Evangelicalism and the Neglect of the Heart

Evangelicalism and the Neglect of the Heart July 8, 2021

We all recognize that the pandemic has peeled back our self-sufficiencies and exposed our weaknesses in so many ways—political, economic, systemic, familial, communal, and personal. Over a year of reading others’ blogs, personal tweets, magazine exposés, and newspaper articles has shown us all raw emotions in ways that we had largely managed to paper over when we had jobs, health, incomes, opportunities, and family connections. What has become evident to me is how ill-prepared we are to handle crises.

Christians don’t seem any better off in terms of preparation. This morning my Psalm told me that “The righteous are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. Their hearts are steady, they will not be afraid.” Mm-hmm.

I’ve spent the last 15+ years in Christian higher education, and one thing has become increasingly clear—we have been really fixated on orthodoxy, and we are now addressing in new and vital ways orthopraxy, but we have neglected, and continue to neglect, the issue of orthopathy.

Orthodoxy addresses the importance of godly belief. Bad theology can lead to bad practices, habits, attitudes, choices. Evangelical Christianity is big on right belief.

Orthopraxy addresses the importance of godly behavior. “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” Liberal/progressive Christianity prioritizes this.

In a perfect world, right belief will become incarnated in right behavior. Unfortunately, we don’t get that natural segue. Lots of people think right belief is enough; even more people, perhaps, believe that right behavior is enough. (See what I did there?) The bifurcation of these two has led to manifold evils in the Church and in the world.

The focus, however, on these two continues to leave out the issue of orthopathy, the importance of godly emotions, feelings, attitudes. In fact, we’re largely taught to leave our feelings out of the equation, and, frankly, much of the time that is healthy advice. Do we only pray when we feel like it? Do we only go to church when our heart is in the right place? Do we only serve our family members when we’re feeling the love? No.

Nevertheless, there is this business of the heart.

Besides the pandemic, I’ve also noticed increasingly with the elders in my family and community that emotion seems to ride higher than it did when they were younger. Memories—particularly bad ones—and fears of the future may grip our souls more powerfully as we age. We have the right beliefs, we’ve mastered the right behaviors, but our hearts are not steady. We have not been taught much of anything about how to manage our emotions, how to cultivate good ones and mitigate harmful ones, how to expose them to grace and channel them into the pursuit of Christ.

Some scholars have called this the “affective-speculative synthesis.”  It’s a fusion of thought and will and heart that can lead to steadiness, fearlessness, fortitude with tenderness.

What has been your experience in the Church? Does it focus on right belief? Right behavior? Right emotions? Does it recognize the interplay between the three that leads to spiritual health?


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