Human beings are people of extremes. The pages of history give testimony to our ability to diagnose a problem and then overcorrect to an opposite error. Children raised under the pressures of legalism often gravitate toward licentiousness. Reacting against an overemphasis in logic, some have gone to the opposite error of relative truth.
The church is not immune to such pendulum swings.
One area we see the pendulum continually swinging back and forth is the area of thinking and emotions. Some refer to this as focusing on either the heart or the mind, some might say emphasizing either Word or Spirit.
However one phrases it, the gist is that in our personal life and in our church services, we tend to either highlight truth/thinking or emotional/experiential. Some tend to prioritize emotions to the neglect of their mind. Others, perhaps in reaction against that, feed their mind but seem unmoved in their emotions.
How do we understand the relationship between truth and emotions? What are we to make of church services that simply seek to move our emotions just to have an emotional experience? What about the churches that strain the gnat regarding truth but seem to lack any true emotion?
Both/And Not Either/Or
Perhaps instead of swinging the pendulum to one extreme or the other, we recognize the value and importance of both truth and emotions. Jesus said we need to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Those who gravitate naturally to the experiential side need to equally emphasize truth and doctrine. Those who naturally flock to the truth and love studying doctrine would do well to make sure those truths are stirring their affections for the Lord.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones emphasized the need for both. He said that often the problem is “due to the fact that people have emphasized either experience or doctrine at the expense of the other, and indeed they have been guilty, and still are, of putting up as contrasts things which clearly are meant to be complementary.”1 He argued that we must avoid the extremes of fanaticism on the one hand, or dry intellectualism on the other.
We tend to think that you have to pick between truth or emotions. Many assume if you focus on truth, then you will be dry, intellectual, and boring. A church service with this emphasis will feel more like an academic lecture. Others view emotion as mere effects of entertainment or emotional manipulation. Certainly, both of these extremes exist, but that doesn’t mean it has to be one or the other.
Books could be written on this subject, but for today we’ll just narrow it down to two propositions: (1) Our emotions should be based on truth, and (2) studying truth should move our emotions.
Our Emotions Should Be Based on Truth
Because it’s easy to move emotions and make people feel like they’ve experienced something, there are many churches that simply seek an emotional experience. Again, to be clear, emotions are not bad, but they should be based on truth. If a passage of Scripture teaches about joy, then it’s certainly appropriate to experience joy as one reads it or listens to a sermon on it. A worship song praising God for his greatness should stir our hearts as we reflect on him, and likewise a song of lamentation should provoke a passionate reflection of our sorrow.
A skilled worship leader or band can build anticipation then do a key change or a beat drop at just the right moment in a way that moves an audience. A preacher can change his cadence or add an element of eloquence in such a way that the audience feels something. These can be done without any accompanying truth. These techniques are not inherently wrong, but we must make sure that we are highlighting emotion-stirring truths rather than empty emotional experiences.
If a church merely provides an emotional experience that makes the audience feel a certain way, but that emotion is not based on truth and centered on God, then they have not served their people well. If the emotion is not based on a truth about God, then as soon as it wears off the people are not helped at all. They may feel like they had a good church service, but it will only last as long as the emotional buzz and, after that, will not affect their life in any real way.
Truth Should Stir Our Emotions
Others argue that focusing on truth and doctrine puts one at odds with the Holy Spirit. Lloyd-Jones saw the same thing in his day:
“There are some people who think that to avoid quenching the Spirit, you must put your intellect out of action, that you must stop thinking, stop examining, that you must let yourself go and be carried away.”2
Lloyd-Jones believe that too many people fall into the trap of seeking a spiritual experience to the neglect of the Word. The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible and the doctrines it contains; we cannot separate Word and Spirit. When we dig in the Word and study all that God has revealed about himself, we are putting ourselves in a position to be transformed by the Spirit and the Word. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to sanctify the people of God (John 17:17).
But, this will take work and discipline, something that too many Christians today are unwilling to give. Many devalue study and see it as difficult and boring.
Do we really believe that truths about God are boring?
If we are talking about God, or if we are singing, preaching, teaching, or reading his word, then we recognize that we are talking about the greatest truths in the world. I don’t assume all truths should move our emotions. Sitting in math class, one can hear a teacher proclaim a complicated math problem that, while true, probably won’t stir most people’s heart. I assume everything I read in the owner’s manual of a lawnmower is true, but it doesn’t move my affections.
But truths about God, his plan of redemption, his sovereignty over history, and every other good thing we read about in Scripture should move our emotions. Two plus two might not excite you, but God’s grace should. Changing the oil in the lawn mower every fifty hours might bore you, but the impending return of Christ shouldn’t.
Studying doctrine shouldn’t suppress your emotions, it should move them more deeply than anything else possibly could!
People Who Think Deeply And Feel Intensely
God created us in his image and has given us a mind and emotions. As Jen Wilkin said, “The heart can’t love what the mind doesn’t know.”
To be well-balanced Christians, we should be men and women who dive deeply in the word and examine the doctrines of the faith. These beautiful truths should not only challenge our thinking, but deeply move our affections for the Lord. The more we learn about him, the more we should love him. The more we love him, the more we should desire to learn more about him.