A few of my posts recently have circled around the tricky space between emotions and will, and a conversation at Bible study yesterday prompted me to address this head on.
What do you do when you feel emotionally and spiritually dry, and you know the sacrifice God desires is a contrite heart? That He wants our heart’s attitude to be shaped for Him, and that He hates hypocrisy? Do you keep going to church even though “your heart’s not in it”? Or would that be an insult to God and others, and/or make things worse?
There’s so much that could be said about this but to give us a smaller arena for discussion, I’m gonna focus on Isaiah 1, which was our passage at Bible study yesterday and prompts my thoughts on this issue.
In Isaiah 1, God is criticising His people for their empty religious practices.
““The multitude of your sacrifices— what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood!”
Isaiah 1:11-15 NIV
At this point, it’s important to notice that the sacrifices etc were required by God’s law. The problem (here at least!) is not that they’re sacrificing to idols or something like that. God is saying that He is sick of their sacrifices and prayers. Why? Well, the explanation begins in the final phrase of the above verses, “your hands a full of blood”, which God then tells them to wash off themselves.
“Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
Isaiah 1:16-17 NIV
So, we do see a problem of hypocrisy; they’re doing the right religious ceremonies, but they leave it at ceremony, instead of letting God’s will direct everything else about their relationships, individually and as a society. They’re not obeying God’s will in all things. So, they’re hypocrites. Unjust ones.
But we don’t actually see a hypocrisy of emotion. It’s not that they’re prayers don’t feel genuine to God, or that their sacrifices don’t have a ring of emotional sincerity. The hypocrisy is the gap between their religious ceremonies and the rest of their lives. God isn’t concerned with their emotions at all in this passage, but their actions, and the way their actions reflect their understanding of and attitude towards themselves and God.
So does that make it irrelevant to the issue I’m trying to address, of when there’s a gap between how we feel and the way we follow Jesus? Shouldn’t I pick a passage that talks about emotions?!!
Well, yes, but also, a huge part of that problem is simply us, our society and culture. The culture of the Bible is aware of emotions, most emphatically, they’re not ignored or discounted, but they’re not given the high place our culture gives them. So the hypocrisy we feel regarding emotions and actions isn’t necessarily directly addressed.
For a few different reasons, we’ve ended up with a culture where emotions (which are notoriously changeable and unreliable) are the main measure of genuineness. How we feel about a decision is how we should make it, our preference or mood should dictate our actions. “What do you feel like for dinner?” Is a normal question to us. Dinner is no longer about nutrition, price and community, but, emotion…?
This obsession with emotion and genuineness is particularly emphasised by the idea that spontaneity = authenticity. If two people fall in love “instantly” it must be genuine, and if it takes longer or even much longer than that, we question it. This has an interesting side effect in church, is a prepared prayer still genuine? What if someone else wrote it and we’re all saying it at the same time? Are these really “my” words?
How we feel about something has become the only measure for truth. We leave jobs, relationships, houses and countries all because we’re not “feeling it” any more. We seek new jobs, relationships, houses, countries and other experiences so that we’ll feel something.
Whereas, if we pause for a second and ask, “hands up who feels better about things after a good sleep?” Our collective hands would be raised, in acknowledgement that our emotions can change, simply through physical processes! “Hands up if you’ve felt sad at 11pm and ok again by morning? Or if you’ve been grumpy and then eaten a good snack and everything has improved?” For heaven’s sake, we’ve even got advertising based around that fact! “Hands up if you feel better after a good cry?” And bam, you’ve got a whole field of psychology.
We do actually know that emotions change a lot, over time, for heaps of different reasons, including medication, but our culture tells us that how we feel should be key in decision making and general actions. But is this what the Bible says? And what do we do about that? Does God want me to “genuinely feel” some particular way about Him and His people and the thing we’re doing for me to do it? What should we do when we’re not “feeling it”? Take a spiritual snack? Have a spiritual nap? Is the old, “break from church” the solution??*
Well, if we return to Isaiah for a moment we can see that God’s solution to their hypocrisy was not simply to have an emotional response and a change of emotions, but actually is a call to fresh action. “Seek justice, learn to do right, defend the oppressed.” They’re not going to fix the problem of their hypocrisy simply by emoting about it; mourning, regretting, etc. All of those would be appropriate emotional reactions, but, more than that, God is calling them to act. He wants what they do to represent what they say they know and believe. Elsewhere, He will talk about mourning and sighing over their sins (for eg) but He wants action, that aligns with that they say they believe.
Our culture says, “let your emotional state govern your actions”, the Bible says, “let God’s will govern your actions”. We might not feel anything in particular about God and His people. Or we might be angry, disappointed, sad, etc etc etc. But what do we say we believe? That God is the divine ruler of the world and deserves all honour, power and glory? That means we could take at least a tiny slice of our week to be devoted to a sacrifice of praise to Him? Do we believe that we should not giving up meeting together, as instructed in Hebrews, because each of us has a part to play in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians)?
I am a person of interesting emotional states. I have depression, which means often my emotional state is “die or hibernate under quilt forever.” Or the great, yawning gulf of “meh” which some of my fellow depressives are familiar with. “Cute cat”, meh. “Mum died”, meh. “Won lotto”, meh. And, some of my days are a constant battle against the conviction that everyone would be better off if I was dead. In fact, if there was a way we could erase my exitsence altogether, that would be better, let’s make it as if I had never been born. Is that an emotional state? Mm, kinda Mostly. Should I act on it? No. Why not? Cos it’s not true. It doesn’t define me and shouldn’t be allowed to make my decisions for me.
Yes, sometimes stuff like going to a church service is hard or just boring. Or prayer feels like it’s not happening cos it’s not an emotionally rich experience. Yes, I look forward to the day when I will feel how I’d like to feel about these things, but for now, the gap between my feelings and my actions is not hypocrisy, it’s hope. Hope that how I’m feeling now will change. Hope that putting into practise what I believe will be better for me and for everybody around me. And better for them too, if they do it too.
*I’m not actually gonna say it never is, sometimes a break is just necessary for sanity, especially in tough circumstances. Talk to someone whose emotions about church are mixed because they’ve been molested in a church, or whose congregation is constantly at war over trivial matters, or whose minister is a discouraging hate monger and you’ll be talking to some people who find church emotionally tough. Talk to someone whose mental illness makes it difficult to leave the house, or whose chronic pain makes sitting upright in a pew excruciating, and you’ll be talking to someone who finds church mento all tough and might need a break from going to services.