Perhaps the most commendable truth which I have come to learn over the years is the simple fact that my faith, as frail as it is, is at its strongest when it disregards my feelings towards my present circumstances. Through my own experiential data, I can confirm that my feelings and emotions are inconstant. Like the waves of the sea, they ebb and flow with excruciating volatility. I concede that this isn’t the most novel spiritual or theological insight. But I think that’s precisely why it is so enlivening — at least for me it is, anyway. Because what I have come to learn is that the faith that lasts — that persists even in the “midnight of the soul,” that carries on even when giving up seems far more pleasant — is the faith that rests on the concrete facts of the gospel.
In a collection of his sermons entitled Apostolic Optimism, renowned British Protestant churchman John Henry Jowett endeavors to make a similar point in a sermon from Psalm 91. He declares:
It is not our feelings which are to be our defence. Our feelings may be as changeable as a barometer, and building upon them we have no fixed dependable resource. If I am to judge the defences of my religious life by the state and quality of my feelings, then I can clearly see that there are breaches in the wall every day, through which the evil one may make his attack. I turn from my feelings to the truthfulness of God. At once I pass from loose stones to compact rock. His truthfulness, the sure word of His promise, is to be my strong defence.1
There is an objectivity to the promise of the gospel that transcends even the worst predicament you or I could imagine and/or endure here on this earth. This objectiveness, mind you, does not mean we cannot emote. The notion that “genuine faith” is a realized form of stoicism is antithetical to the gospel. Even a cursory reading of the psalter would render such a view utterly incompatible with what constitutes true religion. Reading the Davidic psalms can almost make you question the orthodoxy with which the king practiced his faith. His confessions are brutally honest and infringe upon a vulgarity we are not often comfortable with expressing, let alone expressing to the one and only God. Yet, David does so quite often. And I think it is precisely because he understood, however imperfectly and incompletely, that his Father’s love couldn’t be lost.
There were, no doubt, moments and seasons when David despaired and questioned God himself. (Pss 13:1–6; 88:1–3, 6, 18) But the thread which runs through the psalter is the divine reminder that God’s ears are bent towards the desperate. (Ps 34:17–18) “God listens to us in Christ,” writes Zack Eswine, “even when we have feelings that are ugly and even when such ugly feelings are directed his way.”2 Indeed, it is the precise fact that because our faith is in something or Someone objective that we can grieve and rejoice and vent and mourn and delight and cry. The promise of God’s indissoluble affection frees us to both laugh and lament. “Learn to feel,” writes Presbyterian minister William James, “that your salvation in all its parts is already secured by His love, and you have nothing to do but always simply and entirely to trust Him, no matter what objections an evil conscience may raise.”3
The One who watches over you and me is unaffected by time. He cannot change. With him there is “no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (Jas 1:17) This is true for his presence (Mt 20:28; Heb 13:8) as well as his love. (1 Jn 4:8) His is a love that is impervious to variance or change or fluctuation. It knows nothing of ebbs. It is in constant flow — and here’s the stunner: it flows to the likes of you and me. “The great thing to remember,” the eponymous C. S. Lewis avers, “is that, though our feelings come and go, His love for us does not. It is not wearied by our sins, or our indifference.”4 St. Paul, likewise, insists that “if we are faithless, he remains faithful.” (2 Tm 2:13)
I say all this because there are moments when I, too, am caught up by emotion and my feelings insist that grace is a lie. But it is then that I am reminded that the good news of my salvation is not in the least concretized by my feelings, but is only and ever established in the definitive fact of Jesus’s passion, death, and resurrection. (1 Jn 4:9–10) The objective truth of the gospel of Christ crucified is my best support and, indeed, my only hope to withstand the havoc of this present life. Therefore, when your feelings afflict you, I pray you are made to turn from them to the truthfulness of God and his Word. That is what stokes a faith that lasts.
J. H. Jowett, Apostolic Optimism: And Other Sermons (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901), 66.
Zack Eswine, The Imperfect Pastor: Discovering Joy in Our Limitations through a Daily Apprenticeship with Jesus (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 58.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 12.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 133.