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Feelings, Nothing but Feelings . . . For All My Life I’ll Feel It

May 8, 2009

 

“Love is a feeling you feel when you are about to feel a feeling you never felt before.” This Flip Wilson quote was so funny to me as a kid that it just stuck in my head. I’ve  never forgotten it.  

One of the most attractive things about Christianity is those times when you meet someone who actually lives it 24/7. A genuine Christian character is one of the most attractive things you will ever find in people.  When you encounter genuine love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness and self control you don’t ask yourself whether or not these are good things. You simply wish there were more of these things around. When Flip delivered that hilarious line in his comedy routine he was talking about hormone driven, passionate  physical love between lovers.  It is the kind of feeling that when it comes upon us just feels so right. But feelings can be misleading and deceptive. The thing about Christianity when truly embraced and lived is that not only does it feel right it’s also true. The truth of it when taken seriously by those who profess it is that Christian faith makes sense of and establishes human life in a way nothing else does. This–you know when you meet it,this is what human life ought to be like.

There are those Christian virtues called love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness faithfulness and self control which should characterize the life of the the christian. So, why when we hear about somebody’s misfortune on the news do we say with a certain glee, “they had it coming.” or why when conflict erupts suddenly we’re treating each other as enemies and avoiding each other? Why are the Christian virtues so often missing? 

Is it because many of us assume that this world really is a bad place and that everything that could be done has been done. All that matters now is that we  believe in Jesus Christ so that we can go to heaven when we die? Many Christians really do mistakenly believe that we don’t have to be concerned with this world as it is all going to be destroyed anyway. Is it because we really have no clue that the Holy Spirit has anything to do with our lives– that really it is totally up to us. Or if we do have an understanding of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives maybe our tendency is to suppose that the fruits of the Spirit, which Paul lists, are things which will come naturally and be produced once the Spirit takes up residence. Many Christians assume that this is how it is supposed to be. Now that I am a Christian the Holy Spirit has come into my life.  Therefore I can just do what comes naturally because now what is natural is of the Holy Spirit. Some may find that certain moral standards don’t come naturally despite their praying for grace to keep them. So, they conclude that those standards don’t seem to apply to them. For whatever  reason it seems the church does not spend much time nurturing and developing these virtues within it corporate life.

What seems to have gained a lot of traction everywhere including the church  is “feelings.”  We say “I feel” when what we really mean is “I think.”  “I feel that we should do this rather than that.”  In fact feeling has become a central part of how we talk, it is actually changing  how we make decisions, how we  behave and even what we think is going on, especially in worship. Feeling is beginning to replace thinking.  In fact feeling is now the way we get at the truth.  Getting in touch with your feelings is the way of knowing what is most true about you. The whole idea is to find a way around the thinking mind. It only gets in the way in worship. Following your feelings and doing what they are telling you has become the way to expereince God in worship. I think this may be one reason why the mega-church is so attractive. The big space, large crowd and energetic band music combined creates an emotionally charged atmosphere. You feel yourself  being absorbed into its ecstatic energy– it just feels so right. But feelings can be misleading and deceptive.

(Perhaps overemphasis on emotion and feeling in our culture is the pendulum swing away from too much weight having been given to objective scientific investigation as  the Western worlds only means of defining what is true. As a result we have lost touch with other ways of knowing, ways of knowing that engage not only the mind but the heart and spirit, together with the mind–ways of knowing that give us a much more full and rounded sense of reality leading to awe before the transcendent beauty and mystery of  creation.)

Paul says, “be transformed by the renewal of your minds so that you may discern in practice what is God’s will, and acceptable, and perfect.”   He doesn’t say “be transformed by letting yourself feel a feeling you never felt before.”  Consider what he is saying: The human being is made up of body, mind and spirit or soul as we often call it. Paul doesn’t deny what we would call feelings and emotion but he is clear: the thinking mind cannot be bypassed as a way to experience God if what is most true about us is that we are body, mind and spirit. 

Why do we have to think?  Precisely because as with having to learn anything worth learning you need to concentrate, to become self aware to realize that at certain points you do have to train those moral muscles. With the fruit of the Spirit you need to choose to do with difficulty the things you hope will eventually come easily to you but don’t yet. You need to concentrate on the individual steps, take note of every point because you are not yet fluid, and fluent and natural in it as yet.

When Paul gives his lists of the fruits of the Spirit he says nothing of their bypassing the mind and the conscious patterns of thought. They themselves have to be learned and practiced in the same way one learns the flute or a foreign language. And it is in fact precisely in this way, through the renewal of the mind that the Spirit works to make us truly human, to enable us to live as truly human beings.  Indeed, part of the way the Spirit produces those fruits is by the Spirit alerting us to the states of mind and habits heart that we regularly fall into. The Spirit works through Scripture, sacraments, and the community of faith to help  us to make the conscious effort we need to make, to choose to live the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. This is the path of freedom.

The idea that we are only free when the mind is disengaged and no disciplined moral effort is involved is lethal.  “You will know the truth,” said Jesus, “and the truth will set you free.” Freedom comes not by the mind being bypassed but by being woken up to grasp hold of truth previously unrecognized.

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