Emotions and Assurance (Notes from a Presentation Friday 07 December 2018)

Please find attached here the notes from a history presentation delivered at our recent Friday Fellowship on 07 December 2018. Delivered by Angela Platt, the Pastor’s wife. 

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December 1842 Elizabeth J.J. Robson, an evangelical Quaker writes in her diary; she expresses significant concern about her spiritual state, due to her feelings…

“Oh, may my prayers be more sincere: for I fear, that though I read the Bible every night on retiring to rest, and endeavour to enter into stillness and a prayerful spirit, yet it is more show than reality.”

Again she expresses a similar sentiment a few years in March 1844:

“I am sometimes tempted to fear that the work of true religion has not yet even begun in my heart…”

She clearly endeavours to live a life fully devoted to God, but in 1842-44 frequently expresses concern that she is not ‘feeling’ enough to convince herself that she is a Christian. Her spirituality appears to be, at least somewhat, contingent on how much she ‘feels’ – whether that be love to God, closeness to his Spirit, or a change in her heart…

Elizabeth’s Diary

I came across this pious Quaker’s diary more or less serendipitously; one of the subjects of my research is a well-known Quaker female named Elizabeth Robson, who was engaged in ministry throughout the UK; her husband, Thomas Robson, was also a Quaker minister. They even travelled to the USA together. So when I found a diary in the British Library titled ‘Memoirs of Elizabeth Robson’ I was naturally excited – and then discovered these women were not one and the same. The Elizabeth Robson mentioned above is a rare jewel – a religious ‘average person’ who was sincere about her religion, though not a minister in her denomination. Indeed, across all denominations it is rare to find much information about religious people who were not directly involved in ministry.

We know very little about Elizabeth; we know she married another Quaker, Joseph John Robson, in 1853 – they lived in Saffron Waldon. In the 1850s she joined a committee for the ‘Girls British Schools’ in which they would conduct ‘bible visiting’ – travelling to various schools to teach Scripture to the children. As noted above, by her commitment to read it each day – the bible was supremely important to Elizabeth, as it was generally to evangelical Quakers of this period.

The bulk of this research on Elizabeth is derived from her memoirs, which include segments of her diary. This diary is mainly filled with reflections on her spiritual life and condition. She began writing  a diary in adulthood in the 1840s, in order to track the ‘progress of religion in her soul’. Writing diaries was a common occupation of religious men and women in this period – across denominations. It served both public and private benefits – privately, it allowed the author to see how God had worked in their life and trace their spiritual progress; ‘publicly’ it was often read and used by close family members and friends of that person, as a source of encouragement; diaries were also typically used to collate memoirs of individuals after they had died – which is precisely how this memoir of Elizabeth was created.

Feelings

The supreme emphasis on Elizabeth’s diary appears to be on religious feelings – not uncommon for other diaries found in this period, especially those written by evangelical women. A few months after her concern expressed in March 1844 (in the quote shown here which I mentioned earlier*) Elizabeth feels reassured since she has recently experienced greater feelings for God. In July 1844 she notes:

“I have lately felt more earnest desires after God, more than usual the need of being washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb…”

Elizabeth evidently made a strong connection between her feelings and her spiritual condition. When feelings were present, she was comforted and assured of her relationship with God; when feelings were absent or weak, she was spiritually anxious. The year before, in 1843, she wrote in her diary:

“Oh, that I could feel it more, and endeavour more earnestly to love and serve my God, for I know not that another year may be granted me…I want to feel the vitality of true religion; I Want to come to Jesus in true humility of soul, and to feel sufficiently my need of a Saviour.”

This emphasis on feelings was not unusual, nor was it restricted to Quakerism alone. Jane Attwater, a pious Baptist woman who was heavily involved in intellectual ministry in the late 18th – early 19th centuries also interposes frequent thoughts of ‘feelings’ in her diaries – which cover over 30 years of her life. She notes in 1776:

“May I never be left to lukewarmness but be ever zealous… I trust I now feel something of love to Christ but the mutability of my state makes me fear I shall not always profit what I not feel …”

This also wasn’t strictly related to women, as men commented on the desire for religious feelings in their diaries as well. David Everard Ford, a well-respected Congregational minister and composer of hymns in the late 18th century, wrote the following in his diary during a turbulent spiritual period:

“Something is wrong between my soul & God. Most earnestly do I desire restoring grace…I would wish to feel it…God has done great things for me, & I ought to be glad…Lord, help me!” (1844)

Historical Analysis

When studying history it is important for historians to consider the context of the contemporaries of hte period in order to understand why they did/believed certain things (whether we agree with them or not). Also, as Christians, we of course want to analyse the principle of the behaviour – do we agree with their sentiments? The remainder of this presentation will extrapolate the context and principle of these feelings-orientated sentiments.

  1. The context of contemporaries, what has inspired them to think/believe the way they do.

  2. Secondly, we critique the principle of their behavior – consider whether we find it praiseworthy, or lacking; is this conduct we would want to emulate? And we keep in mind that no individual, in history or the present, will be perfect. To do this, we usually compare it to how we would feel about these sentiments today.

The Context: Salience of Feelings

The evangelical revivals were renowned for explosions of emotion, meetings of Whitefield and Wesley were often accompanied by great bodily expressions of feelings, which would seem to confirm that something spiritual was occurring.  It would be remiss to presume that emotions were a new characteristic in 18th century religion; one only has to read Puritan writings in the 16th and 17th centuries to note that feelings were an important part of spiritual life. Protestant Reformation historian Alec Ryrie comments on the importance of feelings:

“Feelings might provide testimony on a whole range of subjects, but in particular they could provide unparalleled evidence – perhaps the only true evidence – of election and of salvation…”

However, 18th century evangelicalism did note a shift in the presentation of these emotions as their manifestation became more institutionalised. The impact of this can be seen in changes in preaching and doctrine. Preaching changed, as sermons which appealed simply to the conscience and moral duty were joined by appeals to emotional religion – that listeners would be inspired to be grateful to God for his abundant grace. Conversion was becoming greatly experiential; Evangelicalism saw religion as to be a natural expression – one with roots in the feelings of the heart. Indeed, a significant aspect of these feelings came at the point of conversion, wherein Christians believed they needed to experience a great explosion of terror-feelings in order to be truly saved – this was part of Christian experience.


This was especially evident in the revival meetings which were often classified by their intense and visible feelings due to the spiritual experience taking place. (In this image you see a well-known picture of George Whitefield preaching outdoors – with some evidence of emotion – though this is no where near the rowdy emotions displayed, according to some accounts with people shaking trembling, screaming, wailing on the floor… there were even designated ‘anxious seats’ in some church meetings for people to occupy themselves if such activities overcame them.

Spirituality was tied up with feelings. Good feelings, such as compassion, were to be cultivated, while bad feelings – such as anger or envy, ought to be repressed. Emotion was a determinant of one’s spiritual state; it revealed the truth of their hearts. One who loved God would certainly feel love for God. On one occasion when Wesley tried to explain the nature of spiritual affections he drew an analogy – if one has ever loved or been loved by another human, then it should be known how to love God – it would be felt.

‘I ask you, men, how do you know when you love your wives? Ye wives, how do you know when you love your husbands? Ye parents, how do you know when you love your children The answer is, ‘I feel it’

As the evangelical revivals arose in the 18th century, heart religion became a central feature of its message – ‘true religion’ and ‘experiential religion’ were often discussed in diaries, letters, and sermons. People wanted the true and full experience of spirituality – and the absence of these feelings was cause for worry. And with all this emphasis on emotional output, emotions became a frequent barometer for one’s spiritual state.

Thoughts on feelings today?

There are a plethora of thoughts on feelings today – ranging from the emphasis on experience and feelings within high calvinist reformed traditions in which you find assurance in experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit within you (which could be interpreted as a type of feelings) to the opposite side of the spectrum wherein tolerance and liberalism have catalysed themes such as ‘love wins’ in which good and happy feelings are emphasised over doctrine. As I am unable to cover all of these diverse spectrum today, I will emphasise thoughts from a few people who fall within the ‘reformed camp’ in the 20th-21st centuries.

 John Piper –  The Duty of Delight

John Piper is a renowned part of the ‘reformed movement’ in the USA who has coined something he calls the theory of ‘Christian hedonism’ – which encourages believers to find ultimate joy or happiness in Christ. He not only believes that happiness and joy are important parts of our relationship with God, but takes it further and argues we have a ‘duty to delight in God’. Indeed, his ‘mantra’ for his ministry is ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ In one example, John Piper tries to explain these theological view through an example of his marriage. John Piper gives an illustration in which he brings flowers for his wife on their 50th anniversary, and explains that he wants to spend the evenign with her to celebrate, because it would make him happy. He suggests she would not be offended, because:

“Because she is glorified when I’m satisfied in her…[She] feels treasured right now because [I found] joy in [her]..So don’t go to church and say, ‘That’s what Christians do…Ring the doorbell, and when God opens the door say, ‘Nothing would make me happier than to meet you here because I need you.’

Peter Masters, Commenting on John Piper

Peter Masters, the long-time Senior Pastor at the Metropolitan Tabernacle sees merit in Piper’s emphasis on delighting in God, but critiques this view for its ‘single-minded’ focus on emotions.

“When delight is everything, doctrine suffers a setback. When subjective emotions are unduly elevated, the proving and testing of all things becomes impossible.”

This is probably a fair assessment. While Piper’s emphasis on the emotionally positive elements found in a relationship with God are valuable, it is true that the singular emphasis could be problematic. I would add, to Masters’ concern, that it runs the great risk of developing a theology wherein assurance is found based on emotions. It risks placing us in a situation like Elizabeth J.J. Robson where we never feel that we are feeling enough. Emotions themselves become a spiritual barometer. And I say this as one who has benefited substantially from John Piper’s ministry – nonetheless, it is always beneficial to be aware of potential side effects of even best-intentioned theologies.

Many people have approached his teachings with a view that they must have feelings – which can have detrimental consequences. I would tend to suggest that feelings are a gift – something which certainly will arise, and will be embraced in full in the new heaven and earth…but not something by which we can expect to measure our spiritual life in our present condition.


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Martyn Lloyd-Jones

Martyn Lloyd-Jones offers a balanced view in the early 20th century, he he comments on emotions. He firstly suggests they should not be central to our life:

“[We must]…avoid the incitements and the temptations of Satan to give feelings this great prominence at the centre. Put at the centre the only One who has a right to be there, the Lord of Glory, Who so loved you that He went to the Cross and bore the punishment and the shame of your sins and died for you. Seek Him, seek His face, and all other things shall be added unto you.”

But, nonetheless, Lloyd-Jones still believed that feelings an important part of our make-up. Lloyd-Jones sought a balanced approach, wherein emotions were valued, but not supreme. They were important, but not a measuring stick…

“I regard it as a great part of my calling in the ministry to emphasize the priority of the mind and the intellect in connection with the faith; but though I maintain that, I am equally ready to assert that the feelings, the emotions, the sensibilities obviously are of very vital importance. We have been made in such a way that they play a dominant part of our make-up. Indeed, I suppose that one of the greatest problems in our life in this world, not only for Christians, but for all people, is the right handling of our feelings and emotions”

Conclusions

Thus, feelings are an important part of the religious life of Christians, in the past and today. As noted by some 19th century dissenters, it is too easy to place an over-emphasis on the emotions, and use them as a spiritual barometer, instead of appreciating them as a benefit of Christian experience and life. This over-emphasis then transitions into problems with assurance, which manifest when one does not ‘feel’ that they ‘feel’ enough to be a Christian.

I will conclude with a few statements by contemporaries of the period in which I began – the early modern era, to deal with the conundrum of feelings and assurance – how does one have the latter if the former is lacking.

In the Reformation Era, when dealing with this conundrum, William Perkins argued that God’s promises must be relied upon, rather than wavering emotions. One of the true marks of faith was the trust of God’s promises over feelings.

“…we must not live by feeling, but by faith…”

John Angell James was a 19th century contemporary; a Congregationalist preacher who published a plethora of sermons and pamphlets to encourage ‘godly living’, especially in the family setting. And he had much to say about this emphasis on feelings, which he saw rising rapidly under evangelical influence, and he reprimands those who venture to gain assurance from these feelings…

“Oh! Say some…now I have had such deep convictions, and such melting of heart, I think I may hope.’ But is not this putting their feelings in the place of the work of Christ?…But, perhaps, you think this deep experience would be a stronger ground of confidence to go to Christ. Is not his word, then, a sufficient warrant? Do you want any other warrant, or can you have any other? Is not his invitation and promise enough? What can your feelings add to this?”

And finally, I shall finish with a quote by David Everard Ford, already noted above – who despite evidently struggling with this tension between feelings and assurances, recognises the value of having feelings, but likewise does not place too much stock in them:

June 1844: “My Master knows that I love him; but my hope depends not on my love to him, but on his to me.”

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