We sometimes meet Christians who use scriptural words and thoughts with no more feeling than if they were licking stamps. They seem to belong to a religious world whose citizens live always north of the Arctic circle of emotion. Their spiritual affections are buried beneath yards of ice and snow.

When they venture to talk about the things of God, they use good words and express sound ideas, but they are evidently in compete control of their own emotions at all times. In such company, the doctrines of God’s Word have the fascination of an ice-crystal or a snow flake–the truth of Scripture look beautiful, but feel icy cold. One senses that it would be an impertinence to breathe a sigh in their presence or to utter a stifled sob. To shed a tear would be unpardonable.

No doubt emotion can be overdone in religion, as in all other areas. Not everything we say on biblical subjects needs to be said in a gush of tears or punctuated with a solemn ‘amen’. We concede readily that some people spoil our appetite for holy emotions by their working too hard at them. We remember hearing of a preacher whose every sentence almost was greeted by an ‘amen’ from someone. But the voice gave itself away at one point in the service by shouting ‘amen’ when the number of the next hymn was announced. Thus, their zeal was artificial. For false emotions of this kind we make no appeal here. But we plead for more expressions of genuine emotion both in the pulpit and out of it.

It is not difficult to show from Scripture that outward expressions of emotion are proper and right at times. Saintly men whose calling in life involved them in great responsibility and self-control are occasionally represented in the Bible as overcome with profound feelings, either of sorrow or of joy. No-one who has read the story of Joseph’s self-disclosure to his brothers could ever forget the power which this passage possesses:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them who stood by him . . . And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of
Pharoah heard . . . And he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept . . . Moreover, he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon
them. (Gen. 45:1,2,14,15)

Nothing in this lavish outpouring of emotions has any connection with emotionalism. It is a scene of holy and spontaneous affection, the springs of which are both earthly and heavenly: love of his own family so long parted from him; delight at seeing Benjamin, pleasure at hearing that his father is still alive, his inability to do anything else other than forgive his brothers’ conduct toward him and the realization that his brothers were better men than they once were, and above all else, a sublime realization that God had fulfilled his earlier dreams by giving him pre-eminence over his brothers. Never do our feelings rise so high as when we come to some great crisis or climax in life. When God’s hand of providence becomes visible, we must have a sense of destiny which stirs us to the depths. If we are not so stirred, we must be either little men or men of stone.

David’s emotional experience must be safe for us to learn from, not least because he was ‘a man after God’s own heart’. The various inflections in David’s feelings are worthy of more study than they have received. His affections were as capable of variation as the melodies he played on his well-tuned harp. To our information in the books of Samuel must be added all we learn out of the Psalms. The emotional life of this holy man was played out on an instrument of ten strings, now soaring to the heights and now plunging to the depths.

We may select one incident out of many to illustrate this emotional side of the Psalmist: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would to God that I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Sam. 18:33). Again, as with Joseph above, we must see here spontaneous and profound feeling. David’s emotional outburst is more violent than Joseph. This is partly because he was a man of war, but also because the occasion of his emotions was much darker. He saw the sin of Absalom, his beloved son, as the immediate cause of death. But David perceived the hand of God to be pointing also at his own prior sin with Bathsheba. It was one of those moments in life which possess a high sense both of drama and destiny. The sword would never depart from David’s house (2 Sam. 12:10). God was pursuing his quarrel with David, and the recent dramatic death of Absalom was a powerful reminder to the king that every syllable of God’s Word is right and inescapable. The tears which flowed down the face of that noblest of men were salted by thoughts of self-reproach more than by anything else. It is those who love God greatly who smite most violently their own breast when they see what their folly has brought on other men’s heads.

– to be continued

Maurice Roberts