“From Sad and Mad to Glad: The Pilgrim’s Passions”
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Excerpt: When I first became a Christian, I was taught that my spiritual life operated a lot like a train. The engine which pulls the train is powered by the historically verifiable facts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection; he embodies the objective promises of God. The carriage which follows next represents our faith, responsive to covenantal promise, and dependent on the certain and validated claims of Christ. Last of all comes the caboose, which in this model represents our feelings, or emotional life, which must be relegated to last position behind facts and faith, as they are the least trustworthy feature of human experience, and need guidance from higher-order faculties for their true expression. To seek locomotion or momentum for our Christian life in an order other than this is to court disaster. We are sinners because we neglect to value this divinely-ordered sequence, and are prone to give to feelings a place of leadership which they are unable to assume without dethroning Christ. It stands to reason: a caboose cannot pull a train. James Dobson appears to take up this model when he criticises much contemporary psychology: ‘Reason is now dominated by feelings, rather than the reverse as God intended … emotions must always be accountable to the faculties of reason and will.’1 We must of course beware the influence of a therapeutic culture in shaping our understanding of anthropology (as Dobson warns), yet nevertheless ask afresh questions to see if such an attenuated account of emotion is theologically justifiable, or indeed pastorally healthy. Is emotion in the Christian life really so dangerous?
This lecture is addressed both to Christians who are seeking to review the part that emotions play in their daily walk with the Lord, and to pastors as they guide those in their care toward greater human maturity and Christian sanctification. I am no expert in pastoral theology, but I do have thirty years’ experience in living as a Christian, so I want to be quite intentional in addressing issues most commonly faced by Christian believers from the perspective of a fellow traveller. I will assume much of the exposition already heard in these presentations, without rehearsing the details again, to try to weave together a pastoral approach to emotions drawing on theological and historical debates. The structure of the talk is quite transparently a tool for us to use in growth towards the fullness of life in Christ. In short, this paper demonstrates a model of care within a theology of hope, for we are pilgrims with passions and have not yet reached our awaited destination. It is my basic contention that emotions have great value as maps and resources to help us travel towards the heavenly city, and conversely knowing our destination helps us to prepare our emotions for residence in our new home. As Isaiah says, we are the redeemed of the Lord and one day we shall come to Zion with singing, everlasting joy shall be upon our heads, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isa 51:11). Though life is for us now often saddening or maddening, one day we shall know nothing but gladness forever.