In my post from earlier this week, I wrote out of a place of rage. To be honest, even before reading the Houston Chronicle’s article about sexual abuse in some Southern Baptist Churches, I was already thinking about the intersection of faith and emotions.
The relationship with faith and feeling has taken a beating as of late. I read a tweet advertising a church’s sermon series that highlighted that life with God is about “faith, not about feelings.” The heart of that idea is that faith is more factual, solid, and dependable while emotions fluctuate day to day.
I agree with the assessment on emotions, sort of.
Yet can you imagine your faith without emotions? Without feelings? Can you imagine a life of formation strictly cast within your brain’s ability to reason through proofs and come to intellectual conclusions?
What does it mean to intellectually assent to “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10) anyway? Jesus often used metaphors and symbols that weren’t built to construct logical, post-Enlightenment arguments. They were meant to capture the imagination.
The Good Shepherd is an image of care, attentiveness, and guidance. This isn’t about believing Jesus is a vocational shepherd. This is about knowing what it feels like to be cared for and guided by grace.
In my upcoming book As I Recall: Discovering the Place of Memories In Our Spiritual Life, I talk about how in one year I experienced three very difficult events in sequence.
I don’t return to those memories and simply count the facts. My focus isn’t on the times of day, the phases of the moon, or what trend-setting styles I wore at the time.
It’s good that we don’t even think about that last one, trust me.
I remember what it felt like. The memories are of abandonment, loss, and the climactic hurt that comes when we’ve been burdened to breaking. Those are the memories I engage, not the details or the facts.
In those moments, I’m drawn to Psalm 23. When David says, “The Lord is my Shepherd” he’s making an emotional assessment that fosters a deeper sense of faith.
He goes on to say “even though I walk through the valley of death” because he knows what the valley itself feels like. Poetry has the cosmic ability to harness all that we feel in familiar terms. We can then take the metaphors, similes, and parallelisms and bring them into our own narrative for a bit.
In the scripts of our memories, God invites us to engage with how we feel now because of what happened then.
Much of the division between faith and feeling is because of another “f” word – fear.
There is a fear that our emotions aren’t dependable enough, stable enough, or wise enough. To attach something so vital as faith to something that appears as fleeting as our emotions seems to be a fool’s errand.
Then again, how often do we understand our world in terms of the way we feel about things?
How often do we make decisions based on our emotional impressions of the facts we’ve gathered? When pressed to understand who God is, we rarely turn to a fact in a book. Perhaps at the beginning of our journey of faith we turn to facts and propositional statements, but as the road gets longer we archive memories of God’s care for us. We respond to the faith we have by saying, “There was a time when God gave me courage…” or “When I went through chemo…divorce…infertility, He was there…”
I believe that there is a place to critique our emotions. We find ourselves in our emotions, and often that obscures our ability to be objective. We need the Spirit of Jesus to teach and remind us (John 14:16-17, 26) that our emotions do come from a limited frame.
My contention is simply that faith and feelings are not mutually exclusive.
There is space in our faith and the life we live with Jesus for full-throated feelings.
If not, we have no compelling way of reading the Scriptures, entering the darkness of Lent or the brilliance of Advent, or even giving a reason for the “hope” we have (1 Peter 3:15 ) in the way of Jesus.
A faith without feeling is too technical to embrace an incarnational way of transformation with Jesus. Faith without emotion is impotent and irrelevant in addressing the way of humans in this “already but not yet” Kingdom.
Instead, we remember the feeling of the hand of the shepherd at our back. We remember the feeling of a companion at the depths of the valley of death.
And then, feeling that, we can believe anything is possible.