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Spiritual Formation: What do emotions have to do with it?

January 16 2018
January 16 2018

On Sunday, January 21st, Redeemer's Adult CE classes will reconvene for the Spring semester. At this time every year, Redeemer offers a class called Spiritual Formation II - Grace-Based Spiritual Formation. I want to encourage you to attend if you have not taken this class before, or to take it again to refresh these concepts in your mind. 

Grace-Based Spiritual Formation weaves together three topics we talk about frequently at Redeemer: Grace, spiritual disciplines, and the connection between our emotional and spiritual lives.

In church, we are used to hearing the word “grace.” We are familiar with it as a theological concept; we know Bible verses about it; we sing hymns about it. We’re also comfortable hearing about spiritual discipline. We readily embrace the idea that as Christians, we are to pursue practices and ways of living that bring us closer to Christ.

But what do our emotions have to do with any of that?

One of the great temptations of modern Christians, and particularly the Reformed branch of Christianity, is to view ourselves as thinking beings only. There is something appealing about believing that if we can just get our thinking straight, our hearts and lives will follow. The well-known Christian leader Leighton Ford says of his own training for the ministry,

Emotions were discounted in much of the evangelical teaching I heard growing up. We were taught about facts, faith and feelings — in that order. Faith was to be based on the facts of the Christian message (an essential emphasis to be sure), but we should not rely on feelings because they were unreliable, secondary and untrustworthy.

Due to the variability in our emotional worlds, we conclude that they should not be consulted, or at the most, only lightly regarded. But to ignore or minimize our emotional life is to diminish or even deny a significant aspect of our humanity.

God himself has asserted the dignity of our emotional lives by forming us as creatures capable of such emotion. Our humanness includes our emotionality. As those who bear the image of God, our emotional life, like our physicality and capacities for reason and spirituality must not be overlooked.

Recognizing the complexity that characterizes our humanity, Dan Allender and Tremper Longman II in their book “The Cry of the Soul” write, “We are not machines that can be repaired through a series of steps—we are relational beings who are transformed by the mystery of relationship.” This assertion acknowledges both the dignity and darkness in the inner world of each person.  The dignity of our emotional life is illustrated well through such things as the joy we experience when our child comes into the world, the elation we feel over discovering we are loved by one committing to be our spouse, the awe that stirs in us when we climb above the tree line and see craggy, snow-capped peak after craggy, snow-capped peak fade into the distant horizon, or the hope we experience when a burden of guilt has been lifted with a word of forgiveness.  Being made in the image of God means that a rich palette of wonderful, life-affirming emotions can be experienced by each person.

“But what about the sinfulness of our hearts?” we are quick to say. To be sure, the Bible cautions us about our depravity. We are not simply to embrace our emotions and allow them to dictate our lives. But when we lack basic awareness about our emotional lives, it does not mean that our emotions become an insignificant factor in how we live. Rather, it means emotions like anger, sadness and fear, those which are largely ignored or about which we are unaware, are free to exert unchecked influence, sometimes in deeply destructive ways. This hurts our spouses and families, it hurts relationships in the church, and it hurts the witness of Christ.

Lastly, we have only to look to the life of Christ as recorded in the Scripture to see our Savior grapple with large emotions. Jesus displays table-flipping righteous anger in the temple, weeping in grief over the death of Lazarus, and blood-sweating anguish in the garden. A Savior who cried out to his Father from the cross does not point us to a life of detached stoicism.

What kinds of Christians would we become if we could embrace both the need for spiritual discipline and growth in emotional health in our journey toward spiritual maturity? For one thing, we will be people who need grace more than ever. Our hope at Redeemer is that we can become people who are honest with ourselves, with each other, and with God about the deep need of our hearts for the grace-filled work of Christ. That is not always a comfortable process, but we are never left alone along the way. I urge you to prioritize the Grace-Based Spiritual Formation class in your Sundays this spring.

You can learn more about the class here.


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