Myths & Cliches of Christian Spirituality IV: “Just Follow Your Heart”

Another dangerous cliche dispensed regularly in Western Christendom with the authority of a biblical proverb is “just follow your heart.”  This is an encouragement to trust in our feelings, hunches, and emotions.

I once sought godly counsel for a long bout of spiritual depression.  When I began emptying my internal angst all over one of my seminary professors desks, he interrupted me with this question: “Do you hear what word you keep using?”  I was stopped mid-sentence, upset that my fervent monologue was so truncated.

I had no idea how to answer his question, so he helped me out: “You keep using the word ‘feel.'”

It was spoken as some sort of an indictment.  And then it suddenly occurred to me that I regularly assess spirituality on the basis of emotions and feelings.  If I did not feel God’s presence during a ‘quiet time,’ then I assumed it was a bad, unproductive ‘quiet time.’  But when I sensed Him near to me, I deemed myself loved and pleasing to Him, self-congratulatory over the great devotional time I had conducted.

We cannot divide ourselves up tidily into the categories of mind, soul and body.  God has intertwined these inseparably in His creation of us as holistic beings.  But we must also resist the tendence to equate the emotional with the spiritual.  Our feelings are fleeting and rooted in the circumstantial–a good or bad mood can be affected not only by our spiritual state, but by the weather, by hormones, or by what we ate for breakfast.  Emotions and feelings fluctuate so much that they are unreliable guides in determining the health of our spirituality.

Even more convincing that we should not just follow our hearts is that the Bible teaches that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick”! (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).  God specifically instructs His people in Numbers: “do not follow after your own hearts and your own eyes, which you are inclined to whore after” (15:39, ESV).  A similar command is found in Jeremiah 23:17–“This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own hearts and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them…” (ESV).

It is not that emotions are bad.  God Himself is presented as a deeply emotional Being with intense feelings.  But we cannot rely on our feelings to determine our spiritual health.  We dread and bemoan the experience of what we call “dry times,” but a quick read through several of the Psalms (not to mention a glance at the crucifixion scenes!) will show us that such moments of spiritual despair and the sensation of divine distance are a regular (and even necessary!) part of the spiritual life.

The challenge is that we “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7, ESV).  We must hold to what we believe in and resist relying on the palpable (which could include feelings) to guide us.  John’s Gospel strongly discourages faith based the palpable.  When Thomas heard that His resurrected Lord has appeared to his brothers, he refused to believe until He had something palpable to hold onto.  But when Jesus did appear to Him, He told Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (20:29, ESV).

So we operate not out of what we feel, but out of what we believe.  If God seems distant, then I must strain to affirm by faith that His love for me is eternal and unfailing.  If I feel high as a kite about myself, I must affirm my belief that only God is worthy of praise.  I must walk by faith, not by what palpable sense my emotions give or deny me.

Myths & Cliches of Christian Spirituality III: “God Will Never Give You More Than You Can Handle”

Before I read Job all the way thru to the end when I was in seminary, I used to find myself resonating with the ‘wisdom’ Job’s friends offered him.  Their comments made good sense to me.  It sounded like the wisdom and counsel dispensed by Christians everyday to those who are struggling.

And then, in OT Survey, I read Job cover to cover and discovered that, at the end, God rebukes Eliphaz and his pals “for you have not spoken of me what is right” (42:7, ESV).

One of the cliches Christians readily offer to those who sit in pain and turmoil should be tossed out with the false wisdom of Job’s friends: “God will never give you more than you can handle.”

Behind this comment is a deeply embedded resistance to acknowledge the depth of pain and misery that sin has wrought in our world.  And in Western societies, we have devised multiple means of keeping the misery of death and pain at arms length.  We zone out the land so that the bad sections are on a certain side of the tracks, leaving us free from encountering poverty on the way to the mall.  We place the dying and the mentally disabled in specialized care facilities.  At citizen complaints, police scatter the homeless out of the business districts so that we can get our lattes in peace.  And so it becomes easier to assume that life can’t really get that bad… God will never give me more than I can withstand.

Two presuppositions are behind this cliche.  One is that we feel ultimately invincible.  I can handle it.  I can pull myself up by the boot straps and endure.  The second presupposition is about God.  We assume that His love for us guarantees our protection from evil.

God certainly does protect us.  But He also afflicts us.  And, often beyond the scope of our understanding, His affliction is ultimately loving.

In the opening of 2 Corinthians, Paul refers to a scene of such affliction that he and his comrades assumed they would die–“For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself” (1.8, ESV).

God had given them more than they could handle.  And Paul tells us why: “…that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises the dead” (1.9, ESV).

God will indeed give us more than we can handle.  But this is so that we may relinquish our foolish, idealistic fantasies about our own strength and ingenuity and turn instead to the only true hope we have–God, who raises the dead.

God will give us more than we can handle, but He will never give us more than He can handle….

Myths & Cliches of Christian Spirituality II: “X”-tremism (the more normal, the less spiritual)

My generation has been assigned a letter.  It is an edgy, scandalous letter.  It is the letter “X.”

And this letter, of course, has been used as a marketing emblem in the church subculture to reach young people. “Extreme” became a buzzword.  But dropping off the initial “E” apparently produced an even greater effect.  Young Christians flocked to conferences and bought Bibles with the word  “X-treme” emblazoned across the flyers or book spines.

In the post 9/11 world, “extremism” is an unpalatable concept.  But there still persists an “X-tremism” in Christian ghettos.  Many of us tend to think that the more normal, then the less spiritual.  We value the radical and the extreme.  The student who leaves everything and rushes off to India for the summer seems more spiritual than the student who stays home with his grandma and earns money to pay back his loans.  Shaking the dust of Bedford Falls off our feet for worldwide adventure is attractive… and like George Bailey, we fail to find the value in decades of faithfulness in the ordinariness of life.

Our pneumatology (understanding of the Holy Spirit) is largely shaped by Christian “X-tremism.”  We assume His work is always sudden and dramatic.  And certainly His work is portrayed this way in Scripture, Acts 2 being the quintessential example.  For some, if ‘Holy Spirit-fire’ does not come down in the worship service, if no tears are shed, if no hands are raised, if no healing occurs, then we assume the Holy Spirit is absent (or at least being quenched by some secret nay-sayer in the mix).

But the Bible also protrays the work of the Spirit as slow, gradual, tedious, and hardly noticeable.  He convicts the world concerning sin (John 16)–this grand work can be sudden and dramatic, but it is often slow and gradual.  He intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8)–how often do we perceive or feel or sense this activity?

The 1st person to be specifically filled with the Spirit of God in the Bible is not a priest, prophet, warrior or king. He is an artist.  A craftsman.

Bezalel was filled with God’s Spirit to do the slow, careful work of carving, engraving, and sewing.  This is the guy who led the artisan endeavors of constructing the tabernacle hardware and structures (see Exodus 31, 35-38).  Some of us need to expand our  pneumatology so that we can understand the quiet, subtle work of the Spirit along with His startling and sudden work.

Elijah encountered God in two very distinct ways on two different mountains back in 1 Kings 18 and 19.  On Mt. Carmel, God’s work was… well, “X-treme,” if you will–He consumed with fire from heaven the offering and the altar in a contest with Baal.  But a bit later on, while Elijah stood on Mt. Horeb, though he witnessed some extremes (wind, fire, earthquake), the LORD was in neither.

His presence was evidenced by the still, small whisper.

Can us Christian “X-tremists” hear such a voice outside the cave on Horeb?  Or is our spirituality confined solely to the summit of Carmel….?