Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Feelings"

“Feelings” is much more than the title of a really bad song from the 80’s (“Fee-lings…whoa, whoa, whoa…feee-lings”); they also strongly influence the way that most of us live our lives. Feelings in and of themselves are fine, though like the rest of our humanity are fallen, and thus serve as unreliable guides in life. When undiscerning folks depend strictly upon how they feel to determine such things as truth, love, commitment, even spirituality, then we begin to have real problems.

Let us take love as an example. Although there are often feelings associated with human love, love itself is not fundamentally an emotion. Love is action. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…” Thank heavens that God’s love is not measured by warm and fuzzy feelings toward us, but by genuine compassion and self-sacrifice for our sakes, leading to our redemption and glorification. In a marriage, feelings come and go, and many marriages end tragically because one partner or the other decides that they no longer feel in love. In such a case, feelings become more important than the action of love and commitment. Those who succeed in marriage do so by consistently putting the right actions and commitment ahead of changing feelings. Over time, such couples are often rewarded with a depth of feeling far greater and more enduring than any they knew in their youth.

For Orthodox Christians seeking communion with God, there is much to learn from this.

A very large segment of contemporary Christendom routinely mistakes feelings for “spirituality”. The services that many Christians attend deliberately include lively music and animated preaching designed to produce an emotional high for the audience as an alleged “sign” of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Folks leave the service in a temporarily elevated emotional state and claim that they “feel” the Spirit within them. If any of these people practice a “quiet time” at home, the success of that is often measured by the same emotional standard. A person might tell his fellow believers at work that he had “a really good time with the Lord” that morning, because during his prayers or scripture readings he felt himself emotionally stirred up.

The problem of course is that emotions really have nothing at all to do with spirituality. A believer can utilize all manner of gimmicks to keep himself emotionally charged up, and at the very same time remain utterly oblivious to the many serious sins in his life that keep him from true communion with God.

Conversely, the Eastern Orthodox experience caters very little to feelings, but unrelentingly addresses our need for repentance and restoration to God. This is of course what Christianity should address. But in a society in which people are absolutely addicted to their feelings, this fact is often overlooked and Christian spirituality is reduced to a mere emotional state.

Orthodoxy is really good at what it does; namely, shedding the light of God’s truth upon our darkened souls and revealing the many sins that lurk therein. Emotionally speaking, this can be very stressful and often produces a reaction quite the opposite of “feel-good” Christianity. But Orthodoxy also provides us with the proven spiritual therapies to expunge these sins and heal our souls, and thus it is necessary that our sins not remain hidden and unknown to us, even if their uncovering should cause us a certain measure of distress.

Sometimes however, Orthodox Christians forget this important fact and get caught in the web of their feelings when their sins begin to be revealed. As a priest, the number one confession that I hear from people is that they allow themselves to lose heart because they feel so unloving toward God, so unspiritual, so sinful. My dear brothers and sisters, we are unloving, unspiritual, and sinful; just how else are we supposed to feel about this? In this rare instance our feelings are actually revealing what is true about us, thanks to the divine light which guides them.

The issue for us comes down to whether we will allow this emotional experience to bring us closer to God or to drive us further away from Him.

If we are completely given over to feeling good about ourselves, we will tend to flee from everything that reveals the painful truth about us. Thus we will participate nominally in the life of the Church; we will not pray, not fast, not be watchful over ourselves, not come to confession, because all these things make us feel bad—at least at first. In short, we will hold God and His Church at arms length and will regard the Orthodox pursuit as “too depressing”. By such action, we remain in our sins and fail to make the progress in our life that we otherwise could.

I’ve even heard the occasional convert lament their conversion to Orthodoxy, claiming that they “used to really love the Lord” and now all they seem to experience is compunction and tears. What they don’t realize is that such things are a wonderful gift from God meant to lead them to repentance, renewal, and ultimately, to joy. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”. With the proper spiritual guidance, such experiences can help us move beyond the superficial “honeymoon” stage with God into the depths of a true and enduring love of the Lord.

Orthodox believers who come to understand this, enter into that wonderful life of “bright sorrow”. On the one hand, we do gain the sorrow that comes from finally seeing a few of our own sins so clearly, and from recognizing our own willful participation in the dissolution of our souls. We come to lament that we have truthfully loved the darkness more than the light, and our sins more than God. But on the other hand, we also gain a brightness in our lives from knowing that these things were never hidden from God, only from us, and that God has always loved us, and loves us still.

It is necessary that we see our sins, at least to the degree that God will allow, in order to begin to enter into a mature relationship with Him based upon repentance. If you were to interview any older married couple, you would find that they possess both wonderful and painful memories of their life together. You would discover that they faced times of failure and sorrow, perhaps even betrayal—and times of growth and forgiveness, of restoration and deepening communion. Through it all they remained committed to the action of love, and were not led astray for long by emotion. Any relationship based primarily on “feelings, nothing more than feelings” will always remain shallow or will fail in time.

Our Christian life must be based on the action of love, which will one day lead even to the healing of our fallen feelings which now only seem to get in our way. We must learn to accept the bitter with the sweet in our Orthodox Christian life, and to always follow genuine love as our guide through the turbulence of our present emotions.

Do this, and you will succeed with God’s help.

8 Comments:

At 2/24/2007 5:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the minsters at the Churches that you spoke about have the gift Exhortation?

That is a good thing is it not? A dry service does not energize, it actually does the opposite.

 
At 2/24/2007 9:23 PM , Blogger Jessica said...

I agree with you whole-heartedly. I am about to enter the catechesis, and I have never, ever been more keenly aware of my own sins and failings. My journey to the Orthodox church has been the most humbling experience of my life, and I know that God is not finished with me yet.

When we get beyond feel-good, Jabez-style Christianity, we are faced with a whole new life paradigm. The commitment that is required to become truly holy, even when we're not feeling close communion with God, is what will unite us to the Father, and make us the wheat among the tares.

It was easier to live as a Protestant, but Lord willing it will be easier to die Orthodox.

God bless!

 
At 2/27/2007 5:36 AM , Anonymous Bruce said...

The Lenten services are certainly choc-full o' repentence. I used to get so depressed when I would occasionally see my sin. How could I do that? I've gotten to the point where I am now thankful. Much of the time everybody else is aware of my sin. Why can't I just admit to it? For me it's kind of been like the emperor's clothes.

Great words Father. Thank you!!

 
At 4/09/2007 8:43 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Father. One of the things that drew me into the Orthodox Church was its emphasis on praying for the Lord's mercy. "Lord have mercy."
Let the Truths of Christ be our Light, and not our feelings.

In Him,
Jennifer

 
At 7/05/2007 10:32 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this article. I totally agree that we should not be lead by our emotions. That would be to our detriment because in Jesus has always promised to be with us Romans 8 states nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. . .not death, life, angels, powers, principalities. . .etc. To believe otherwise would call God a liar. I also agree that we cannot trust our emotion all time, and that emotions often reveal our character sin nature which God is seeking to transform. I agree with what you wrote about marriage too. It is a good article.

But, I must address this statement “The problem of course is that emotions really have nothing at all to do with spirituality.” I do not agree with that statement. God has promised us joy, peace, happiness. The Psalms repeatedly tell us to make a joyful noise, shout, rejoice in the Lord always. Our emotions can be a gift when we are walking according to God’s principals while he dwells within us. I do think some folks in church services have been conditioned to get emotional and it becomes ritualistic. However, it is not our place to say who is real and who is not. The bible says, God looks at the heart of his people (people look at the outward appearance). God would be the only one who can tell us who is authentic. In Mark, James, and several other books of the bible the Lord tells us not to judge but, rather, examine ourselves. I know that the Lord comes and speaks in a small still voice. I am not sure why you are so hostile towards folks who get emotional about Jesus( If any of these people practice a “quiet time” at home, the success of that is often measured by the same emotional standard.) We all get excited when we cheer for sports events, our children’s first steps, all types of things. Life evokes emotions. Why would God even give them to us if they could not be used for his glory. Are we to eliminate that emotions from our life when it comes to our spiritual walk? What about King David? He danced until his clothes came off. Would you call that emotionalism? I do not see a problem with getting excited about God. I do however, see a problem if we are always seeking to “feel good” because God does not always promise that. I have to admit that I get excited when I think about God, his promises, life beyond this earth and knowing that despite what my situation looks like, God has the final word. Even in tragedy and death, God has given me peace and faith that no one can take away. The apostle Paul said that he learned the secret to being content (Contentment an emotion). I can think of so many emotional responses to God in the Bible. He has created us for worship. He wants us to turn all of our attention and love to him and that can be overwhelming. The God who created, heaven and earth has a relationship with you, speaks to you, and transforms you and others who believe in him. I tell you what really gets me excited is the fact that I do not even deserve this salvation. It is critical to have a spirit of repentance. In 2 Corinthians the bible says, “Godly sorrow leads to repentance” and true repentance leads to transformed character. Praise God! God is a jealous God he wants our mind, body and soul to be directed towards Him.

Just as a disclaimer, it is so important that we study the Word of God for ourselves, otherwise we do not know God’s truth for ourselves.

I truly appreciate this article it is a good argument but, these are just my thoughts for your consideration.

Grace and Peace to you,
L

 
At 7/05/2007 8:36 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 7/05/2007 8:39 PM , Blogger Fr. Michael Reagan said...

Dear L,

Thank you for reading my blog and for taking the time to post your comment.

My statement that “emotions have nothing to do with spirituality” was intended as a correction to those who determine whether or not they are pleasing to God entirely on the basis of how they feel. This is clearly an error.

Some Christians feel very sad as they contemplate their sins and their apparent lack of progress in the Christian life, even though they may indeed be very careful in their repentance and are truly walking honorably before God and progressing well. Strictly on the basis of their bad feelings alone they may decide that God is as displeased with them as they are with themselves.

This is terrible. Did not our Lord tell us, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”? Mourning over one’s own sins can lead to a deeper repentance and a more intimate communion with God, thus gaining one a greater comfort in heaven. But if such believers are surrounded by people who only chastise them for what they feel and tell them they should only be experiencing the great “joy of the Lord,” they will likely fall into even deeper sadness, leading to discouragement and depression. This is clearly a case in which, if feelings are followed, they will lead to ruin rather than redemption.

And of course there are also many Christian believers today who assume that the “joy” they feel is a sign that God is simply delighted with them and bestowing His blessings abundantly. This may not be the case at all, as they may well be living in complete sin or pride or heresy and be entirely unaware of how far they are from God. In such instances as these, happy feelings can easily lead people even further astray and to equal ruin.

Here’s the bottom line: our emotions are as fallen as the rest of us and thus are not reliable indicators of our spiritual lives. Christians should rely not on how they feel but on the testimony of the scriptures, the experiences of our holy fathers and mothers in the faith, and most especially, on the guidance of one’s own father/confessor. Those who rely on feelings alone will likely be deceived by them.

Fr. Michael

 
At 7/06/2007 7:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totally agree with your bottom line statement Fr. Michael. Thanks for responding.
-L

 

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