(For)Getting All the Feels: Rethinking the Way We Follow Jesus

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve ever learned about following Christ is that you can’t base your relationship with Jesus on emotions. Just because it “feels like” it’s not going right doesn’t mean that it’s not. And vice versa.

But after going to church and being around the Christian culture for 23-plus years now, I’m left to ask this question: Why does it so often seem like we try to get people pumped up emotionally?

Let me explain what I mean.

The Emotional Church Experience

Ever been to a megachurch? You know, the ones with the lights and the full band and the backup singers and so on and so forth. I’ve visited a couple, and in that atmosphere, it’s so easy to get caught up in the emotional side of faith.

That one song comes on and you’re swept up in the butterflies of the piano chords, the melodic harmony of voices, the dimmed lights, the rising choruses. Perhaps it’s a song about how good God is, or maybe how His love is so great.

Or maybe the song is about us, that we’re children of God, and how awesome it is. The hands get raised. Tears start streaming down your face.

Then the preacher comes on. He utilizes the most powerful story of death to life, with all the appropriate pauses and voice-raises he can muster. The band comes on as he closes and those guitar strums as he hammers home his point.

Then one more worship song where you surrender your emotions to the Lord, let Him “lead you” while you sing with all your feels.

But during the week, the emotions get lost. Maybe you don’t listen to Christian radio for whatever reason. So by the time you get to Sunday, you’re emotionally-starved again. So it’s back to church, back to the worship, back to the tear-jerking stories.

Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Now, two caveats:

  1. I’ve visited a megachurch with the lights and the full band and have had genuine worship with genuine songs that weren’t about making me feel good. The pastor spoke about reality and was honest about himself and his own sin. It wasn’t fluff. It was real worship and real truth.
  2. The worship songs are often all true theologically. Completely accurate. But…

The Loss of the Intellect

I haven’t done a lot of serious research into church culture (I’d really like to someday), but I’ve done a lot of observing. I’ve thought a lot about why churches do what we do, and I’ve come up with a theory. This theory could be disproven by some serious research, but I’ll take a stab.

Humans are emotional creatures. Always have been. Adam and Eve were swayed by the emotional draw of being like God. David’s lustful feelings drove him to pursue Bathsheba. When Stephen’s being stoned to death in Acts 8, Paul “approved” of his execution; there had to be an emotional element to that.

And emotion is not all bad. Sometimes God uses our emotions to help us realize we need Him. Our sadness following a loss of a close friend or family member can lead us to remember that God has them now if they’re a believer, and rejoice in that. My great excitement and happiness on my wedding day pumped me up even more for the beauty of the ceremony and the marriage that I’m now two months into.

But what happens, unfortunately, is that we often shove aside the intellectual part of it and cling to the emotional side when it comes to being a Christian. That’s what happened to me.

When I was younger in the faith – late high school, early college – I really began to dive into the emotional side of following Christ. I would raise my hands during worship, close my eyes and sing, and sometimes I might shed a tear or two.

But when I wasn’t in worship mode, I was wondering where God was. I didn’t feel Him, so was He really there? I didn’t feel saved, so was I really God’s child? I saw my sin and felt like crap. I felt bad, so obviously God wasn’t with me and wasn’t happy with me.

Things started to take a turn during my senior year of college. I’ve written about this before, but I’ll write it again – a guy named Curtis Allen spoke at a college ministry conference I was attending and said the most important thing I’ve ever heard about following Jesus:

The secret to Christianity is not changing how you feel, the secret to Christianity and obedience is changing how you think.

Boom.

I started to (slowly) recognize that I had been living my life with Christ based on how I felt I was doing and that was not at all what it meant to follow Jesus. Following Jesus is first and foremost an exercise of the mind, an exercise of faith in the truth. And faith is not emotional. Faith is something you think, something you believe with your mind.

The Reality

It’s not sexy to present faith in Christ as a mind exercise. It’s not something that, on the surface, will draw in thousands of people to a worship service.

We want to feel good. We want to feel that emotional high.

But like any other kind of high, it won’t last. So we have to go back. And churches love when people return again and again and again.

Church leaders and bloggers and authors wonder why my generation, the college-aged, is leaving the church. I’d wager one of the reasons is this – there’s no substance to their faith. It’s built on that emotional high that they got at camp one time or maybe that one night they had a serious conversation with their youth pastor. Perhaps we were genuine in that moment, but without any serious intellectual foundation or building upon that moment with truth, we lose the drive, the desire.

It’s in the moments when we lose the emotional side of following Jesus that our faith is really tested. And often it’s in those moments where we lose our faith.

If we’re going to follow Christ, it has to be first and foremost about what we think. Belief isn’t about emotions; it’s about truth. To my knowledge, the Bible never speaks about trying to “feel” a certain way, but to think a certain way. A few examples:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. – Philippians 4:8

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… – Philippians 2:4-5

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. – Romans 8:5-8

So What Should We Do Instead?

I’m not an expert. Let’s just go ahead and get that out of the way. But I can’t help but think there need to be changes in how we present church and worship and truth.

I’m not saying we need to get rid of megachurches and that all are bad. As I said before, I’ve been to one where there was genuine worship, genuine preaching that wasn’t just intellectually true but stimulated a real approach to faith. I do believe there are some that are not helpful. And I think that you can go to churches that aren’t mega and find worship and preaching and teaching that stimulates an emotional response.

I also understand there’s another challenge: You can do everything you possibly can to make faith an intellectual thing in your church, but people will still respond primarily with their emotions.

I’m also sure there are plenty of preachers and churches that have the best intentions in the world that are doing this. They’re not trying to lead people into making their faith emotional, but for whatever reason that’s how it’s turned out.

We can’t change how people respond to what we do in church. But we can change what we do.

I wish there was a fix-all, but here’s a couple thoughts:

I wish that we’d be more careful in how we choose our worship songs. Maybe break out the old favorites every once in a while for some emotional worship time, but not lean on them.

Before we sing, explain to us what the lyrics mean. What truth are they presenting? What should we believe? What are we affirming when we sing?

I wish we’d rethink the way we preach, presenting more of the Bible and more of truth rather than concocting the best emotional plea. Prosperity gospel preachers somewhat make their living off of this idea. And some non-prosperity gospel preachers do too. Tell us how we should think, not what we should feel, and base it on the Bible.

That’s just a couple thoughts.

I really hope you don’t walk away from this emotionally-charged.

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What Does ‘Truth in Love’ Really Mean?

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

An idea I’ve been kicking around in my head a lot recently is the idea of “truth in love,” particularly as it pertains to the social issues of today and how the Christian culture responds to them.

The conservative evangelical crowd is very fond of this idea, particularly the “truth” part, I feel. I know that doesn’t necessarily describe everybody in the crowd, but I think there’s a sense where “truth” is often more emphasized than “love.” Making much of this one phrase gives people license to speak truth all the time, sometimes letting the “love” part of it go missing. But as long as we emphasize we’re speaking “truth in love,” we can feel good about ourselves, that we’re obeying God.

Then there’s the other side that’s all about “love” and doesn’t seem to care too much about “truth,” or they’re changing their definition of truth. Certain denominations have ditched biblical truth in an effort to appeal to all. They change doctrine and belief to accommodate everyone, something that is entirely unnecessary and, more importantly, unbiblical. That’s a dangerous path to walk down.

So we face the difficulty of trying to find the middle, trying to discover what it means to include both truth and love in the definition. Here’s how I’m working through it.

Standing on the Truths

Truth is essential to daily life. Without a truth to bank on, we are people of weak or no foundation. And when something doesn’t have a good foundation, it has no staying power, no stability.

Because the Bible is truth, we can bank on it because it will always hold the keys to salvation, to sanctification, to obedience, to holiness, etc. Because God is true, we can bank on Him because He is the same yesterday, today and forever.

Truth is something we can’t escape. Truth exists outside of us. If you believe there is such a thing as absolute truth – as Christians do – we can’t get around certain things to be true. God created the world, Jesus died on the cross for our sins, salvation is by grace through faith alone. It is good for us that truth is inescapable. It gives us something t0 stand on, and that is a blessing.

I find that I am most unbalanced when I am not thinking on truth and I’m solely thinking in terms of uncertainties or potential realities. As someone who deals with a fair amount of anxiety, I think in those terms a lot. It’s super helpful for me to have truths I can consistently come back to and bank on. Some of those truths include things like Romans 8:28 (God is working everything together for my good), Psalm 16:11 (true joy is found in following God) and 1 Corinthians 10:31 (my purpose is glorifying God with everything I do).

The difficulty with truth is that it often steps on people’s toes.

Perhaps the most pertinent example of this recently is the rise of discussion over LGBT rights and homosexual behavior in America. The majority of evangelical Christians have spoken out against homosexuality as an “abomination,” as a sin. Using the “truth in love” idea, these Christians use the similar idea of “hate the sin, love the sinner” as a platform to write blog posts and preach sermons against homosexuality as the sin of this generation, against the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage as a dangerous step in America.

I believe that many of these people legitimately do want to love members of the LGBT community. I can’t make a judgement on their hearts just as much as I don’t want them to make a judgement on my heart. But I’m afraid that sometimes we can miss what the true definition of “love” is as we speak truth.

Love Is the Greatest of These

1 Corinthians 13:13 says, “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Love is something that will last until the end, and then beyond that end. God is love, 1 John 4 tells us, and everything God does is based out of love for Himself, love for His Son or love for us. It is a pure kind of love, a pure affection and attachment to someone or something else. It’s a sacrificial, unselfish love, best displayed by the death of Jesus on the cross for our salvation – “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

In response to God’s love, we love others. I can’t get around this idea that love is the greatest thing that will last forever. If the second greatest commandment after love God is to love your neighbor as yourself, it’s vitally important to living as a believer, living as someone God loves.

What does it mean to love your neighbor as yourself? I think it’s very much tied into the idea that you want them to treat you as you wish to be treated, the “golden rule.” Love is a verb, right? So it’s super tied-in with our actions. But it’s also a state of our heart. There’s an attitude of love, something that drives how we behave. Love is double-sided: it’s an emotion (a noun) that goes into an action (a verb). But one is not necessary for the other – you can often do the action without the emotion, or have the emotion but do nothing about it.

So love is huge. From my perspective, it’s God’s primary attribute. Everything else that He is derives from His love. And if we’re going to emulate God, which is our goal, everything we must do should derive from love.

So What Really Is Truth in Love?

This is the biggest question.

But it’s a question that often goes unasked. We assume we have the right answer for what “truth in love” really means. That goes for me too. What usually happens is people tend towards one of two extremes, as we talked about earlier. We either focus more on the truth or more on the love.

I often fall into the love camp where I’m more, “Hey, let’s not go so overboard with the truth that we forget to love people.” I’m not saying we need to water down the truth, but let’s give it gradually. Way too much truth at one time easily overwhelms someone.

For example, let’s talk about the LGBT community for a minute. We want to tell them that their lifestyle is sinful. I’m not arguing that. My idea is two things. First, let’s learn to love them as human beings first without approaching that subject. Second, let’s accept and admit that we have lifestyles that are sinful and that we’re no better, no different. Just because people sin the sin of the moment doesn’t mean they’re worse.

That kind of attitude, I think, displays truth in love. There is an acknowledgement of truth and a drive to love. We acknowledge that homosexual behavior is a sin, but we also acknowledge that the choices we make are just as sinful, and therefore we have no high ground to stand on. We then seek to live like Jesus and love them and all sinners – meaning, all people – the same, desiring to love as we would love.

We speak the truth in love, but I think there’s also a sense where we live out truth in love. Are we really living out the truth of the Bible? Are we acknowledging the truth of the Gospel? Are we living out the truth in our love for others? Are we living out love in our standing for the truth?

I must be honest here: I don’t do this well. I’m quick to judge those who sin differently than me. If there are people that struggle with the same sins as me, I’m quicker to emphasize grace and mercy and love because that’s what I would desire for me. But if they sin differently, I’m more likely to point out the truth and skip the love. I’ve got to grow in this immensely.

Truth Is Love. Love Is Truth.

If you’re following Jesus, we’ve got to remember that truth is love and love is truth. This is the lifestyle of a Christian. Let me explain.

Truth is love. God loves us and shows us His love by speaking truth to us. So if we truly love the people around us, we will speak truth. But we can’t forget that love is truth. If we want to live truthfully, we will love. Everything we do will ideally emanate from love for God and love for others.

So being a Christian, living out our faith, is learning how to do that. You could make the point that we’re making a big deal out of one phrase in one verse in Scripture – a point I was about to make – but I think this is a good summary of what it means to live as a Christian. We don’t just speak truth in love, we live out truth in love, we live out love in truth.

Perhaps the most difficult part is that there’s no one way to handle every situation with truth in love, love in truth. It definitely depends on the circumstances. But each and every day, our charge is to figure out what “truth in love” means for where we are right then, who we’re with, what we’re feeling, how we’re living.

And in that, we glorify God the most.

Would You Rather Have a Grim Truth or Pleasant Deception?

I was sitting in my office yesterday, probably reading something on Twitter, when I turned to my right and saw that my blinds were closed. I’m fortunate enough to have an office that has a window. It’s great.

But today, I opened the blinds. I hadn’t opened them for a while. I guess looking outside didn’t do me much good before. But I figured I’d give it another shot.

I looked outside, and at first it wasn’t too bad. A little dreary, but not too bad. An hour later, rain was drizzling on my window, and it looked pretty bad outside. Why did I even open the window?

I thought having my blinds open in my office would let more light in and brighten up my day. Instead, all it is doing is reminding me how dreary it really is outside. I don’t know which I prefer: the pleasant deception or the grim truth.

I like to look at things as better than they actually are. Let’s be real: it’s just rosier and it makes me feel good inside.

It’s so much easier to look at the pleasant deceptions.

I want to look at my favorite sports team – Arsenal, a Premier League soccer team who is known for its incredible talent yet struggles to fulfill expectations – and think they’ve finally got a chance to win the league title this year.

I want to look at the state of the church and think we’ve got it all figured out.

I want to look at my country which I love and think we’ll make all the right decisions in how we handle conflicts at home and abroad.

I want to look at my family and think all disturbances will be resolved and love will reign supreme all the time.

I want to look at myself and think I’m generally a pretty good guy who makes mistakes every once in a while.

However, there are a few grim truths that I’m dying to avoid.

I look at Arsenal and realize that other teams in the league are just better and our players can’t stay healthy long enough to win a title.

I look at the church and realize that we’re an imperfect vessel that will always fall short of being a perfect vessel worthy of God’s service.

I look at my country and realize that there’s a bunch of imperfect people running it who will not always make the best decisions for me and my countrymen.

I look at my family and realize that there’s brokenness and sin that tears us apart at times.

I look at myself and realize that I’m a man who has fallen short of the glory of God over and over again.

There’s a real freedom in acknowledging the grim truths. It’s in the grim truths where the grace of God is found. Especially when I look at myself and see all the grim truths about me. I sin. I fall short. I’m never going to be enough for God on my own.

But in facing that grim truth, I see the grace of God, which is most definitely not a pleasant deception. A grim deception keeps me away from the pleasant truth that is the overwhelming, unfading, eternal, never-ending, grace of God, given through Christ.

And it’s a grace born out of love that will never end. And one day, all those issues will no longer be on my plate. EVER.

And, like Roman Reigns says, you can BELIEVE THAT.