Faith and Feelings: Are They Friends or Foes?

By Rob Tims

In 1793, William Wordsworth toured the banks of the River Wye, a few miles away from an old monastery called Tintern Abbey. Five years later in 1798, Wordsworth returned to Tintern Abbey with his sister Dorothy. The experience was so dear to Wordsworth, he wrote one of the most renowned and prolific poems of the 18th century British Romantic period called, “Lines.”

Beautiful poetry moves me, and perhaps it doesn’t move you. But, surely, something moves you emotionally? If not Romantic British poetry, then maybe a profound theological truth, an outstanding cinematic story, a costly act of kindness, or an absurd practical joke.

Having an expressive, emotional response to something validates the experience for us. Emotions add to an experience value or weight, so much so, that we are often tempted to cast aside other events that don’t arouse us emotionally. Or worse, we might judge those who don’t have as strong as emotional experiences as we do to a place or activity.

One of my earliest recollections of such censoriousness is when I was a teenager on the last night of a Christian camp. I had been surrounded all week with phenomenal people and great gospel teaching, and on the last night of camp, friends from my youth group back home came to attend a worship event that capped off camp. Most of my friend group was indifferent to the worship and the teaching, and it broke my heart. I wept loudly, for a considerable period of time. Some of my friends were confused. Some were put off. Some were understanding. But for years, I judged those who “didn’t get it,” unaware of my own hypocrisy. Such is the danger with emotional experiences: we use them as a plumb line for spiritual growth on others, when the Bible does nothing of the sort.

I don’t mean to unnecessarily diminish the role emotional experiences play in our spiritual growth, but I also don’t want to put more stock in them than is best. Our faith is not something primarily emotional—nor is it something primarily intellectual. In fact, our faith is not actually about our desires or our will. While our relationship with God includes these things, neither emotions nor facts serve as the crux of our belief system.

As helpful as an emotional experience may be, it would be wrong to equate spiritual growth with an emotional experience. It is good to be grateful for such emotional impressions, but may we never rely on their existence in our walk with God. Let us be grateful for when God speaks and for when He is silent, because, either way, He is still good.

Rob Tims is husband to Holly and father to Trey, Jono, Abby Jane and Luke. He’s the author ofSouthern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt, and manages the team behind smallgroup.com at LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville. He writes regularly at RobTims.com and blogs every Friday at Forward Progress.

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