Feelings are not infallible guides to objective awareness or moral correctness. They often confuse our judgment and fuel our prejudices. Christian spirituality ought to be wary of feelings and ensure that they are kept in proportion with faith, mature understanding and balanced outlook upon all facts brought to our attention. Some folk have a propensity to wallow in emotion while others, fearful of excess, detach themselves from feeling and concentrate on purity of thought in a forbidding fashion. Christian temperament can present itself as over-exuberant or icily unattractive. True faith is neither excitable nor frigid. It combines knowledge and thoughtfulness, experience and emotion. It affects the whole person – intellect and heart, and truth determines what touches us and as to how much. There is the input of divine revelation and the impulse of divine love. Christians place their faith in God’s word, and its power is felt because their hearts are indwelt – by the author and interpreter of that word.
Right feeling is forged by the word. It springs from the word and is assessed by the word. But feeling is not to become an idol, a substitute for the word, a censor of the word, a guide to the word, and it will never run counter to the word or contradict it. It is governed by the word. It is a bonus attached to faith in the word. It is not always an accompaniment to the speech of God but as truth is pondered so feeling may be produced. But it is not to be sought as a priority, an indulgence. The Bible is not a Mother Hubbard’s cupboard for the supply of selfish sensation. It is a rich store for our edification and establishment in the faith and the knowledge of God, who may withhold or withdraw comforts when we are simply doting upon ourselves for our own cosiness and self-concern. Scripture entices us to look away from self and to fix our gaze on God and neighbour. Raptures and ecstasies may come our way as gifts of encouragement to the soul, foretastes of heaven, and intimations of the loveliness of the Lord, but the tendency of the human spirit is to find satisfaction in sensation and not in the Sender. We adopt methods to gain the pleasure without regard for the presence of God, in whom we are to delight, feeling or no feeling. Love is a delight and a discipline. The principal aim in this life is the promotion of holiness so that we may live before God forever. To that end our experiences will be both choice and chastening.
However just as we shall be moved by godly principles as believers so too the goodness of God towards us will give rise to godly feeling that authenticates the sincerity of faith and certifies it to ourselves. Feeling may visit us from time to time as a witness to the faith we possess and exercise. Feelings nourish the emotional side of our personality and if they are in accord with the truth of Scripture and the facts of salvation we may enjoy truth not only as it is notionally perceived but also as it is emotionally felt. We may take these sensations as affectionate touches and kisses from the Redeemer. They convey the sweetness of communion with him. No one describes felt fellowship with the Lord better than Bernard of Clairvaux. None of his musings are fanciful. They are founded in the word, portray the Lord Jesus with accuracy and appeal, and foster the piety that is appropriate. It is easy to see why the founders of Protestantism adored Bernard and those who shun Romanism should share much precious time with Bernard who transcends our differences and foreshadows the essence of Reformed doctrine to emerge centuries later. Christ has been with his people in every century and we should seek those folk out and converse with them through their written and recorded legacies.
We should feel the truth we treasure in our hearts. We should feel the beauty of Christ and our love towards him. Our union with him is vital and intimate. His love penetrates to the heart and pervades our whole being. Our unbelief and misconceptions block the warmth of the affection with which he approaches us. Weak faith makes us unfeeling. Strengthened faith fortifies us with dependable feeling. Wesley’s Aldergate experience was not as definitive as he claimed, and sometimes admitted, but “the strangely warmed heart” was a token of favour from the God who had chosen and preserved him for ministry. William Grimshaw only embarked upon ministry after a confirmatory personal experience conferred by God in response to earnest prayer. John Calvin of “the surrendered heart” testified to the necessity of true feeling: And it will not be enough for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart is also strengthened and supported by his power”. Those are wrong, he says, “who in considering faith identify it with a bare and simple assent arising out of knowledge, and leave out confidence and assurance of heart. In both ways, therefore, faith is a singular gift of God, both in that the mind of man is purged so as to be able to taste the truth of God and in that his heart is established therein”. Calvin spelt out truth and it was felt truth in accord with his comment on David, “David sings of that divine goodness which, when felt in the godly heart, is sweeter and more desirable than life itself” [Psalm 63:3].
Our Article 17 speaks of “sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ”. At depth there is the witness of the Spirit in the believer’s life engendered by the promises and the possession of the Spirit within. George Whitefield counselled that we should seek “a felt Christ”: Never leave off watching, reading, praying, striving, till you experimentally find Christ Jesus formed within you… What I have been chiefly concerned about is, lest any should rest in bare speculative knowledge, and not experience the power of them (doctrines) in their own hearts...Thousands of [white] people only believe in their heads, and therefore are no more Christians than those who never heard of Jesus Christ at all…Every day he fills me with himself, and sometimes brings me even upon the confines of eternity…. He daily manifests himself to my soul, and causes me to feel my dependence on his free grace and sovereign love. This is the kingdom of God within us. May God nurture us in such faith, and nourish us with like feeling.