeks ago, when Pastor Chris J. Connors was with us, he made an interesting illustration using Prof. Herman Hanko’s habit of walking his dachshund. Prof. Hanko, as you know, is quite a tall man, whereas a dachshund is a small dog with short legs. Inevitably, the poor little dog would always be trailing behind and trying to catch up with its master. This daily scene was not only comical for the students to behold, but soon became a subject of theological discussion by the theologues! They eventually named it “religious feelings”!
How apt an illustration. Is it not often the case that religious feelings often trail behind our knowledge and practice? And it is right and proper, for when God commands us to any duty in His Word, His commands are never conditioned on how we feel. This is how the Apostle Paul, under inspiration, could command husbands to love their wives, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her (Eph 5:25). Paul nowhere excuses husbands from the duty of loving their wives if they do not have the necessary affections. In the same way, we are commanded to “rejoice in the Lord”! (Phil 3:1; 4:10; cf. 4:4). How could Paul command us to rejoice if religious feelings must be present before the command is valid? No, it is precisely because we may not have joy that Paul commands us to rejoice.
The same goes for our initial conversion. Though regeneration logically precedes faith and repentance, regeneration does not necessarily manifest itself in feelings at its onset. To insist that it does would border on mysticism which cannot be supported by Scriptures. Did not the Lord say: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:8). In other words, regeneration is not something that can be felt, nor is it always immediately evident. So then, an unbeliever needs not and must not wait until he experiences some religious feelings before embracing Christ as Saviour and as Lord. We are not saying that everyone who professes to believe in Christ is regenerate, but simply that initial conversion is not necessarily accompanied by intense religious feelings.
Once we understand that it is normal for feelings to lag, it becomes clear: (1) That obedience is not conditioned on whether we feel like obeying. Thus a husband must love his wife even if he finds her no longer very lovely. (2) Fear of hypocrisy is not a valid reason for failure at duty. A duty may be performed hypocritically but it is never hypocritical to perform duty. For example, someone may believe that he should attend the mid-week prayer meeting, but does not feel like attending because he feels like a hypocrite,—coming on account of duty, but not a desire to pray with the church. Should he refrain from coming? No, he should still come because duty is not negated by feelings. However, he should pray fervently that the Lord may grant him a real burden to pray with the church. (3) We must not allow feelings to drag us down when it comes to reforming our life and worship to the Lord. When I first came to understand that we should sing psalms,—whatever ‘hymns’ and ‘songs’ may mean,—I found it rather difficult. Uninspired hymns and songs seem so much easier to understand, and they stir emotions which the psalms did not appear to be able to. At that time, the temptation to give in to feelings was very great. It took a while before the littledachshund caught up.
The illustration of Prof. Hanko and his dachshund reminds me of the time when I was living in the States. The family I stayed with had a Doberman pinscher, which is a large dog. One day, I decided to bring her for a jog. I had seen my landlady’s brother Chuck done that, so I thought I would do the same. Chuck was a big man: about the height of Prof. Hanko, but bigger built. When he ran with the Doberman, he had no problem catching up with her. But I tried the same, I was dragged most of the way by her as she dashed around the park. By the time I reached home, I was utterly exhausted.
Well, “religious feelings” are not always dachshunds. For some of us, they are Dobermans. We think of those in the Charismatic movement where feelings and exhilarating ‘worship’ mean everything. Ask them what the basis of their practices is and they would say, “They work! We are drawn close to God!” Of course, what they mean is that they feel that they are close to God. Of course Dobermans are not only found in Charismatic churches. They are on the loose in evangelical and traditional churches too. Someone once explained to me why he liked a particular church: “When I step into the church [building], I have this awesome sense of God’s presence.” Ask this same person whether he had examined the doctrine of the church, and he would say, “Well, I know it is not Roman Catholic… their cross does not have Christ nailed to it.”
Dobermans are alive and thriving too in churches where theology is well-emphasised. Their existence are obliquely referred to in the Scripture. I refer you to Matthew 18:15ff where the Lord taught His disciples about the necessity and nature of Church Discipline. He gave a three-step process, first a one-to-one private confrontation, then a personal confrontation with at least one witness, and then officially with the elders representing the church. The Lord taught that only when the third step fails to win the erring brother, should he be excommunicated from the assembly (Mt 18:17–18). When Peter heard that, he must have thought about the practical implementation of what the Lord had taught. What if when we confront the offender, he expresses remorse and repentance; but soon repeats the offence? Do we forgive him the same way? What if he defaults on his repentance and repeats his offence again and again? When the person first commit the offence, it is relatively easier to forgive. But if he repeats his offence, then it gets harder and harder. Once bitten, twice shy: the dog accompanying our judgement grows bigger each time! What do we do? Peter decided to ask the Lord: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” (v. 21). The Lord’s answer is striking: “I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven” (v. 22). In other words, we are to forgive an unlimited number of times. Thus, if someone, who offends us over and over again, comes in contrition to seek our forgiveness, we must forgive even if he had previously defaulted on his repentance on many occasions (Mt 18:21–22). We may not feel like forgiving because of our suspicion that he may default again, but we have a duty towards Christ to forgive upon every repentance. Remember, however, that we are not talking about heretics: those who cause division in the church by unsound practices and doctrines, for which Paul commands to reject after the first and second public censures (Tit 3:10).
The Doberman looms large and runs ahead also in situations of conflict. When the Apostle Paul beseeched Euodias and Syntyche to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (Phil 4:2), he was essentially telling them to resolve their conflict rationally according to Christian principles. They were not to allow Satan to take advantage of their feelings and emotions to tear them apart (cf. Eph 4:26–27). This is why Solomon extols the virtue of being slow to anger (Prov 15:18; 16:32). As Christians, we must strive never to allow our emotions and feelings to dictate what we do towards others. We are to do good even to those who hate, as a duty towards God, for the Lord says:
Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:44–45).
Under situations of conflict, we will always be tempted to see the actions and words of our disputants in the worst light. This will inevitably add fuel to the frustration and widen the fissure. To do good to our neighbour in such a circumstance would be to judge our brethren in the best possible light and with the greatest charity possible. As we should let our yea be yeas and nay be nays (Jas 5:12; Mt 5:37), we should assume the same of our neighbours. How could our Lord’s injunction to forgive seventy time seven times ever make sense unless this be our principle of dealing with others? How could Paul’s instruction to empathise with others (Phil 2:3–4) be carried out unless we first adopt this principle?
Few of us would realise, that what we are contrasting is the difference between the principle of Christian life and that of liberalism. The famous liberal theologian, Schleiermacher, held that our feeling or religious intuition, and not reason or truth, is the seat and source of our religious life. What this means is that we must give priority to our subjective feelings rather than to objective truths whether from the Scriptures or from reason. I doubt if anyone of us reading this article would agree with Schleiermacher’s principle of the Christian life as a matter of philosophy. However, I have no doubt that many of us, who hold to sola scriptura as a principle of life, all too often allow our feelings to eclipse what duty is required in the Word of God. Indeed, sometimes, our feelings so overwhelm us that we fail to take into consideration the objective requirements of the Word of God in particular situations. May the Lord help us that we may be renewed in our mind and thus transformed in our lives.
We have seen the dachshund and the Doberman, let me introduce you to another dog. This is a Labrador Retriever trained as a guide for the blind or visually impaired. I had the opportunity to be acquainted with one such dog when I attended a Bible Study meeting in Santa Clara. It was a very beautiful dog with long floppy ears. When I saw it, I immediately reach forward to touch it. But my landlady, noticing what I was about to do, ‘rebuked’ me. She informed me that since its harness was not off, the Labrador was not off-duty and therefore not allowed to play. The guide dog, unlike the Doberman, does not dash ahead, nor trail behind like the dachshund. It walks either by the side of, or just ahead of its master who had to rely on it to lead him safely. Now, the guide dog is specially trained to read traffic signals, to walk only when the green man comes on, etc. It is also trained to warn its master of any danger that may be ahead, or any step or ledge, etc. Essentially, it serves as the eyes of its master.
Well, the guide dog is like our conscience. The conscience is the faculty of our soul, by which we distinguish between right and wrong, or if a particular deed we are about to undertake would be pleasing to God. It has a very small vocabulary: “Right,” “Wrong,” “Good,” “Bad,” etc. Like the blind man, we must rely on our conscience to lead us in our Christian life; and like the blind man, we can choose to ignore our conscience to our detriment. The Apostle Paul, alluding to the fact that the conscience is like a rudder of a ship, warns that if we ignore the voice of our conscience, we could easily make shipwreck of our faith (1 Tim 1:19). Also, like the guide dog, our conscience must be trained. The guide dog gets its training in the dog school. Our conscience must be trained through the reading of Scriptures and the hearing of biblical sermons. A guide dog that is not trained to obey jay-walking laws will lead its master to break the laws. A conscience that is not held captive to the Word of God will likewise lead its owner in rebellion against God.
We are discussing conscience here because our conscience determines, to a large extent, how we feel about our lives and about the way we conduct ourselves. Our conscience should guide us in such a way that we are assured that our lives are pleasing to God. The problem is that in our generation of pragmatism and easy-believism, few believers are keen to spend time to instruct their conscience. For a great majority of believers today, therefore, the conscience is no longer as reliable as it ought to be. More often than not, decisions are made using worldly wisdom or pragmatism. Sadly, when the validity of such decisions or deeds is challenged, a common response would be: “My conscience is clear!” In the same way, Christian duties are often neglected because the fallen conscience refuses to acknowledge sin as sin. So the Lord’s Day is desecrated by partying, shopping and movie-going, without any thought of God’s displeasure. So fathers may neglect to instruct the family without feeling shame. So, mothers may relegate all responsibilities of bringing up their children to nannies and maids, without much of a flutter of the conscience.
We will take a closer look at conscience in another article. But for now, realise that it does not mean you are living aright just because you feel comfortable and your conscience do not trouble you. You may be feeling comfortable simply because you have been starving your conscience. Similarly, an action or decision is not necessarily right just because our conscience seems silent about it. Bear in mind that to do what conscience forbids is always sin (cf. Rom 14:23), but to do what conscience allows is not always righteous. This principle is true however sharp or seared your conscience may be. But settle not on your lees (Zep 1:12). Put in every effort, take every opportunity to instruct your conscience. Surely you will not want to be sinning against the almighty God, whether ignorantly or otherwise.
God has created us as beings with emotions so that we may know grief, gratitude, love and joy. But emotion is a wild dog difficult to tame. It so often throws us off-focus in our Christian walk without our conscious awareness of what it is doing. May the Lord grant us that, as we are made aware of what feelings may do, we will be more careful to strive towards following the Word of God as objectively as possible, and to nourish our intellect so that a weak conscience may not fool us into feeling that we have no further need to reform our lives.