Emotions: Goals or Indicators?
What follows is an excerpt from editor Tom Sullivan's introduction to a modern English translation of The Heavenly Trade or The Best Commerce by Bartholomew Ashwood, published in 1688. Tom is a member of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Lafayette, Indiana.
The translated book is expected to be available around the end of 2020 at https://www.BeForgiven.INFO/HostedLiterature.htm.
Ashwood wrote during a serious economic downturn in his native England, and used the metaphor/motif of commerce to encourage his readers to seek heavenly treasure. Ashwood’s audience was a mix of true believers in Christ, unbelievers, and both conscious and self-deceived hypocrites. Encouraging his readers to examine their hearts was thus an important theme in the book.
The reader will undoubtedly notice that Ashwood, in common with many Puritan writers, places some considerable emphasis on our emotions, delights, affections, feelings, and desires, particularly with respect to Jesus Christ. This can provoke negative reactions in those concerned about modern culture, trends in broad evangelicalism, certain charismatic teachings, sects that emphasize “inner
light,” and so on. A few remarks on Ashwood’s intent are thus in order.
But before proceeding, let us first note that a human being, having both a body and soul, is not entirely physical or material; our thoughts are more than the products of our physical brains. Thus, philosophers and theologians have tied themselves in knots trying to precisely define such terms as heart, mind, emotion, affection, thought, will, desire, joy, happiness, delight, and so on. So, for simplicity, let us simply use the common word emotion to refer to the whole spectrum of the kind of thoughts that we mean by emotion, feelings, affection, desire, joy, happiness, delight, anger, sadness, instincts, and so on. Thus, by emotion, we exclude rational thought processes such as solving equations, figuring out what sizes and shapes of lumber and parts will properly fit together when building something, and so on. We also exclude the kind of subconscious intuition that guides a mathematician or scientist to think of possible approaches to a problem or guides a builder when he looks at something and realizes that it is not quite level or square.
First, Ashwood never treats emotions as sources of truth; rather, they are simply information inputs into our brains, and like all sources of information, God requires us to evaluate them in light of His Word.
Second, Ashwood never considers “nice,” “pleasant,” or “good” emotions to be goals in and of themselves. He also recognizes that suffering and affliction are normal in the Christian life. Obeying God with contentment is what is most important, not “the pursuit of happiness.” But, as we will see later, Scripture does command certain emotions. In other words, our goal is to obey, please, and glorify God, not seek our own pleasure.
Third, Ashwood wants us to evaluate our emotions as indicators of what is in our hearts. He wants us to ask ourselves what things we delight in because what we delight in shows what is truly important to us and shows the state of our hearts. What we hate also shows us what is in our hearts. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:18–19 ESV). Ashwood rightly places great emphasis on the condition of our heart, because Scripture does. Our hearts determine who and what we really are. “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18 ESV). We simply cannot bear good fruit if we have bad hearts. If a smoke alarm is sounding, the problem is not the alarm, but the fire. Likewise, the root problem is not bad emotions or desires, but bad hearts.
It may help here to use a modern analogy. We have all observed people tapping a microphone or asking, “Is this thing on?” The response may be silence, the sound may be too loud or soft, or there may be a howl of feedback. This is an example of stimulus-response testing, a method of testing something with incomplete knowledge of the system as a whole. The above example works even if the tester has no knowledge about the sound system. And, our knowledge of our own hearts is very incomplete: “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NKJV). So, we can examine and search our hearts by considering our responses to stimuli, that is, our responses to events in our lives. We then must evaluate this information in the light of God’s Word by the help of the Holy Spirit. “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12 ESV).
Fourth, as any author, Ashwood’s views are colored by his own life experiences and personality. While Ashwood seems to have a very emotional personality, other people’s personalities may be more or less emotional; it is thus important to take this into consideration. What is important is that our desires for God, holiness, sanctification, and so on are greater than our desires for any of the things of this world.
Finally, there are a number of commands in Scripture that commend or even command various emotions. “They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things” (Deuteronomy 28:46–47 ESV). Now this, at first glance, seems unfair because emotions are involuntary. But, whatever your emotional level, your emotions and desires come out of that set of basic instincts in your heart that determine who and what you are.
For one example, consider some of God’s commands to us regarding our enemies: “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the LORD see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from him” (Proverbs 24:17–18 ESV). “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall bring it back to him” (Exodus 23:4 ESV). “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NKJV). Notice how God’s commands to us regarding our enemies include our heart and our emotional response to them in addition to positive action for their benefit.
For another example: “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4 ESV). So how is one to conjure up delight in the Lord when emotions are involuntary? First, only a person who is one of Christ’s sheep has any hope of doing this, so the first step is to repent and believe in Christ as He is offered to us in the Gospel. Those who are Christ’s sheep can use their minds and the means of grace, such as study of the Holy Bible, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to know the Lord more fully and deeply. As God is infinitely desirable, this mental work will go a long way toward sanctification of the heart. By such mental work we may argue ourselves out of sinful and into God-pleasing emotions. But this is not enough.
This brings up two important points: First, since emotions come from the heart, sinful involuntary emotions are still sin because they come from a sinful heart. As the Westminster Confession teaches in chapter 6:5, this heart corruption is still truly and properly* sin. Second, while emotions are involuntary in the short term, they are not involuntary in the long term because God holds us responsible for the care and sanctification of our hearts. They are also not always involuntary in the
medium term because we can choose how we deal with that emotion.
It may seem that having a heart that generates only God-pleasing instincts, desires, and emotions is about as doable as pole vaulting over the moon. Because the rebel heart full of original sin continues to plague Christians all their lives, that assessment of one’s heart and the impossibility of reforming it by purely human effort is quite true. Therefore, let us take care not to reject out of hand Ashwood’s injunctions concerning emotions and desires, especially for Christ and holiness, but:
• Be convicted of sin. We are all worse sinners than we understand or realize.
• Do not excuse your sin because of your personality or the difficulty of repentance.
• Consider the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ. Can anyone doubt that all of His thoughts, emotions, attitudes, desires, and reasoning were perfect and holy? Psalm 119 (and many other Psalms) shows us His mind clearly. For example, Psalm 119, as lived out by Christ, contains statements of fact, not literary hyperbole, about His attitude toward the Scriptures. For another example, David prayed, “Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name” (Psalm 86:11 ESV), a prayer that God would give him instruction (holy thoughts), willingness to live accordingly, and a holy fear of the Lord (godly emotions), all united in harmony in his heart. Christ fulfilled this in His life; His heart was always perfectly united to His Father in thoughts, will, and emotions, that is, all His inner man. To His great glory, our Lord Jesus Christ lived this out even under the most extreme stress: “And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’” (Luke 22:41–42 ESV).
• Evaluate your emotions with care. They are fickle, variable, and subject to bodily weariness and pain. And all Christian duties are affected by the fall; there can be toil, difficulty, and tedium to at least some extent in all we do. Therefore:
◦ When feelings fail, discipline is mandatory.
◦ We should consider how desires for God and holiness compare with desires for other things (idols) in life.
• Do not despair! Be forgiven in Christ, and “Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16 NASB). No sin is so great that it is not forgivable in Christ to the repentant.
• Realize that care and sanctification of our hearts is a vital Christian duty because our sinful hearts, and the sinful emotions, desires, and instincts that come out of it, are the root cause of the sin in our lives. Without this duty, you will be hampered in your efforts to defeat sin in your life.
• Earnestly avail yourself of the means of grace: prayer, Bible reading and study, public worship, the Lord’s Supper, good Christian conversation and counsel, and so on.
• “‘But let him who glories glory in this, That he understands and knows Me, That I am the LORD, exercising lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. For in these I delight,’ says the LORD” (Jeremiah 9:24 NKJV). “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). Cultivate holy emotions toward God in particular, put sinful emotions to death, and engender holy emotions by the following means, all commanded duties:
◦ Praise God.
◦ Thank God for all things.
◦ Get to know God as He has revealed Himself in the Holy Bible.
◦ Spend time with Him in humble prayer.
◦ Meditate on God’s holiness, His perfect being and character, His work in creation, His providence, and so on.
◦ Meditate on Christ, His infinite glory, and then His humble condescension to us, and His taking upon His holy self our sin and its shame and punishment as our substitute.
◦ Meditate on God’s promises to repentant sinners, including promises of eternal glory.
◦ In all, retain a sense of your own utter unworthiness to receive anything from God except hellfire.
• People, though imperfect and sinful, are created in God’s image. Unsurprisingly therefore, replacing sinful emotions toward other people with godly emotions may be aided by methods similar to those above:
◦ Humbly deem them more important than yourself.
◦ Spend time with them.
◦ Reflect on their honorable, good, and delightful qualities.
◦ Praise them for their godly qualities.
• Repent of all known sin. Absolutely do not cherish any known sin in your heart—if you do, you might as well dance on the lip of the pit of Hell with greased shoes. Cherished sin divides the heart and has a way of fouling up everything in the heart.
• With earnest, persistent, patient, heartfelt prayer seek God’s help, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NASB).
• Remember: The goal is not to have pleasant emotions or feelings. The goal is:
◦ To use emotions and feelings as information inputs that help evaluate the state of our hearts so as to better put sin to death and live more and more for Christ.
◦ To strive to obey God with respect to all of the Holy Bible’s commands that pertain to our emotions. The way to do this is to properly care for our hearts using God’s strength.
◦ To glorify God in all things, including in our emotions.
*In this context, properly means that it has the fundamental property of being sin.
Copyright 2020: Tom Sullivan
The author hereby grants to all without restriction full freedom to copy and distribute this work without limitation, in part or in whole, provided that the text shall be unmodified and that all copyright notices are included.
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