In the fight about the authority of the Bible there was a helpful distinction made: “the Ministerial” versus “the Magisterial use of reason.”
The defenders of the authority of the Scripture noticed that the liberal movement in the church was letting their reason rule over the texts. This is the “Magisterial use” of reason. The more conservative said that our reason should serve the text, but standing below the text. Our reason has limits, and it is not free to overthrow the text or change the meaning of the text to suit its fancy. This is the “Ministerial use” of reason: reason is a minister to serve the text. We understand our reason to be a gift of God to help us love and serve God, but our reason has limits. Reason, then, does not stand above the Scriptures, but sits below them as a humble servant.
I think this distinction is helpful as we consider the role of emotions and feelings in our own life and confession. We recognize a “Ministerial” and a “Magisterial” use of feelings, and we want to encourage a ministerial use, the proper use of our feelings and emotions.
We see, first, the abuse, the magisterial use of feelings, especially in the American Evangelical churches. Consider, for example, the altar call where the preacher asks, “Do you feel the Holy Spirit tugging in your heart?” Consider the conversations with your friends where they’ve confessed you that they “don’t feel close to God anymore” or “are going through a dry spell.” Remember the small group Bible Studies where the participants were asked, “How do you feel about this verse?”
For many American Evangelicals their “walk with God” began when they first felt the Holy Spirit in their heart, and their confidence that they are still Christian is confirmed in the weekly worship experience where they “feel the presence of God.”
We can trace the origins of this emphasis on feelings back to Charles Finney (author of the Second Great Awakening who taught that our wills are free but manipulatable, and invented “new measures” to do the manipulating) or John Calvin (who distinguished “two species of calling” and said that the true calling to be a Christian was the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart) or the devil himself (who in the Garden tempted Adam and Eve away from the clear external word of God to their own internal judgment, a theological move identified by Martin Luther as “enthusiasm”). No matter where we trace the source, we note that for much of American Evangelicalism, and, indeed, for most Christians of any type, the theater of spiritual activity is internal, in the heart. And the way we identify and talk about this inner life is through the language of emotion. “I feel moved, touched, blessed, etc.”
There is a larger trend in our culture to replace “I think” and “I believe” with “I feel,” but this is paralleled and even amplified in the Christian church with disastrous results. Our feelings, then, become the chief source of information about how it is with God and me. We look for comfort and certainty in our feeling close to God. When we live by the feelings we also die by the feelings. How many times have we heard, “I’m going through a dry spell”? “I don’t feel close to God.” “I don’t feel like God hears my prayers.” “I just wasn’t feeling it in church this morning.” When we look to our feelings for assurance and comfort, they are gone just as often as they are found. Our emotions are liquid, and the Christian looking for confidence via their emotions is like the ship tossed on the waves of the sea.
Our feelings become a hermeneutical principle. We read the Bible with our emotions. “How to you feel about this text?” “How does this passage make you feel?” When we are “touched” and “moved” by the passage then we take note of it. If we are not, we let the passage go. We approach the text asking the question, “What does this mean to me?” instead of simply asking “What does this mean?”
This goes even farther. Often times Christians are taught that they are to listen for the voice of God. “Prayer is a two-way conversation” we hear: we talk to God, and God talks to us. But how? Internally, in the heart, and that this voice is often an impression, a thought, or a feeling. This practice is nowhere in the Scriptures, but it is so common that it is rarely questioned.
We can identify all this as the “Magisterial Use of Emotions,” our emotions and feelings are understood to be a trustworthy authority. Our feelings teach us what is right. We look to our emotions to understand the scriptures. We interpret our feelings as the voice of God. We pin our confidence of God’s presence and kindness on our mood.
We reject the “Magisterial Use of Emotions” as unbiblical and dangerous.
A lot of pastoral care is fighting against the authoritarian rule of emotions. “Pastor, I just don’t feel close to God anymore.” “Well,” I respond, “Do you have a promise that God is near you, like the words of Jesus, ‘I will be with you always’?” “Yes.” “Well then, your feelings are lying to you.”
“I feel like a divorce would be best.” Your feelings are lying.
“I feel like I’m not forgiven.” Your feelings are lying.
“I feel like God will understand why I’m so angry and sinning against this person.” Your feelings are lying.
“I feel like God has forgotten me.” Your feelings are lying.
Who taught us to trust our feelings in the first place? Disney? It wasn’t Jesus. He wants us to be sure, certain, confident, unwavering. It’s difficult to find a more wavering thing than our feelings and emotions. If building a house on sand is dangerous, how much worse is it to build a house on clouds.
The Lutheran fathers, with great pastoral wisdom, are always directing us to the “external Word,” the words of the prophets and apostles which is outside of us. God speaks to us in His Word. He tells us His will in His Word. He gives us commands and instructions, promises and blessings in His Word.
When we want to know what God thinks of us, what God wants us to do, what the future holds, we don’t look to our feelings or our emotions, we look to the Word. There is no doubts, no wonderings, no uncertainties, no wavering. The words which will endure forever are established for us and our faith, our confidence in God. “This says the Lord” stands firm in the midst of the unpredictable storm of our emotions.
Is there a proper place for our emotions, our feelings, and other aspects of our inner life? Yes indeed. The Scriptures often speak of our emotions and feelings. In fact, our definition of repentance as contrition and faith is, at least in part, an emotional definition: we sorrow over our sins and we rejoice in the promise of the Gospel. The Psalms are pressed down and overflowing with emotions. Jesus, who never sinned, wept, rejoiced, was angry, disappointed, and sorrowful. He had the full range of human emotions. While we warn the Christian of the dangers of the Magisterial use of emotions, we want to promote the Ministerial use of emotions.
Here, then, are a few thoughts about the proper place of emotions in the Christian life.
First, we recognize that our emotions are part of our created humanity. Like everything else God created, our emotional inner life was good, but is now corrupt and twisted by sin.
Second, our emotions, then, are subject to the rule of the Lord’s Law. Consider the 9th and 10th commandments, “You shall not covet.” The Ten Commandments extend the rule of God even over our inner life. Our desires, our wants, our thoughts, even our emotions are subject to God and His governance. This means, at least, that our emotions can be sins. Our being happy or our being sad, our desires or our lack of desire, all of these things can be sins.
This is a simple point, but should not be missed. The Magisterial Use of Feelings exalts our emotions above God’s law, make the law subject to our feelings. The first step in putting things back in their proper order is to put our feelings under the rule of the Ten Commandments. I can be wrongly happy. My anger can be sin. My desires can be false. My feelings can be wrong. Just like our words and our deeds, our feelings and emotions can offend God and hurt our neighbor. Just like our other sins, our emotional sins are confessed and forgiven.
We ought to give a fuller consideration to anger, but in passing, we notice that there is a right and a wrong use of anger. When anger is executed according to office (like a parent punishing a child for something, or a judge sentencing a person to prison) it can be good. But when anger is bound up to our person (and not to an office, i.e. anger as an emotion) then things go very wrong very fast.
Also, a word about desire. It is important to note that desire itself is not a sin, everything depends on the object of desire. If I desire the right thing, God’s Word, for example, or eternal life, or a peaceful life for my family, my desire is good. My desire for another’s house, or wife, or life, or hurt, or god, all of these desires are false and dangerous. God’s Word, then, also points our emotions to their right object and insists that they grow from the proper source.
Two-and-a-half, because our emotions are subject to God’s law, they cannot be set against the law of God. Neither are they an end in themselves. I am often asked, “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” The answer: “Probably not.” Our emotional state is a servant, not the master, and certainly not the goal.
The conversation usually goes something like this: “Pastor, the only way I will be happy is if I get a divorce. Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” “God wants you to be married.” Happiness is the last of God’s concerns. He puts happiness (or contentment) at the end of the commandments, so that happiness comes after we go to church, say our prayers, honor our parents, care for the lives of our neighbors, live in chastity and faithfulness, work hard and are generous, and tell the truth. Then happiness. God is certainly unhappy if we set happiness (or any other emotional state) against His commands.
Third, then, our emotions can also be good works. Just as the Law condemns wrong emotions, it praises right emotions. Consider, as a small example, Paul’s words to the Philippians, “it is right for me to feel this way about you” (Philippians 1:7). Paul’s feelings of affection, thankfulness, and confidence were good and right. “Blessed is the man… his delight is in the Law of the Lord” (Psalm 1:1,2). Just as sin is conceived in wrong desires (James 1:14-15), so good works begin with a desire for what is good. “As new born babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
The Lord’s Prayer is especially helpful here. As we pray the seven petitions we are learning what to want, what to desire: God’s name holy with us, His kingdom come to us, His will, His provision, His forgiveness, His leading, His deliverance. We desire these things and we delight in these things. We abhor evil. We rejoice in truth. The Psalms expand on this, taking our emotions and feelings up in prayer to God, all the anger, frustration, joy, confusion, disappointment, sorrow, panic, rage, wonder, loneliness, all of it is wrestled with and, at last, brought to the feet of God where our emotions bow down to worship.
Forth, and finally (at least for today), the devil would use our emotions to lie to us about God. Our emotions and feelings are often found contradicting the truth of the Scripture, and especially the truth of the Gospel. These emotions arise in the conscience, feelings especially of guilt and shame. Here we must simply put our feelings next to the promises of God, and let the promises win.
“I don’t feel forgiven” must submit to the promise “Whoever’s sins you forgive are forgiven.”
“I don’t feel close to God” must bow to the promise “I will never leave you or forsake you.”
“I feel like God has forgotten me and abandoned me” must acquiesce to the promise “I will never forget My people, I have not left you as orphans, even when You walk through the valley of death, I am with you.”
This is the Ministerial Use of Emotions.
When our emotions match the commands and promises of God, we rejoice that the truth of the Word is echoing in our hearts. But when our feelings contradict God’s Word, we let them go, and find our certainty and peace not in what we feel, but in what God says.
“By this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater that our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God.” 1 John 3:19-21