I would like to start with a small introduction regarding “feelings” and their obvious over-emphasis in the contemporary church.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not one to emphasize feelings when it comes to our Spiritual walk. I have many reasons, but the primary one is that I’ve seen many well-meaning Christians do some seriously damaging, and even ungodly, things based on the whole ideology of having “felt” led of the Lord.
But on the whole, I think any practicing Christian can and will understand that feelings do indeed have their place in a Christian’s life. My sentiment is for those who make feelings their divine guidance system for their Christian life. The Scripture and the clear, precise leading of the Holy Spirit are the only two things that can be used for that. And incidentally, The Holy Spirit will never ask anything contradictory to the Scripture.
Now, I am as close to being as Stoic as a Christian can safely be without denial of the grace of Christ. I take Jeremiah’s Proverb very literally when it says that the heart (the emotional center of one’s life) is very deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). And I have to question anyone’s sincerity who bases something as important as their salvation on something they claim to “feel in their heart”. For feelings are very fickle, and one’s salvation must based on something much more stable than feelings.
Indeed, the place for feelings in a Christian’s life is the understanding that faith may (or may not) produce feelings, but is not a feeling in and of itself. I mention this because the devotional feeling of faith makes an intrinsic part of the subject matter of what I want to write about.
Now I want to address an issue that has bothered me for some years.
When I first gave my life to Christ in my early twenties, I soon stumbled across a series of sermons by Pastor David Wilkerson from Times Square Church. The messages were ideal for my current season of spiritual growth, which urged me to search out more of his sermons. For around five years, I essentially saturated myself with this man’s teaching. And in spite of the majority of sermons I heard from him being about having faith during various trials, that really wasn’t the thing that drawn me to this man’s ministry. It was, for a complete lack for a better word (and believe me, I’ve searched for a better word), the feeling this man’s ministry instilled during his “hard” and “fiery” sermons.
I remember the first time I heard Pastor Wilkerson preach a sermon on sin and repentance. I had been putting it off for a while. And I was intimidated before I pressed Play on the tape deck. I had heard so much about how Pastor Wilkerson was one of the few preachers left that wouldn’t hold anything back during a sermon on righteousness and holiness since the sermons of the old Puritans and Fundamentalists who led the great revivals. I thought, “Well, I expect to walk away from this sermon with only intimidation and thinking that God despises me.”
He took the stand and apologized.
I was beside myself. He openly admitted to coming to this sermon prepared to, to use his own word, “lambast” the congregation with a strong message against sin. And when he took the stand, was firmly rebuked by the Holy Spirit Himself.
Rest assured he still delivered a strong message that didn’t back down from God’s standard one iota. But for the first time ever, I sat through a message, was thoroughly convicted, and perceived an urge, a “challenge” if you will, to repent, not because we serve a judgmental God ready to fling lightning bolts at us for stepping slightly out of line, but because we serve a Savior whose heart is broken with every disobedient act we commit. By the end of his sermon (and every Wilkerson sermon on righteousness since) I could dynamically sense the pain my sin was inflicting on Christ.
I submit to you that this is rare. I do not wish to stray across the fine-line that makes me guilty of glorifying Pastor Wilkerson beyond that of glorifying God, for I have already mentioned how Pastor Wilkerson was within minutes of making the same mistake the vast majority of ministers make, when the gentle rebuke came to him from the Lord as he took the stand. Were it not for this divine rebuke, no doubt Pastor Wilkerson would have hammered on his congregation so strongly that many might have been permanently lost that night.
But even this isn’t what I want to write about. I want to write about what seems to me an even more dangerous by-product of this “hammering” type of preaching that intimidates church-goers into a moral code rather than leading them to a weeping shepherd who’s heart is broken that a sheep has strayed a little too far from the fold. I submit that one leads to righteousness, and the other leads to legalism.
Though I do not believe in following the feelings produced by our faith, I sometimes enjoy critiquing these feelings and seeing what their implications are. Often, I find myself approaching ministry with a price on my head. The Devil, for whatever reason, has seemingly made me a prime target, and I have caught what seems to be the full blunt of numerous and various attacks by his forces. Ministry ought to be a safe-house, a refuge, a place of rest and recuperation.
But too often, if I feel like Satan’s established enemy walking into church, walking out of church, I feel as if now I have neither God nor Satan as an ally in the great battle. That I am caught in the crossfire, and that neither side desires me as an ally, but just wants to neutralize me as fast as they can as not to be an impediment to their respective side in the war.
This is a source of despair to any who has felt this way. What does a Christian do when they feel God and Satan has their number?
Therein is the danger. A good humble Christian, unless he or she is completely aware of this device, will fall into a moral lifestyle that has nothing to do with righteousness. They do all the right things, not because they love the Lord and acknowledge His love for them, but because they are afraid of judgment. This is plain legalism, and even a special type of Humanism, since the end of this conformance to the Christian moral code is motivated by the Christian’s inclination for self-preservation, and not from a sincere love of Christ.
Sometimes even the preachers are sincere and well-meaning, often even asserting that the use of such tactics is not the way to get Christians to live a separated life. But in the next breath you find them slinging threats of God withholding His blessings, provision, grace, strength, and sometimes even forfeiting salvation if every component, even the minutest, of your life isn’t in perfect alignment with the will of God. The result is a flock of intimidated Christians whose only motivation for pursuing the perfect will of God is either the acquisition, or retention, of the divine benefits associated with being a Christian.
This should not be. Our motivation should be only to please Jesus Christ.
It reminds me of a story. My friend and I were discussing this in some detail years ago. We both confessed of being guilty of the same crime. When we found that we were seemingly losing ground with God, it never appeared to us that it might be God “pruning” his vineyard. We both assumed we were being punished for some monstrous, yet mysteriously unrevealed, sin that has provoked God’s anger causing him to remove blessings from us. So we both went on a demon chase. We went through every possession we had and trashed everything that even might displease the Lord. CD’s, movies, books, all were scanned through, and every one that could even potentially be considered sinful was disposed of.
Demon-hunt over, guess what? Apparently we must have missed something because the “pruning” didn’t cease. God had not revealed to either of us what the problem was, or even that there was a problem, so the clearing away was all guesswork. Books that were just vain works of fiction were trashed, CD’s where perhaps one song was candid enough not to be considered gospel was trashed. Every secular movie, gone.
But look at what we were doing. We were afraid of God. This isn’t what He wants. He wants us to fear Him, in the context of respect. But no father wants his children to be scared of him, and neither does God.
No, I imagine we hastened not our deliverance from the proverbial pruning. We probably didn’t save ourselves one single second of pain by our little house cleanings. In fact, it is conceivable that we prolonged the pruning, since the whole idea that God is like a Greek god ready to relentlessly and mercilessly trample the wicked, is probably not the point He was attempting to communicate to us through the pruning.
So there is a form of godliness that denies the power. A pious life lived by a heart-broken saint and a pious life lived by one who just wishes to meet a bunch of requirements, may look very nearly alike on the outside. But God chooses not to see the outside, but looks on the heart. And He sees that if you are trying to live the life of a saint because you are trying to escape judgment and that this is the divine currency used to buy God’s favor and benefits, I am afraid you are trapped in legalism. But if you are trying to live the life of a saint because you know that you have a savior, a friend, a confidant, and an advocate in Heaven who loves you and whose heart is broken with every sin you commit, then you are closer to Him than you yourself can ever perceive on this side of the great river.