Jonathan Edwards had a problem. In the early 1740’s the First Great Awakening was sweeping the American colonies. With it came all sorts of things that were, hitherto, unfamiliar. Edwards would comment that many ‘conversions’ and the ‘spiritual’ experience of people during evangelistic meetings would lead to many strange and interesting manifestations. He remarked that at these meetings, people would have all sorts of bodily reactions, extreme joy, moaning, fervent talk, etc.. But he was left to wonder about their sincerity; about the long-term nature of their experience. Edwards commented that he would often see these same people, soon after their ‘experience’, turn back to their old ways of sin as a dog returns to his vomit. So Edwards wondered:
- Were the people who demonstrated so much fervour and excitement when part of the meetings truly saved?
- Was emotionalism truly worship?
- Were the heightened affections that people felt in any given moment, truly indicative of a regenerate new life?
- Were physical manifestations of whatever variety truly indicative of the presence of the Holy Spirit?
This problem sounds all too familiar doesn’t it? Emotion is often the means by which we define our own and others’ spiritual maturity. Unless one is emotional, outwardly passionate, or exuberant in some way, that person must not be in tune with God. Because, it is assumed, the Holy Spirit’s presence should turn us into emotional wrecks. Or to put it another way, often true spirituality is associated with typically (stereotypically?) female characteristics and responses. It’s a rampant problem in the church, one that I think we can all resonate with. Let me give you a few examples. (Click here for a bang on perspective on the feminizing of the church from the Executive Director of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)
- A person is accused of not truly loving somebody, or the church in general, unless he gets emotional at some point about it. Despite the fact that the biblical definition of love doesn’t include outward emotion as a way of identifying its presence (cf 1 Corinthians 13).
- A person is not sensitive to the feelings and situations of others, unless they demonstrate some type of emotion; usually crying needs to be involved. (As an aside, I always tell people, “Don’t equate my lack of emotion with a lack of sensitivity. Just because I’m not breaking down on the outside, doesn’t mean that I’m not affected on the inside.”)
- A person standing with his hands in his pockets and not singing during our ‘worship’ time, is often accused of not worshiping. Whereas the person with his hands in the air while singing loudly is worshiping. This leads to many people feeling ‘God’s presence’ based upon emotional uplift or breakdown during singing.
Emotion, or the subjective experience of faith, has, I dare say, become THE defining characteristic of discipleship, leadership, worship and overall Christian experience.
In 1746, Edwards’ work A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections was written to discuss exactly these kinds of problems. Because of that, Edwards’ wisdom continues to be valuable. I could write dozen’s of blogs on this book and its value, but I want to highlight the overall theme of Edwards work as a corrective to our misguided and unbiblical perspective as it relates to our experience of God.
Edwards sought to find the balance between ’emotionalism’ and ‘intellectualism’. He understood that the Bible makes true affections an essential part of godliness:
“They [who] would deny that much of true religion lies in the affections, and maintain the contrary, must throw away what we have been wont to own for our Bible, and get some other rule, by which to judge of the nature of religion.”
But he also recognized that not all affections are the same. We need to reject and eliminate some, while others need to be welcomed and developed:
“The right way, is not to reject all affections, nor to approve all; but to distinguish between affections, approving some, and rejecting others; separating between the wheat and the chaff, the gold and the dross, the previous and the vile.”
In his book, Edwards goes through 12 signs of religious affections that are uncertain; they may look like they are signs of grace, but on their own you cannot know for certain. He also outlines 12 signs which distinguish the truly gracious and holy affections as being part of true religions. So how do you know the difference?
Well, it’s not that easy and it is easy, all at the same time. Here’s what I mean. For Edwards, “The gracious affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.” Like I said, not easy and easy. Put frankly, we need to make some changes regarding how we determine spirituality and Christian maturity in the church:
- We need to destroy our 21st century stereotypes of what true spirituality looks like and use a biblical way of understanding Christian maturity. Let people be biblically spiritual according to the way that God has made them and is working in their lives. There is no such thing as a cookie-cutter Christian!
- We need to show humility in our evaluation of ourselves and others. We typically think that those who are like us and live their Christian walk the way we do are spiritually mature, while those who differ from us, are not spiritually mature. Personally, I get this all the time. For example, I am a deeply sensitive person and am very in tune with the ebbs and flows of the spiritual journeys of others. But I’m not outwardly emotional. So most people who are more spiritually emotional categorize me as being calloused and unloving simply because I don’t respond to things in an outwardly emotional way. How proud and judgmental those people are!
- We need long and deep relationships with others to decide whether someone is truly maturing in their spirituality. If the “exercise and fruit in Christian practice” is the way to know the truth of someone else’s Christian spirituality then we need to know them well enough and long enough to make that call with the humility I described above.
- We need to take a life-long view of what it means to be spiritual. We cannot know in small snippets or short periods of time whether or not a person is a mature growing believer. We have to watch the tree grow and the fruit ripen.
Let’s stop elevating emotion in the church. Let’s stop judging peoples Christian walk based on feminized, 21st century stereotypes.Let’s let God’s word define our spirituality. Let’s start accepting everybody’s experiences of God according to how God has wired them. Let’s let the stoic be stoic. Let’s let the emotional be emotional. Then let’s sit back and watch God work mightily in the church as he unifies all of us under his word and not under our stereotypes.
Soli Deo Gloria
Note: If you would like more insight from Jonathan Edwards pick up and read his seminal work. But it’s a really tough read. So pick up Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’s “Religious Affections” by Sam Storms first.