Affections and Emotions
Pastor John, here is a question about emotions and affections: Are affections more than emotions? Are emotions part of affections? Are affections totally different than emotions? Or are affections the source of emotions? How would you explain this?
Asking that question makes it sound like the question is, “What is the difference between the liver and the kidneys?” Now what I mean is, there are two objects out there. One is a liver, and one is the kidneys. Everybody knows a liver if they see it. Every knows a kidney if they see it. And what the question means is, Tell me the difference between them — their different functions. That is not what is going on in this question. There isn’t a liver out there called affections and a kidney out there called emotions, and then we just talk about the differences.
Emotions and the Human Soul
This questioner doesn’t know what they are. The question really is, “What should I mean? What should I refer to when I use the word emotion? What should I refer to when I use the word affections?” At least, that is the way I am hearing it, because I don’t know what they have in mind when they say emotion and what they have in mind when they say affections. So I think the best way for me to answer it is to say, How do I and, say, Jonathan Edwards, use the terms? And then they can decide if they want to use them that way, because that is what words are. Words are meant to be assigned to realities, and we assign them sometimes arbitrarily, and sometimes the community assigns them for us. But in this case, I don’t think there is any clear community — that is, in English — agreement on precisely what the affections and the emotions refer to.
“If the will, like a magnet, really snaps to something, those are affections.”
So, according to Edwards, the human soul has two faculties: reason and will. It doesn’t have a third one, like feelings or emotions. Reason and will — what those two faculties do is perceive or think. That is the first one. And they incline — they want or don’t want. They lean in or lean away. And if you ask, then, “Well, where are the affections in this as Edwards uses the term?” his answer is, “The affections are the lively inclinings of the will.” In other words, if the will, like a magnet, really snaps to something, those are affections. Or, if it really recoils from something with hatred, those are affections. So affections are not a third faculty of the human soul. They are the lively actings of the second faculty of the will.
And he distinguishes it from what he calls bodily motions or animal spirits like trembling, sweating, twitching, fainting, fluttering of the eyelids, short breath — that sort of thing. He says that those are not affections. Those are bodily reactions to affections, but they have no spiritual nature to them at all.
Inclined Toward God
Now once you have set it up this way, Edwards almost never uses the word emotion. I did a word search looking for it. I could only find one. And that one was used almost synonymously with the bodily motions — emotion: the stirring, the shaking of the body. So the word emotion was not there for Edwards which means, I suspect, that in our common, modern language there would be a large overlap between what he meant by affections and what we mean by emotions — gratitude, love, hatred, desire, and so on. But here is the key question: Are there natural affections, and are there spiritual affections? Edwards would say, “Everybody has affections, but they are of no spiritual worth unless they are spiritual affections, and spiritual affections are the kind of inclinations toward God and his word, his ways, and his works when we have been born again to love God, delight in God, and praise God.”
So the affections of the world are strong, but they are not spiritual. They are not born of the Holy Spirit. They are not awakened by the new birth, and they are not affections for God as God — for God as beautiful and holy and satisfying. And so Edwards and I would say those are the affections we are after. I love to quote Edwards. This is one of my favorite quotes as a preacher. He says, “I think myself in the way of my duty to raise the affections of my hearers as high as I possibly can provided they are affected with nothing but truth and with the affections that are not disagreeable to the nature of what they are affected with.” So I conclude by saying, Yes, let’s pursue those affections with all our might, because God is most glorified in us when we are most affected, or satisfied, in him.