Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to a new week on this Monday. How do we overcome a lack of affection — a lack of expressed affection for God and expressed affection for others? It’s a great question, a humble question, from a young man who wrote in anonymously. “Dear Pastor John, let me jump straight to it. How would you counsel and encourage a brother in Christ who finds it difficult to express or discuss ‘deeper’ emotions like joy, despair, wonder, and fear? That’s me. I want deeper relationships with Christian brothers. But I also shy away when opportunity arises and deeper conversations make themselves present because I don’t know how to talk about those higher and deeper feelings. I just freeze. Or I’m tempted to make a joke.

“I know something is wrong inside of me. I read Augustine’s Confessions and stand in awe of his affection as he speaks so fluently to God in language like this: ‘My God, my life, my holy sweetness,’ or ‘What can anyone say when he speaks of Thee? Yet woe to those who do not speak of Thee; for, though they talk much, they say nothing.’ I’m a man who talks much about nothing. I want to grow here.”

I really have a special interest in this question, and I want to try to answer it because I think there are millions of people (it’s not rare) who share this blockage that prevents natural, genuine verbal expressions of heartfelt affections, not only for God and his glorious salvation, but for children — their own children — or spouses, or ordinary blessings of life. The whole realm of the emotional life and of spiritual affections is choked off for some reason.

Affections Unspoken

There are millions of people who never say anything like, “What a beautiful day. The sun is shining; the breeze is cool. I love days like this!” They never talk like that, ever. They never say anything like, “I love being married to you. Just sitting with you makes me happy. I’m so glad God brought us together.” They never say that to each other, ever. They never say anything like, “God is so great. He has been so good to me. I don’t deserve any of this. Lord, you are amazing. Thank you, Lord. I love you.” They don’t ever talk like that. These kinds of expressed affections for days, people, God, are just blocked. They never come out in words, and it’s a great sadness for them and for the people around them.

I don’t think there is any formula to fix this. The causes are sometimes very deep. God himself, by the Holy Spirit, is the only hope, because he is the decisive cause of all authentic expressions of true spiritual affections. A deep work of God is needed. For example, I had a deep and sinful aversion to lifting my hands in worship until I was 35 years old. Never once did I lift my hands in worship, or even come close, like turning them palm-up in my lap. I would see people do it, and I would actually feel disgust. And then one night, at about 3:00 in the morning, during an all-night prayer meeting, God lifted my hands in a moment of worship. It was, as I recall, mostly involuntary, and received no resistance. He broke my pride that night. And in a sense, my hands haven’t gone down since.

Step Toward Expression

I think there’s an analogy between that experience and the barriers that people can feel to verbal expressions of affections for God. So, even though there’s no formula, there are steps that you might be able to take, which — if you really want it, if you want this liberation — would become means by which God would set you free.

1. Recognize the problem.

First (and this young man who’s asking the question has already arrived at this point), you recognize that it really is a problem to be overcome, not just a neutral personality trait. Thousands of people excuse it as just a quirk of personality and think it has no spiritual dimensions about it. I don’t think that’s ever sufficient. It’s got truth in it, but it’s not sufficient. Jesus said, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Now, the least that means is that God designed words to be a means of heart expression. A disconnect between the two, heart and mouth, is not the way God designed it to be, and not the way it’s going to be in heaven.

2. Examine yourself.

We should do a serious self-examination as to whether our hearts really do love Christ (Matthew 10:37), really do delight in God (Psalm 37:4), really do rejoice in him (Philippians 3:1), really do fear him (Proverbs 28:14), really do treasure him (Matthew 13:44). These are all biblical commands that our hearts must experience before our mouths can express them. So, examine your heart. Are they there?

3. Discern sin’s hindrances.

We should also do a serious self-examination as to whether there’s sin blocking the genuineness of our expression of affection. There certainly was in me, oh my. I look back on attitudes that I had for 35 years that God, mercifully, was patient with, and I am ashamed. I’m ashamed. I can remember sitting in chapel at Bethel when I was a teacher there, and a woman or a man (I can’t remember which) next to me just rolled their hands over, palms up in their lap, and inside of me was disgust. Looking back on it, that’s just evil. That’s just plain evil. My resistance had so much pride in it.

“God is the decisive cause of all authentic expressions of true spiritual affections.”

And I’m aware it can work the other way around. I’m not naive that people who are lifting their hands might be totally arrogant people. I get it. They can be looking with scorn on the non-hand lifters, with pride. Of course that’s true. Pride is subtle — everywhere. But if we can see the sin that binds us, wherever it is, and name it and repent, we might be set free.

4. Memorize affection-laden passages.

Memorize parts of Scripture that give you the very words you need to express affections for God.

  • Psalm 18:1: “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”
  • Psalm 42:1–2: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”
  • Psalm 63:1: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”
  • Psalm 73:25: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

Oh my goodness, these texts have served me so well, to loose my tongue. Memorize these, and others like them, and then say them out loud to God in private prayer, day after day — nobody listening but God. And surprisingly, you may find yourself saying them out loud in a prayer meeting, and it may be wonderfully involuntary, the way it was for me.

5. Spend time with expressive saints.

If possible, spend time with people who speak of their affections more naturally than you do. Emotional verbal freedom is contagious. I have tasted this in my life, in myself. I could name people whose freedom in mature expression of spiritual affections has been very powerful in my life.

6. Set your heart on heaven.

Realize that heaven is going to be like this: utterly free, unselfconscious overflowings of our heart’s affections. You can see this in the songs in the book of Revelation. And 1 John 3:3 says, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” In other words, the principle is this: if we really hope to be this way in heaven someday, then let’s get a head start. Let’s get a head start now. Why would you put it off?

7. Raise your expectations.

Realize that your sincere expressions of love to Christ and joy in Christ may be the means by which someone else is saved. That’s the point of Psalm 40:2–3:

He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
     out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
     making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
     a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
     and put their trust in the Lord.

“God designed words to be a means of heart expression.”

I love that. That’s why we’re in the pit sometimes — so that he can bring us up, put us on a rock, put a song in our mouth. People see, and they get saved. I think that was true for my salvation. I think, under God, I owe my faith in Christ to the free expressions of love and joy in my mother and my father while I was growing up.

8. Pray for open lips.

Finally, pray. Pray like this: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15). Isn’t that an amazing request? “My lips are shut; I can’t open them. Something’s wrong with my lips, Lord.” Yes, there is, in all of us. “Lord, open my lips.” Only God can make it real, so ask him, and keep on asking until he does it.