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Friday, February 13th 2015

23:43

Relating to God, part 4.

  • STATE OF EXISTENCE: Fine
  • IN THE BACKDROP: Debra Whyte on StreetJelly

On we go with our thoughts on Christian experience with the Lord. We’ll focus on the topic of emotions and feelings, which has kept popping up.

First, though, speaking of emotions and such, I need to comment on last night’s StreetJelly.com set. I really had a blast and am thankful to everyone who joined the party, named or anonymous. Leaving aside the quality of my singing and guitar playing, it was an incredible amount of fun. I’ve gotten to the point of being pretty relaxed now performing to the computer. For some reason that was hard for me initially, a reality that struck me as particularly odd since I’ve been comfortable in front of large audiences forever. (Actually really large venues are relatively easy because you can’t see the audience anyway beyond the first couple of rows or so due to the bright stage lights.)  I still make mistakes and always will, a consequence of my condition, but they don't stick out as much when everyone's relaxed and having a good time.

Baez and Dylan 1963Next Week: “Bob Dylan Tunes”—meaning, for the most part, early B.D. from before he went from folk singer to rock artist. Requests are welcome. I already have two. (Thursday, February 19, 9 pm EST)

I must say that I was somewhat startled to see Bob Dylan on the cover of the latest AARP magazine. Then again, he’s 73 years old, and, like many members, not entirely retired. He’s releasing a new album of what are essentially Frank Sinatra covers, and he allegedly granted AARP the one and only interview in that connection. I’m glad to say that it was not a repeat of that contrived, hoaky 60 Minutes interview .

*****

I don’t particularly hide the fact that I can be a fairly emotional person. Obviously, there are times when one has to cover up one's feelings in order to avoid a solecism. As Sherlock Holmes said in a recent episode of “Elementary” while interviewing a suspect, as closely as I remember, “I realize that it is obligatory for me not to show my feelings in a setting such as this, but I assure you that on the inside I’m cracking up with laughter.”

Other people demonstrate their emotions more or less vigorously.

Having said as much, here’s tonight’s “testimony,” the fourth of five. Once again, the actual piece is made up, but sticks very closely, almost literally, to what some folks have aid to me at various times.

I wish I felt what everyone else is feeling.  I’ve been a Christian all of my life, and I don’t have a great conversion story.  When I was six years old, my grandma helped me accept Christ as my savior, and I’ve been a more or less good Christian ever since.  My problem is this:  Everybody around me seems to feel the Lord’s presence all the time.  When they’re sick and people pray for them, they tell everybody that they felt a special touch from the Lord.  When they worship the Lord, they talk about feeling his majesty, or his love, or his closeness.  I never seem to feel any of that.  Maybe I’m just not a “feeling type of person,” but some people have hinted around that if I don’t feel the Lord in my life, maybe that’s because he’s not real in my life.  I’m starting to wonder myself.

Back when I used to have students respond to this and the other “reports” in small groups, I was just a little bit surprised when some of them (and, please, I have no idea who anymore) in their “letter” to the fictional person encouraged him or her (I’ll go with “her” again because of the example I will use below) to find some means of discovering appropriate Christian emotions. Some of those reactions may have just been due to a difference of how to interpret the words “emotion” and “feeling.” I’m assuming that the person under consideration has the basic human feelings that we would associate with gratitude to God, love of God, and so forth, but all-in-all on a relatively sober level. For example, she’s thankful that God has saved her, but she’s not getting huge tingles surging through her body whenever she thinks about it, let alone making a demonstration of her feelings to others. So, let me put it this way: Since she is human, she has “normal” human reactions, but nothing on a level that, for her personality, would involve some artificial cranking up.

Some Christians place a great amount of value on public displays of emotions. There are some smaller denominations in which people are not considered to be truly repentant or saved unless they shed tears in front of the congregation. I’m pretty certain that such an outburst is not a requirement set up in the Bible.

Still, for many Christians nowadays, the display of some wanton emotion seems to be, if not mandatory, then at least a measure of displaying of a person’s piety. Picture yourself in what is the music portion of a worship service. There you are, standing and singing the song projected onto the screen, thinking of the meaning of the words, while others around you are raising their hands, seemingly going into some kind of holy trance. You couldn’t put yourself into that state if you tried. It may become quite difficult for you not to think that you may be missing something, or for those around you to wonder why you don’t seem to love the Lord as much as they do. I don’t mean that assessment in a harsh, judgmental way; it’s just one of those reactions that seem to be extremely hard to avoid without proper guidance. Still, it’s nonsense.

Christianity is about reality, not emotions. (Please see my video on mysticism on YouTube, particularly the reference to whether Christianity has anything equivalent to the Hindu “Tat Tvam Asi” experience.) The reality I’m talking about is the gospel of God’s redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection, the fact that our redemption requires a simple trust in Jesus and what he has done, and the truth that, once we are redeemed, we are indwelt by God himself. Personally, I can’t think of those matters without being overawed, and I don’t think anyone can do so without feeling a similar emotion, but the degree of feeling, let alone the manner in which we may display it,is going to vary from person to person. Most importantly the realities are not affected by our emotions, neither strengthening nor weakening them except may as an indicator of our commitment to them. I'm writing as someone who has had to fight against emotional misdirection for much of my life, and I thank God for a wife who has more than one helped me see reality as it is and not as I'm revising it in my head. And, if I may go a little bit out on a limb, once in a while vice versa. ---- C'm on it's Valentine's season, and a little romantic by play (if that's what it is) is certainly forgivable.

I must get back to my topic so that every verbal uphill eventually will issue in a verbal downhill.

When my book, Mysticism: An Evangelical Option? came out in 1991*, I was invited to give a number of radio interviews, probably more so with that title than with any subsequent one. The book, though far from a massive seller, opened a number of great opportunities to communicate the gospel that might otherwise not have come my way. For example, I was invited to be the guest for a midnight show on KDKA in Pittsburgh hosted by “Father John” (I think) to discuss the topic of mysticism. During dark hours, KDKA can be heard pretty much all over the Eastern half of the United States. It was a call-in show, where, say, “Jim from Alabama,” or “Susan from Maryland,” and so forth got to phone in and ask questions of “the professor.” Oh yeah, I should also clarify that the guest on such shows is connected to the studio by phone; viz., I didn’t drive to Pittsburgh for the interview.

For those of my readers who have not read my Mysticism let me state its fundamental points with regard to New Testament-based Christianity.

1. I believe that there is no further “special revelation” beyond the biblical canon. I cannot rule out that God may guide a person directly in some particular mode of his choosing, but such a person’s experiences may not infringe on the authority of Scripture.

2. The Bible neither mandates a special experience nor raises up a special experiences as an indication of greater spiritual maturity or commitment. I’m not saying that such experience can’t happen, but, if so, the Bible does not endow them with any great significance. By the way, this point was also emphasized by the so-called mystic Meister Eckhart.

3. The Bible does, however, tell us about the realities, as mentioned above, that could legitimately called “mystical.” If God's presence within us in the person of the Holy Spirit does not qualify as "mystical," the word must have been severely truncated in meaning. Still, this reality is not associated with a special emotional experience and does not yield new revelation for the church. However, if you know Christ as your savior, that reality, among others, is yours, whether you feel anything or not. See Romans 8:9.

 

So, the phones started ringing. Some callers wanted to know my opinion about people who, as far as they knew, showed particular signs of great piety and a mystical union with God. For instance, a man told me of a woman who was so deeply spiritual that she always exuded the scent of flowers, a phenomenon frequently associated with people who miraculously manifest Christ’s stigmata (i.e. his wounds). It’s usually violets, though in this instance, the caller said roses. I did not pursue the olfactory aspect of this matter, but took advantage of the opportunity to tell him and other similar callers that, outwards signs were not important, and that they could be just as close, if not closer, to God simply by coming to Christ in faith. People who made a display of their “deep” faith that was accompanied by special effects were no holier than you and I can be. One lady called in to tell me that I was “beautiful,” and I’ve never quite figured out what that meant in the context, other than as a compliment.

Let’s tune in to another radio interview in connection with the same book. The opening vignette of this post is drawn to a large extent from this event. This time it was an afternoon session on a Christian radio station in Texas. Again, I emphasized my message that displays of extraordinary emotion were not a biblical requirement for salvation or Christian growth. The realities are there, whether you feel them and express them with great emotional fervor or not. A woman called in and asked me to repeat exactly what I had said to make sure she had heard correctly. “No, you are not less of a Christian if you do not show a lot of emotions.”

The lady thanked me profusely. In fact, paradoxically, she did become somewhat emotional. This matter had become a huge weight for her, and, as illustrated in the “testimony” above, some Christians had started to look down on her for not being as demonstrative as others, and, without further help, she had actually come to doubt her faith because she just could not get herself to feel what her friends claimed to feel and told her that she should feel as well.

I could go on with examples. There was the student, a solid Christian, on one of my trips to Israel who, towards the end of the trip had become concerned. Other people seemed to have experiences so much feeling when we visited sites associated with the life of Jesus. He appreciated them, was thankful to God for what Jesus had done, recognized the privilege of visiting them, but he never got any strong emotional reaction. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked me. My answer was very simply “Nothing. You’re a different person than others (as in various senses we all are). If you don’t feel what others feel, that’s perfectly okay.” I only wished he had spoken to me about it earlier.

The difference that I'm talking about is illustrated by King David and General Joab, David’s military chief of staff. Let me lead off this comparison by stating the obvious, namely that neither of these two men were paragons of virtue, as evidenced in the matter of Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 11). But that’s not my topic this time; I’m interested here in their contrasting personalities.

David was forever struggling with his emotions. In the narrative accounts in 2 Samuel (some of them left out in Chronicles), his emotions got in the way of clear judgment, whether they had to do with his sons or various women (most notably, but not exclusively, Absalom and Bathsheba respectively). In many of his psalms, e.g., Psalm 143, he depicted himself in the depths of despair, hopelessly at the mercy of his enemies. But then he recalled God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and he ended up comforted and quieted, relying on God for help with whatever he could not cope with—until the next time, when his emotions would plunge again and he would go through the same process once more.

 

This is an interesting story, by the way, and you'll find most of it in 1 Chronicles, not in 2 Samuel. The sequence of events started when David sent some emissaries to Ammon to express their condolences to King Nahash on the occasion of his father's passing. Nahash severely insulted them, and, thereby, David himself and his kingdom. When it dawned on Nahash that he was in trouble, he decided to defend against military retaliation on David's part by going on the offensive. He made an alliance with the Arameans so that these two armies could combine in a strong offensive attack on Judah. David sent out Joab and Abishai with their divisions while he remained in Jerusalem. As mentioned in the text, Joab’s and Abishai’s divisions marched right into a highly undesirable battle formation with the Arameans on one side, and the Ammonites, with their backs secured by the city Medeba on the other. Joab’s division was to take on the Arameans, while Abishai’s troops would start out by fighting the Ammonites. As it turned out, there was not much of a battle. When the Arameans saw Joab and his soldiers charging at them, they turned and fled. The Ammonites observed what was happening and took to their heels as well, finding safety from Abishai behind the walls of Medeba.

One would think that, having returned home, the Arameans would be thankful that they got away and sue for peace if necessary. Instead, they gathered a huge army to fight Judah. This time David himself took command, and the outcome was a genuine rout with many Arameans getting killed. Then David returned to Jerusalem (and had the affair with Bathsheba), while Joab led the army in a lengthy mission coursing through Ammon and subduing the entire country. This campaign culminated in the siege of Ammon's capital city, Rabbah. (It was here that Uriah was killed.) Eventually, Joab called for David to come and oversee the final toppling of Rabbah. By that time David had been chastened by God, but also reaffirmed upon his repentance. Rabbah fell, and David endowed himself with the crown of Ammon. The lesson of the story as far as the Arameans were concerned: We will never help Ammon again!

And here you thought there was nothing of interest in Chronicles!

 

 

On the other hand, I don’t know whether Joab ever had a single emotion in his life. Okay, that’s an obvious overstatement; I realize that he must have, though his emotions don’t seem to have played a big role in his life. He served God, and he served his king, always doing the right thing—as he understood it. Obeying God took precedence over the fluctuating desires of the king. David could not bring himself to order Absalom’s execution, an unavoidable necessity according to the rules of that time; Joab just did it. I love his speech to his brother Abishai when each of them was commanding half of Judah’s army in a situation where loss seemed inevitable. They were outnumbered and outflanked by an alliance of the Ammonite and Aramean armies. To adapt Captain Kirk's question to Captain Picard ("Generations," 1994), "the odds were against them, and the situation was grim." Still, he made a mutual assistance compact with Abishai as though their eventual victory was assured (1 Chron. 19:12-13).

“If the Arameans are too strong for me,” Joab said, “then you’ll be my help. However, if the Ammonites are too strong for you, I’ll help you. Be strong! We must prove ourselves strong for our people and for the cities of our God. May the Lord’s will be done.”

 

Are you a David? Great. Are you a Joab? Just as great. Our standard is the Bible, which neither forbids emotions, as long as they don’t interfere with the rest of what God has revealed, nor expects them beyond the range of normal human nature. The “peace that surpasses our understanding” (Phil. 4:7) is a gift from God; we cannot produce it by our efforts and it doesn’t express itself in never-ending smiles and giggles. To rejoice in the Lord, to feel confident in his promises, to be amazed at his grace, none of these things entail a mandate to morph into a light-hearted extroverted personality. And it is certainly absurd to attempt to produce emotions artificially, not even if you have been intimidated by other Christians who may be trying sell you on such a production as necessary.

A former campus pastor at Taylor University had a plaque on a wall that said something like this:

“Allow God to be as creative with other people as he has been with you.”

*Note to all the young and restless authors eager to get onto the major publishing scene. Please note that's about 10 years from Handmaid to Theology (1981) to Mysticism 1991, a ten-year gap only to be interrupted by my revision of Norm Geisler's Philosopy of Religion as far as books go.  Both book were totally written "on spec" in the hopes that a publisher would eventually see the worth in them and go with them, which I'm delighted is the way it happened.

 

 

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