Several related emails have come in from something you said in the podcast addressing John MacArthur and his “Strange Fire” conference. Erik writes in to ask, “Pastor John, you stated at the end of episode 216 that a lack of emotions may be worse than too much emotion when discussing charismatic abuses. Can you explain why?” Nic from Sanford, Florida, asks more generally, “Pastor John, what is the proper role of emotions in the Christian life?” And Kathy in South Dakota asks, “Pastor John, can you expand on your comment at the end of episode 216 about the absence of emotion being more deadly than the excess?”
I am very pleased that those listeners picked up on that comment. I wanted to say more about that because I felt like I dropped that in there and I thought, is anybody going to get this? This is important. I think too few people make the observation that non-emotion is more dangerous than excessive emotion. Many see emotionalism and condemn it, rightly. Rightly. Here is my definition of emotionalism: emotion that is not rooted in truth and is not proportional to the truth that is in view and is not regulated by truth. So as soon as emotion gets disconnected from biblical truth and the mental grasp of that truth, it spins out of control into emotionalism and that is rightly criticized.
Commanded to Be Glad
So we see that and we recognize that because it is usually weird, right? And it usually gets on TV and it is over the top and people make spoofs out of it with Benny Hinn wielding a lightsaber and that sort of thing. We know that is a problem, but too few see the dangers of the absence of emotion. They think that this absence is more or less safe and normal and not very vulnerable to error and destruction. But stop and think about it.
“As soon as emotion gets disconnected from biblical truth and the mental grasp of that truth, it spins out of control into emotionalism.”
How many warnings are there in Scripture of being too glad in God? Not many. How many commands are there to be glad in God — exceedingly glad in God — like “leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2) and “great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (1 Chronicles 16:25; Psalm 145:3)? How many of those are there? There are dozens and dozens and dozens. And there are very few warnings about excessive rejoicing in the Bible — very, very few. But it has lots of commands to get your heart up high in affections for God.
And there are warnings about worshiping God with your lips and not with your heart (Matthew 15:8; Isaiah 29:13). They worship him in vain. And that means that the absence of heart engagement is deadly as far as Jesus is concerned. And I know Paul said, “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20), to which I say, “Yes, yes, yes, yes!” “In your thinking be mature.” I love thinking. We started schools. I write books. We try to think clearly about God. But there is nothing in the Bible that says right thinking must or should be associated with weak or muffled emotions. That is a cultural connection that ought to be destroyed — that high, clear, rigorous, logical thinking about the things of God produces low emotions. Baloney! It doesn’t. It mustn’t.
Spiritual Emotions Please God
So in answer to the question, the proper role of emotion is that spiritual emotions are essential to pleasing God. And here is what I mean by spiritual emotions. I mean spiritual affections — the lively actings of the will, not the physical concomitance. Let me clarify. Fluttering eyelashes, wobbly knees, sweaty palms, a quickened heart rate, short breath, warm to the touch (like if you are praying for somebody’s healing and your hand gets warm), uncontrollable laughter, collapsing — these are not what I mean by spiritual emotions. They are merely physical reflexes that have no necessary spiritual significance at all.
What I mean by spiritual emotions that count are these spiritual affections that are awakened by the Holy Spirit in response to God’s word and God’s work. They are rooted in the gospel. They are carried and enhanced by truth. They may be mild and quiet, or they may be intense and loud. They are what the heart was made by God to experience. This is what I say is essential to Christian living. Not to have these spiritual affections is to be dead. And to be dead is to be lost, and that is serious.
We are to love God with all our heart, not just all our mind. We are commanded in the Bible: Rejoice. Fear. Hope. Be satisfied. Be tenderhearted. Be thankful. Hate. Be sorrowful. Weep with those who weep. These are all spiritual emotions and they are all commanded. They are not decisions of the will. None of those are. They are all events of the heart that rise because a person has been touched by something in the truth by the Holy Spirit.
Emotions and God’s Glory
And they are not optional. It is not optional to be an ungrateful Christian. You can’t be an ungrateful Christian. If you are an ungrateful Christian, you are dead. The Christian has the affection — the emotion — of gratitude welling up in his heart. So the psalmists cry out repeatedly for God to awaken and sustain their emotions. And I just wonder how many people do that. Do they cry out, “God, give me joy. Give me the right sense of gratitude. Give me the right tenderness. Grant me these fruits of affections.” They are so crucial.
Most of my life is devoted to arguing that the manifestation of the glory of God is at stake in this, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. You show what your treasure is by what you take most pleasure in. Let me say that again, because this is really radical. It is devastating to a lot of people: You show what your treasure is by what you take most pleasure in — either God or something he made, which is idolatry.
Emotions are not icing on the cake of Christian duty — they are at the heart of the faith, because faith is coming to Jesus to have your heart satisfied in him and all God is for us in him. So that is the place that spiritual emotions have and how important they are, which is why I wrote the book When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy, because I know most people feel discouraged. They say, “Whoa. If emotions and spiritual affections are that important, I am a goner.” And I want to say, “Well, join the club.” It does feel like we are goners because we all fail to measure up to the kind of intensity God is worthy of. So if you are concerned about that, I would recommend When I Don’t Desire God that I tried to write for people like us.
Toxins of Emotionless Christianity
Now you asked one other question, I think. Why is the absence of emotion so deadly — more deadly than the excess, because I said that in episode 216? Well, consider this. If you follow the course or the pathway from evangelical faith to liberalism — say a person starts in a good, solid church and he winds up a liberal who doesn’t believe the Bible anymore or becomes a skeptic, agnostic, secularist, atheist — is that pathway that he has taken usually accompanied by people with intensified religious emotions or the death of religious emotions? And my answer is that most unbelieving, liberal churches are not filled with emotion. And, therefore, where we get the idea that emotion is a greater danger to the Christian faith than the absence of emotion is mind-bogglingly unintelligible to me.
Are university classrooms where the faith is debunked filled with faculty who are excessively emotional about biblical things? Give me a break. Or, do they scoff at spiritual emotion? These are the real killers in our culture. These are the people that are destroying faith in our young people. They are not people who are over-the-top emotional about Jesus because they love Jesus so much that they do weird things. These are people who are scoffing at emotion.
Lifting Up Sovereign Grace
So I would venture to say that millions more people perish in dead, emotionless churches than in churches that are excessively emotional. That is my counter statement to “Strange Fire.” Therefore, my crusade — here’s my closing admonition — is not to throw a damper on emotion when I find it in a church (even find it excessive) but to lift up a clear, robust, intellectually responsible, biblical vision of the sovereignty of the grace of God with all of its radical implications of God’s absolute control. And what effect that has is to separate the sheep and the goats really quickly among the emotional people. The super-duper emotional people who are born of God hear it and they say, “Amen. Amen!” And they get more excited, because God is sovereign and powerful. And those that are just there for the trip or the money or the influence hear the truth, and they don’t hear the shepherding. The sheep hear the shepherd, and they follow, and they bleat all the louder. And the goats wander off to find something else to be excited about (see John 10:25–28). So I say, Let’s focus on proclaiming and teaching truth, not berating emotional people.