Peter and Jonathan Edwards on Religious Affections3
“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).
As I said at the close of the previous article, we must be clear about the inter-connection or inter-relationships among love, faith, and joy. You can’t have one without having all three.
For example, would it not be a contradiction to say: “I am attracted to the precious and sweet character of Christ, in other words, I love him, but I don’t think I trust him. I’m not inclined to believe what he says or put my confidence in what he’s done.”
Or again, it would be a contradiction, would it not, to say, “I am confident and persuaded in the promise of what Christ will do for me, but I don’t love him. I really have no good feelings in this confidence. I have no passion or affection of joy or love in this trust.”
In fact, Peter appears to suggest that the joy in Jesus which transcends human speech is itself the fruit of our faith in him. How could it be otherwise? One cannot meaningfully rejoice in a person of whom one knows nothing! Our knowledge of the incarnate Christ and his redemptive work is the foundation of our faith in him to be true to his covenant commitment. And faith or belief in the integrity of his person, the saving power of his atoning death, and the literal reality of his life-giving resurrection is the soil in which the flower of inexpressible joy blooms.
Similarly, love that is not tethered or tied to or rooted in the revelation of the one true God easily becomes idolatry, and joy that is not deeply rooted in the historical realities of what Christ has accomplished is little more than infatuation. When trials ensue (as vv. 6-7 indicate they most assuredly will) such fleeting feelings, divorced as they are from truth, will collapse, a mere subjective vapor of little value in sustaining the human soul.
The joy that Peter portrays as the quintessence of Christian experience is one that erupts from the volcanic depths of knowledge of the truth. This is joy that energizes and empowers the human heart to withstand any and all trials. This is the joy that elevates the human soul to heights of confident celebration, a delight that no pain or tribulation or shattered dream can diminish.
So, in a word, Peter envisions the pinnacle of Christian living as a dynamic interplay between solid, substantive belief in all that God is for us in Jesus and a joy and affection for Jesus that quite simply exceed the capacity of the human mind to grasp and the human tongue to utter. Not all the collective brilliance of the human race can conceive or articulate the heights of joy and love that are available to the believing heart.
Not all Christians are happy with that sort of language. In theory they may nod their heads, but when it comes to their own religious experience, affections such as Peter describes are either dismissed as undignified and indecent or as incompatible with a faith that is rigorously intellectual. Some fear that people who feel passionately do so as an excuse for not thinking profoundly. These people are often secretly terrified of their feelings. They view their passions and affections as an alien element in their psychological makeup, a dangerous and threatening intrusion rather than a divinely ordained feature of what it means to be created in the image of God.
Such folk concede that we may not be able to escape or entirely suppress our affections, but we should be leery of them. They have the potential to submerge our souls in the murky waters of fanaticism and subjectivity and must therefore be monitored with great care and concern. It’s not surprising that there is great suspicion toward anything that might arouse or evoke our affections or lead to their public and overt expression.
In fact, instead of the word “feelings” or “emotions” let’s use the word affections to describe what Peter has in view here in v. 8.
Affections are more than ideas or thoughts or intellectual notions in our heads. They are lively and vigorous passions, for example, of either delight, love, joy, and hope, on the one hand, or displeasure, hatred, grief, or despair, on the other. When we evaluate our response to someone or something in life, we use such terms as sorrow, happiness, revulsion, attraction, bitterness, anger, peace, fear, and delight.
So the more important question is: "What role, if any, do the affections play in the Christian life?"
Although it may not be immediately evident, I believe Peter is telling us that, far from being secondary or sub-Christian, the very essence of Christianity is the enjoyment of sanctified affections. Let me say it again with even greater emphasis. What characterizes the Christian life in its purest and most concentrated form is the enjoyment of sanctified or holy affections.
One can easily point to numerous texts of Scripture that seem to portray the essence of our relationship with God as more than merely mental or intellectual. Our affections or emotions are absolutely crucial. For example, we are often commanded to experience joy (Psalms 37:4; 97:12; 33:1; 149:2; Matthew 5:12; Philippians 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thessalonians 5:16). We read of the critical importance of fear and awe of God (Jeremiah 17:7; Psalms 31:24; 33:18; Psalms 146:5; 147:11; Romans 8:24; 1 Thessalonians 5:8; Hebrews 6:19; 1 Peter 1:3), together with hope (that confident expectation and yearning for the future consummation of all that God has promised; see Psalms 31:24; 33:18; 146:5; Jeremiah 17:17; etc.), hatred (Proverbs 8:13; Psalms 97:10; 101:2-3;119:104; etc.), holy desire (Isaiah 26:8-9; Psalms 27:4; 42:1-2; 63:1-2; 84:1-2; etc.), and sorrow and mourning (Matthew 5:4; Psalms 34:18; 51:17). I could also list numerous texts that speak of gratitude, compassion, mercy, zeal and the like, each of which is a passion, an emotional energy that characterizes our relationship both to God and his people.
A brief look at a few key figures in Scripture also reveals how much of their relationship to God was wrapped up in passion and affection. Consider David, King of Israel and prolific psalmist. I think most Christians turn instinctively to David’s poetry for devotional meditation or during times of depression because of the honesty of his desperation for God and the intensity of his spiritual appetite. As Jonathan Edwards notes,
"Those holy songs of his . . . are nothing else but the expressions and breathings of devout and holy affections, such as humble and fervent love to God, admiration of his glorious perfections and wonderful works, earnest desires, thirstings and pantings of soul after God, delight and joy in God, a sweet and melting gratitude to God for his great goodness, holy exultation and triumph of soul in the favor, sufficiency and faithfulness of God, his love to, and delight in the saints, . . . his great delight in the Word and ordinances of God, his grief for his own and others' sins, and his fervent zeal for God, and against the enemies of God and his church” (Religious Affections, Yale:108).
Another example would be the apostle Paul. Although you may not think of Paul as an emotional or passionate person, there is hardly an epistle he wrote that does not drip with feelings and earnest longings of soul and spirit.
Paul's letters are filled with references to his overflowing affection for the church (2 Corinthians 12:19; Philippians 4:1; 2 Timothy 1:2; and especially 1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). He speaks of his "bowels of love" (Philippians 1:8; Philemon 12,20) for them, of his pity and mercy (Philippians 2:1), of his anguish of heart and the tears he shed for their welfare (2 Corinthians 2:4), of his continual grief for the lost (Romans 9:2), and of his enlarged heart (2 Corinthians 6:11). Countless texts could be cited in which Paul portrays his life as filled with godly passions and desires.
Surely Jesus himself was a passionate man greatly moved in heart and spirit with holy affection. He was not ashamed or hesitant to pray with "loud crying and tears" (Hebrews 5:7). The gospel writers speak of him as experiencing amazement, sorrow and grief (Mark 3:5), zeal (John 2:17), weeping (Luke 19:41-42), earnest desire (Luke 22:15), pity and compassion (Matthew 15:32; 18:34), anger (John 2:13-19), love (John 15:9), and joy (John 15:11).
In Luke 10:21 Jesus is said to have "rejoiced in the Holy Spirit" as he was praying to the Father. He himself said in John 15:11 and 17:13 that one of the principal aims in his earthly mission was to perfect the joy of his followers. Thus our joy is the joy of Jesus in us!
Other examples could be cited, but one in particular comes to mind. Think for a moment of heaven itself. The essence of life in heaven, says Edwards, "consists very much in affection. There is doubtless true religion in heaven, and true religion in its utmost purity and perfection. But according to the Scripture representation of the heavenly state, the religion of heaven consists chiefly in holy and mighty love and joy, and the expression of these in most fervent and exalted praises” (113).
That holy affections are the essence of true spirituality can also be seen from what God has commanded concerning our public worship. Edwards argues that virtually all external expressions of worship “can be of no further use, than as they have some tendency to affect our own hearts, or the hearts of others” (115).
Consider, for example, the singing of praises to God, which seem “to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections” (115).
Some actually orchestrate worship in such a way that the affections of the heart are reined in and, in some cases, even suppressed. People often fear the external manifestation of internal zeal and love and desire and joy. Though they sing, they do so in a way that the end in view is the mere articulation of words and declaration of truths. But if that were what God intended, why did he not ordain that we recite, in prose, biblical truths about him? Why sing? It can’t be simply for the aesthetic value of music or because of the pleasure it brings, for that would be to turn worship manward, as if we are now the focus rather than God. We sing because God has created not only our minds but also our hearts and souls, indeed our bodies as well, in such a way that music elicits and intensifies holy affections for God and facilitates their lively and vigorous expression.
The same may be said of how God operates on our souls in the preaching of his Word. Books and commentaries and the like provide us with “good doctrinal or speculative understanding of the things of the Word of God, yet they have not an equal tendency to impress them on men’s hearts and affections” (115). So, with a view to affecting sinners and not merely informing them, God has appointed that his Word be applied in a particularly lively way through preaching.
Therefore, when we think of how public worship should be constructed and what methods should be employed in the praise of God and the edification of his people, “such means are to be desired, as have much of a tendency to move the affections. Such books, and such a way of preaching the Word, and administration of ordinances, and such a way of worshiping God in prayer, and singing praises, is much to be desired, as has a tendency deeply to affect the hearts of those who attend these means” (121).
When people object that certain styles of public worship seem especially chosen for their capacity to awaken and intensify and express the affections of the heart, they should be told that such is precisely the God-ordained purpose of worship. What they fear, namely, the heightening and deepening of the heart’s desire and love for God, and the expansion and increase of the soul’s delight and joy in God, what they typically call “emotionalism” or even “manipulation”, is the very goal of worship itself. For God is most glorified in his people when their hearts are most satisfied (i.e., when they are most “affected” with joy) in him.
What is the common link among these three affections of the heart? Love, trust or confidence or belief, and joy . . . what unites them and makes them good and right and glorious? The answer is Jesus!
Everywhere you turn today you hear professing Christian people, people who are deeply immersed in all forms of “spirituality” and “religion” and pursuit of enlightenment and self-improvement who talk a lot about love and belief and joy.
But such love is often lacking in discernment. It is undiscriminating, such that things are loved that ought to be hated; things are cherished that ought to be rejected; things are valued that ought to be cast aside. There are guidelines in Scripture about what we are to love and what we are to hate. If nothing else, consider 1 John 2:15-17 -
“15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world- the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”
It’s the same with belief or trust. We are told at every turn that it matters little what or whom you believe, but only that your belief be sincere and meaningful to you and helpful in life and fulfilling and pleasant. And whatever you do, don’t ever suggest that what or whom you believe is superior to what or whom someone else believes. For someone ever to say that what one person believes is false and wrong and what another believes is true and right is declared intolerant, an example of “hate” speech.
And so it also goes with joy. Whatever makes you happy, go for it. Whatever enhances your sense of self-esteem, embrace it. Whatever feels good, do it. But joy or delight or satisfaction in some things will destroy the human soul both now and in eternity.
Being a Christian means loving Christ, believing and trusting Christ, enjoying and delighting in Christ! He is the center of our affections. He is the source of our joy. He is firm foundation for our trust and belief. Without him, all the affections and feelings and beliefs and hopes of the human heart are empty and vain and end in death.