Interview with

Founder & Teacher,

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast on this Monday. We’re going to start the week with a doozy of a question: Do we love God only by obeying him, or do we also love him verbally by using affectional language about him and to him? A hugely important question today that gets at the very heart of what we call Christian Hedonism.

The question is from an anonymous listener. “Pastor John, hello to you! My pastor recently admitted that he does not love God, or Christ, emotionally. He said he loves God, or loves Christ, by keeping his commandments. Obedience is love, he claims, returning often to 2 John 6 — ‘This is love, that we walk according to his commandments.’ And to 1 John 5:3 — ‘For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.’ I’ve known many other Christians in my life who seem to have no place for emotional or affectional language for God. They like to relate to him merely in similar categories of obedience. Is this healthy? How important is it to cultivate affectional language for God as God? And what would you say to those who are uneasy with such language for their relationship with God and only ever use this obedience language?”

Okay, I hear three questions.

1. Is it healthy to relate to God only in categories of obedience but not affections? Answer: no, it’s not healthy. It’s confusing at best, deadly at worst. I’ll come back to that.

2. How important is it to cultivate affectional language for God? Answer: it’s very important. However, language is not the ultimate issue. The reality of our hearts’ affections for God is the ultimate issue. The language of affections is important only because the heart reality is important.

3. What would you say to those who are uneasy with affectional language for their relationship with God and only use this obedience language? I would say, “Get over your uneasiness with affectional language, because the Bible is full of it — full of it — toward man and God.” You’re uneasy with the Bible. That’s your problem. And I would say if your heart is really emotionally dead toward God, repent and cry out for life.

Confused or Dead?

Now, we need to be careful here with our words, because it may be that this pastor is not denying that he has real and strong affections for God; he’s just denying that he should call them love, maybe. Love for God, he’s saying, is something else — namely, love is obedience. Now, if that’s what he’s saying, then he may be a good Christian and just biblically confused. In other words, his heart may be right, but he’s naming things in unbiblical ways, and probably he’s confusing his people in the process. It sounds like it from this question.

“God commands that we feel affections for God.”

On the other hand — this is more scary — it may be that he really doesn’t have any affections for God, and in that case he needs to be born again. If there is not even a mustard seed of delight in God, thankfulness to God, hope in God, satisfaction in God, desire for God — if none of those emotions is in his heart for God and Christ, he’s not a Christian. So, let me try to address both of those kinds of people at the same time.

The first kind is the Christian who is confused about the affections that he genuinely has for God and simply doesn’t know whether to call them love or not. And second is the person who thinks he’s a Christian when he has no emotions in his heart for God and Christ at all; he’s just dead emotionally toward God.

Affections in the Christian Life

Now, here’s the main thing to say about the confusion of claiming to love God with obedience but not with heart affections: that’s like affirming fruit but denying apples. I’ve said this so many times. Affirming obedience and denying affections is like affirming fruit and denying apples, because obedience means doing what God commands, and God commands affections. It’s confusing, it’s contradictory, to say, “I obey God, but I don’t have any of the affections that God commands me to have.” That’s just really confusing and contradictory.

1. God commands affections.

For example, Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord.” Now, that’s a command. So, a pastor who says he’s obedient to God’s commands would be obedient to the command to delight himself in the Lord. Now, he might not call it love — though I think he should, but he might not. (And I’ll show in a minute why I think he should.) That’s not a deadly problem. To get your language confused is not a deadly problem. Not to have any delight in the Lord is a deadly problem.

But for now, whether he calls delight in the Lord love or not, he is commanded to have delight. And it is simply confusing and contradictory to say he obeys God but does not relate to God with his emotions, because those emotions are commanded. And if he doesn’t have them, he’s disobedient to the command. We can add to Psalm 37:4 the command in Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord.” And Philippians 3:1: “Rejoice in the Lord.” And many others.

2. The godly model affections.

Not only are affections for God commanded, but that way of feeling in the heart is held out to us as an example — not just a command, but an example — of how godly people relate to God. For example, in Psalm 43:4: “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.” Or Psalm 84:2: “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Or Psalm 63: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you. . . . Your steadfast love is better than life. . . . My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food . . . when I remember you upon my bed” (Psalm 63:1, 3, 5–6).

3. We are to pray for affections.

And not only are affections for God commanded and given as examples of how godly people relate to God, but we are taught to pray for those affections. This is what we ought to do if we don’t have them. Psalm 90:14: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.” This is a cry to God to give us the affections for him that we ought to have and may not at the moment have.

And on top of all that, Jesus warns against outward obedience where the heart feels nothing. Matthew 15:8–9: “This people honors me with their lips,” — so, lips are moving; that’s outward obedience — “but their heart,” he says, “is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” “In vain”: that’s a big, terrible, horrible statement. Without heart, our outward obedience is nothing.

So, I conclude that it is confusing and contradictory to say that you obey God’s commands, but that you don’t pursue the very affections for God that he has commanded.

Love Worthy of Christ

Now, one last thing. Why should we use the word love for these affections for God? Now, I’m not saying that love for God is only affections. The Bible talks about love in a very broad way. But I am saying that love for God is not less than affections for God. Now, why would I say that? And I’ll give just one reason: because of Matthew 10:37. Jesus said this: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

Now, in that sentence, love for Jesus cannot mean obedience to Jesus’s commands, because he’s comparing love for Jesus with love for our children. “Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Love for our children does not mean obedience to our children. So, the point is, we must love Jesus with the kind of love we have for our most precious family members — only more so — and that is an affectional love.

So, I hope the pastor who said, “I love God by keeping his commandments, not with my affections,” will realize that God commands that we feel affections for God. And I hope that this is just a confusion of language and not a case of real deadness of heart.