Friday, February 14, 2014


If you know me, you know that I don't have a problem with people expressing their emotions.  I am interested in philosophical anthropology in general and one of the areas within philosophical anthropology that interests me is the study of the emotions. In learning about the nature of emotion, I have become an advocate of the importance of developing in emotional maturity.

I don't advocate the notion that emotions are to be suppressed to the furthest extent possible in order to maintain some kind of stoic virtue. I think this is a false picture of how a human person is to achieve virtue in your emotional life. That said - I also maintain that a wrong emphasis on the passions (too much or too little) can be misguided and even dangerous. Even more, a vague or wrong understanding of the emotions promotes emotional immaturity.

Our attitudes and ideas about the role emotions play in our spiritual development often come from our church services.  Praise bands are so polished now that going to a church service can be better than going to huge stadium concerts.  Preachers are trained to stir your emotions and use them to prod you "unto holiness". These "passion filled" times are then duplicated on a grand scale at youth camps, mega-concerts, and religious conferences.

But is this a good thing?

Unfortunately, we usually have nebulous ideas about what emotions are and the role they should play in our Christian life.  Because of this we are more susceptible to poor discernment on these matters. Christians see these "passionate" events as a good and then illegitimately adopt the vague notion that "this is what it means to be a genuine Christian, to be passionate about God!!". To be sure, every aspect of your being should be positively oriented towards God.

However, by it self, this is an ill-formed notion. Once this ill-formed idea is adopted, every part of our lives must become infused with some kind of passion.  Our new unofficial creed adds on "passionately" to everything:
  • Serving our fellow man - PASSIONATELY
  • Reading our Bibles - PASSIONATELY
  • Witnessing to our friends - PASSIONATELY
  • Writing Java code for a custom human resources application - PASSIONATELY
If it's not done passionately, then it's worldly and vain.  If it is done passionately, then it's from God.
One can forget that you can passionately pursue perceived goods that are actually evil, and that heroic and God honoring acts can be done with very little passion. Hitler was one on of the most passionate characters of his time... Link to Hitler Speech. Mother Teresa struggled for decades in what she calls a "dark night" where she did not feel close to God. However, I defy anyone who knows of her to show that she was, in fact, far from God.

I contend that it is misguided and dangerous to be mistaken about the passions.  It can throw off the trajectory of your Christian life and leave you wandering in a sea of unfulfilled longing.

What are some of the dangers of thinking incorrectly about passion?

First, Christians can confuse "being passionate" with "being mature".  When the passions are seen as the badge of spiritual maturity, knowingly or unknowingly, it perverts your understanding of the goal of the Christian life. Being passionate is not the goal of the Christian life, rather the development of mature passions should be a part of the sanctification process along with the development of a mature intellect and will.  

In fact, the maturation of the intellect and will are primary and essential for the formation of mature passions.
 If you skip the development of the intellect and will in search of a "passionate Christianity" then you will spend your life grasping for vague notions of spirituality upon which you can hang your passions.  In the end, you will not experience those mature passions that come from rational ordering and willful formation.

Second, the sort of emotions produces at concerts and lively worship services are often dramatically different from the sort of emotions produced in normal life. Worship services are exciting, normal life usually is not that exciting.

But the sort of emotions you have in your normal life are precisely the kind that need to be developed and reflected upon in order for you to grow.  How angry do I get at my boss for deciding to do something I don't agree with?  What does that reveal about my attitude towards those in authority?  What does that reveal about my charity?  Do I have any compassion for the lady in my office who just had a fight with her daughter?  What does that say about my concern for others?  More importantly, what does that say about my concern for this lady in particular?

Your emotions indicate something about the state of your soul. They are God given tools for indicating how badly ordered your desires are. If you do not take time to reflect on how your reactions mirror the state of your soul, then you neglect to leverage the emotions that God has given you. You fail to see the fruit that your emotions are meant to produce. Thus in seeking to be passionate (unnaturally), you actually neglect the natural and proper use of the passions!

Furthermore, thinking that concerts, worship services, etc. are the engine upon which your Christian life runs focuses you on the wrong sort of emotions. To be sure, your emotional state during a worship service may offer you insight into the state of your soul. However - humans have a whole range of emotions that are important to reflect on. If we rely too much on the intense emotions, we will neglect those more subtle emotions that help us key in on the state of our own soul.

Music by it's nature pumps the emotions and can thus give you the wrong impression about yourself.  While in the midst of a passionate worship service, you may think that you are being taken to the third heaven and that this state reflects the delight you take in God, but it could actually be the music which is producing 80% of the delight. In fact, you can have a wonderful "worship experience" and have little to no love for God.  That is the most insidious part about relying too much on the modern "worship service".  It leverages music to move you, and can give you a false sense of spirituality.

Your normal "every day" emotions are usually more accurate indicators of your spiritual state.

Third, by their nature emotions come and go.  What God is looking for in us is an enduring state of virtue and ultimately blessedness. It's hard to imagine a more effective tool for diverting the Christian life than to cause Christians to seek an enduring state of blessedness by means of something that is inherently changing.

Fourth, the emphasis on or identification with emotions as the essential component of Christian authenticity seems to come more from our culture than from the Bible or from Christian tradition.  Christians have had a good deal to say about the passions, but by an large, the great teachers of the church have not spoken of their proper use in the way that we seem to talk about it today in evangelical churches.  Usually they speak of restraining our passions and denying our desires so that our souls my be purified.

They taught this, not because they thought emotions were inherently bad. They knew (better than we do) that the proper ordering of the soul requires not mere passion, but refined passions. Ones that are forged through thought, reflection, experience, and effort.

Today passions are intentionally stirred. They tend not to directed toward concrete virtuous ends and little to no instruction is given on their proper place in the human person.  This smacks of the infiltration of consumerism in the church. Rather the church should be teaching us how we can grow into emotionally mature people.

I'll end with a poem attributed to Mother Teresa as it exemplifies a person of deep emotional maturity...

People are often unreasonable, illogical and self centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

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