Feelings and Faith

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This is the last in our short series of topical sermons on how we view the world. Today our topic is feelings and faith. And it's one of the many strange contradictions in our culture nowadays that we like to think of ourselves as scientific and evidence-based. Yet to a great extent we live in a feelings-based culture. In many situations, feelings seem to define what is true and what is right.

I should say at the outset that when I talk about feelings here, I don't just mean surface emotions. I also mean those deep-down feelings inside us which are much slower to change. I think of the sea as an illustration of this. We were in Cornwall a couple of weeks ago, and enjoyed swimming in the sea. When you do that, you have to be aware of two things.

First, there are the waves. What they're like depends on many things. They can be powerful breaking waves strong enough to knock you over; or they can be not much more than ripples on a calm surface. And they can change quickly, from place to place and from time to time.

But then, secondly, there are currents below the surface. The waves are obvious; the currents you can't see. Currents can be weak, or very strong. But they're not much affected by what's going on at the surface. The surface may be calm and flat, but the currents beneath can still be strong. A powerful current taking you in to the beach is safe – but if it's taking you out to sea it's potentially lethal.

It's similar when it comes to feelings. There are the surface emotions, which come and go but which can still be very powerful. They're obvious to us and probably to those close to us. There are also the deep feelings – what's going on deep down in our hearts – which others may not see – indeed we might hardly be aware of them ourselves. But we need to learn to be aware of both surface and deep feelings – in ourselves, and in others.

Let me also add something else – and this is important, given what I'm going to say about how faith relates to feelings. It is simply that feelings do matter. They are important. They are a basic part of our make-up as human beings. We ignore them at our peril. In fact it may be that the more rational we think we're being, the more we can be driven in a certain direction by our feelings, and then look for reasons to justify the direction we're going in.

Indeed, you could say that describes so much of the way our culture today works. We live in a feelings-based culture. So for instance, often the language that used to describe the basis for a decision is that of 'feeling comfortable'. If we think a particular course of action is right, we say we're comfortable with it. Our feelings are not being disturbed by it.

So, for instance, the other day there was a news report of a fish and chip shop (of all things) that's being closed down by the owners. They had found out more about the state of the oceans and of fish stocks, and had put a sign in their shop window saying:

"Our fishing trip was great but turned out to be a bit of an eye-opener. We saw the impact pollution is having on the oceans and fish stocks and [- listen to this –] we are not comfortable running a restaurant that has an impact on our environment."

That is to say, their feelings have been disturbed so they're shutting down their chippy. That is the way we talk now.

In our culture this approach now so often applies to our relationships as well. What makes a relationship worth continuing with is our feelings of love. If the feelings go, or if they turn negative, many think the foundation of the relationship has gone, and it's time to try and move on to someone else who might be able to rekindle those feelings in us. If the feeling is there, then the relationship must be right. We follow our feelings.

How we view ourselves is also so often defined by how we feel deep down. We're even, of course, getting to the point where whether I see myself as a man or as a woman depends on how I feel. So the gender 'assigned' to me at my birth (as the saying goes) on the basis of whether I am actually male or female is no longer decisive and permanent but can be changed on the basis of my inner sense of who or what I am now.

There's another and different example in the latest animated blockbuster going the rounds – Toy Story 4, which has been getting rave reviews. One of the main characters is called Forky. He is a toy made by a little girl on her first day at school. He's made of rubbish, including a plastic disposable fork/spoon combo – hence his name, Forky. As a result of being made of rubbish, and despite the fact that he is the girl's most treasured toy, Forky is driven by a deep-seated and powerful current of feeling that he's rubbish. He's a waste of space. He's trash. So despite the best efforts of his new friend Woody the wind-up cowboy to stop him, he is constantly on the lookout for a rubbish bin, and as soon as he finds one, he rushes towards it and hurls himself into it. That, he feels, is where he belongs.

Rubbish belongs in a rubbish bin. No doubt Forky is a character who resonates in our culture because many people do have strongly negative feelings about themselves, and those feelings drive their lives. As with Forky, that can be very destructive, not only of their lives but of the lives of those around them.

When I was in my teens and in the process of coming to a living faith in Christ, for a period I felt like Forky. I was looking inside myself, and I hated what I saw. I'm so grateful to God that I began to learn a lesson that transformed my life, and how I saw the world, and how I saw myself. It's a lesson that comes from the Bible. It's a lesson about how our faith and our feelings should rightly be related.

I've tried to sum it up in my three headings that are there on the outline at the back of the service sheet. So:

First, we learn the truth about God, the world and ourselves not by looking inside ourselves but by trusting what God says in the Scriptures.

That's what faith is – looking away from ourselves to God. Jesus said (this is in John 14):

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me … I am the way, and the truth, and the life …"

He said that just before he went to the cross. He said that to his disciples who were in danger of being overwhelmed by their feelings. Feelings of fear, of loneliness, of dread. But Jesus won't allow them to give in to those feelings. They are not to look inside themselves for the solid truth and the hope that they need. They are to look to God. They are to look to Jesus. Whatever powerful currents and crashing waves of feeling swirl around in our troubled hearts, Jesus calls us to do the same. It is in him and in his word that we find the truth about the way to live – and life itself.

We learn the truth about God, the world and ourselves not by looking inside ourselves but by trusting what God says in the Scriptures. Then:

Secondly, trusting what God says is not blind, irrational faith but a rational response to what God has shown us of himself and to what God has done.

This is where, ironically, it is us Christians who are more scientific in our method than a feelings-based culture. As Ian was saying last week, the Christian faith is evidence-based. We depend on facts, not feelings. Unchanging facts. At the core of those facts are the death of Christ on the cross for our sins, his bodily resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, and his promise that one day he will return. These are facts of history. If we'd been there we could have seen these things happen, and we could have heard the promises being given. These are rocks that no waves or deep currents can shift. They are dependable.

So the apostle Paul says, introducing his great exposition of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:

"Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and he appeared …"

Why does he say "unless you believed in vain"? Because he wants us to be clear that this is not fake news but true facts. If this was not factual, our faith would be futile. But it is fact. So he goes on:

"And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …"

In fact. This is true. This is unmoving rock on which you can build your life.

What do you make of our constant repetition of the Creeds in our services? Is it possible that subconsciously we think to ourselves, "Here we go again, I can switch off for a minute now and not pay attention to what I'm saying, because this is just the same as it's always been and I've said it a thousand times"? But we need to see – that's exactly the point! This is fact-rock that never changes and will never change. The older I get, the more I value the deep, deep comfort of repeating these wonderful truths on which my life depends.

I was given early on in my life as a Christian disciple a picture of mature Christian living that for all its simplicity is one of the most profound and helpful discipleship lessons I've ever learned. Maybe you've seen it yourself. So picture a train – an engine pulling two carriages. The engine at the front has in big letters on the side, FACTS. On the first carriage it says FAITH. And on the second carriage at the back it says FEELINGS.

The engine is the facts about who God is, what he's done, and what he says. It's the engine that pulls the train of our Christian life. The carriage of our faith is fixed tight to the engine of facts, and pulled along by it. Our feelings are towed along behind our faith.

We need to let our feelings more and more be fashioned by our faith. They follow on behind. If we put the carriage of feelings at the front of the train, and try and base our faith in our feelings, and we depend on our feelings rather then the facts, then the train of our Christian life will go nowhere.

That is so simple, but far from simplistic. It's a lesson that none of us outgrow. We need to keep coming back to it in all the seasons of our lives, as we're battered by the feelings that clamour for our attention as if they matter more than anything else. They don't. And that's not just a lesson for the individual believer, but for the church – and more than ever for our culture, as it sinks under the weight of its dysfunctional feelings. So:

Thirdly, we should keep on trusting what God says and serving Christ faithfully and joyfully no matter what we are experiencing.

In those early years of my Christian life, and when I was first encountering the Old Testament and its powerful teaching, there was one prayer that made a deep impact on me. It challenged me to the core. But I immediately knew that the portrait of the life of faith that it presented had to be right, if faith was to mean anything. It was the prayer of the prophet Habbakuk that we heard read earlier. It comes at the end of the short Book of Habakkuk. It's a hard won lesson because the prophet and his people are suffering at the hands of invaders. So the book begins:

"O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?"

The answer from God comes back, and the heart of it is there in 2.4:

"… the righteous shall live by his faith."

What does that life of faith look like? Chapter 3 is Habakkuk's prayer of faith. It begins (3.2):

"O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear."

And in 3.13:

"You went out for the salvation of your people."

So there is the engine of the facts about who God is and what he's done. There is Habbakuk coupling himself to these facts. But remember what's happening to him. Things are desperate. Listen to the force of the storm of overwhelming feelings that's beating against him. This is 3.16:

"I hear, and my body trembles;
my lips quiver at the sound;
rottenness enters into my bones;
my legs tremble beneath me."

But then listen to this for unshakeable faith (3.17-18):

"Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation."

That is, even when my present experience is entirely negative; when I don't even have what it takes to sustain life and there's no prospect that I will any time soon; when I've lost everything; and when I'm practically collapsing under the impact of overwhelmingly negative feelings – even then, I will trust God and, contrary to all my feelings and all my present experience, I will rejoice in the Lord my Saviour. That is faith in the facts, with feelings being dragged along behind.

We can see the same faith at work in the New Testament, in the example of the hard-pressed apostle Paul. This is from 2 Corinthians 4.7-18. Paul says (verse 8):

"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed [there are the feelings – now to verse 13]
Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, "I believed, and so I spoke", we also believe, and so we also speak, [there is the faith] knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence [there are the facts] … So we do not lose heart."

And he says (back in verse 7), "we have this treasure in jars of clay". That is, we may be rubbish – frail and fragile, swamped by feelings and forces beyond our control, like Forky the temporary toy literally made from rubbish – but God is great, and good, and trustworthy.

So we should trust him; and we should keep on faithfully and joyfully serving him; and we should keep on bearing witness to a dying world – no matter what. As those who are trusting in Jesus, it is not for us to be like the culture around us, living feelings-based lives. We are to live faith-based lives, for the glory of God.

Let's pray – and I invite us to make our own that prayer of the prophet Habbakuk:

Heavenly Father,
though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet we will rejoice in you our Lord;
We will take joy in the God of our salvation.
In Jesus name. Amen.

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