I attended The Justice Conference in Portland in 2012. This is part 2 of my reflections. You can catch up on part 1 (Love, Justice & the Problem of Indifferent Christians) here.
Part 2: If You Feel Like God, You Will Do Justice.
As I sat through speaker after speaker at the conference, one question kept surfacing for me. If the need is this demonstrably urgent, and the Bible is so plainly clear about God’s heart for the cause of the needy, why isn’t there a flood of Christians giving their time, talents, and resources?
Francis Chan, the closing speaker, put it in these terms. There are 800,000 children in the American foster system, children in desperate need of homes and love. There are more than 2,000,000 people in America who self-identify as Christians.
How can those two numbers co-exist? How is that statistic even possible?
For some, the problem honestly seems to be a lack of awareness. If your entire day transpires within the comfortable confines of white middle-class America, it’s possible that you just don’t ever see the need. It stays distant — far away geographically or far away in terms of the kind of people you spend time around. More awareness is needed, and there are many organizations working toward just that goal.
For others, the problem may truly be a thin or un-internalized understanding of the Bible. As hard as it is for me to fathom, there are Christians (many of them!) whose only exposure to the text of scripture is from their own particular pastor in sermons more likely to offer a small selection of scripture chosen for its application merits, rather than a global view of the entire narrative of the Bible.
Is the problem emotional?
Within the Christian community there is another problem, and it’s a deep one. It’s the problem of motivation. This is where the emotions of God start to matter. In part 1 of this post I suggested that the Bible tells us that God feels in regard to situations of oppression. God has emotions, and those emotions move God to act.
But a lot of Christians don’t believe God has emotions, not real emotions, anyway.
For a variety of reasons (some here) we see God as unmoved. The theological phrase for this is the Impassability of God. Impassability literally means having no passions. This is a safe perspective, but I don’t think it’s Biblical. It comes from Greek dualism, from the rational enlightenment, from our own emotional dysfunction.
As a result of this theological predisposition, we strip emotion out of the Bible. We teach that when the Bible uses the word “joy,” it’s referring to a theological quality, not a real emotion. Well-meaning teachers have told us that God doesn’t really hate. That wouldn’t be fitting. God’s wrath must just be a heavy-handed anthropomorphism from primitive times meant to make a point. A God of love just wouldn’t be like that. So, for our own comfort, we remove the emotional vitality from God.
Here’s the problem with this view. Ephesians 4 tells us that God’s program regarding humanity is that we would grow up, or mature, in the image of Christ. It is God’s intention that we would become more like Jesus. Since Jesus is the very image of God (John 14:9), that means we are truly meant to become more like God. So, if we believe that God doesn’t have emotions, or we believe that emotions are immature, or that emotions always lead us to sin, then we are left with a spiritual motivation to suppress or ignore our emotions.
That is a problem, because emotions have a very real and important purpose in our lives. They exist to move us. That’s the very meaning of the word. Emotions comes from the Latin word emovere which means motion, or to move out. Emotions are the wheels on the vehicle of our values and reason. We can believe all kinds of things. We can know all sorts of knowledge. But it is our emotions that move us to act on those things.
Antonio Damasio is one of the forefront researchers on the brain and emotions. As a brain researcher and doctor, he has had the opportunity to study people with brain injuries over time and in close quarters. He maintains that our emotional capacity is a necessary part of our ability to make good decisions. In his book, Descartes Error, he shares the story of a patient named Elliot. Elliot was a smart capable man, who until he fell victim to a small brain tumor, was quite successful. To everyone’s great relief the tumor was removed successfully, but Elliot was never the same again. Every test indicated that he was just as intelligent as before. He could weight the pros and cons to any situation. He retained his memory. But he could not easily make a decision. The weight of delayed decisions and badly-made decisions decimated this man’s life. He lost everything.
As Dr. Damasio studied Elliot, it became apparent that the tumor had damaged a part of the brain that connected emotions to decision making. In his words: “There appears to be a collection of systems in the human brain consistently dedicated to the goal-oriented thinking process we call reasoning, and to the response selection we call decision making…This same collection of systems is also involved in emotion and feeling…” (Descartes’ Error, p. 70)
Emotions move us to action.
With no access to his emotions, Elliot could not make heads or tails of the data he was seeing. He couldn’t sort through the many reasons and justifications his reason provided. He had no way to finally prioritize a decision. Whether you believe that humanity evolved to our present state, or that God creates us in His image, it becomes apparent that emotions central to our healthy survival and effective growth.
I think that God gave us this capacity for a reason, and that it is one of the ways that God wants to guide us. But the message many Christians have received is just the opposite: our emotions can’t be trusted.
If they are followed, they will lead us to selfishness and sin. Well, that certainly can happen. But reason can lead us into sin as well, and it doesn’t seem to get much criticism for that. The issue is not what can lead us to sin, but what can motivate us to righteousness. Emotions are a critical part of that equation.
As I sat in the conference thinking about the implications of what I was seeing for myself, and for my church, it occurred to me that the lack of a Biblical theology of emotion is hamstringing the efforts of the church in the world. This is not just a weakness for the cause of justice. It’s also a problem for our purpose of evangelism. In the same way that it takes the emotion of compassion to move someone to give themselves away in the cause of the needy, it also takes compassion to move someone to share the story of Jesus with someone who doesn’t know Him. In fact the lack of healthy emotional understanding gets in the way of everything!
Take away the emotional motivation, and all that is left is dogma and duty. In the case of dogma, we want to know God and since we don’t believe that includes an emotional component, we are left with mere information. Knowing the right facts, the right doctrine, this becomes what it means to know God. But knowing alone fails. Even the Bible says that “knowledge puffs up.” The inevitable end of a Christianity based on dogma is pride. “I know the truth; you don’t.”
In the case of duty, we want to serve God. But since we don’t believe emotions are sacred, we can’t be motivated by them. We are left with only duty, doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. But the inevitable end of duty is self-righteousness. “I do the right things; you’re lazy or selfish.”
Neither of these paths leads to a vibrant relationship with God. They both create a brittle, self-centered religion. Without an emotional connection, without a real and emotion love for God, a real and emotional compassion for people in need, and a real and emotional sense of urgency, most people will never be moved to act.
Time to Feel What God Feels
So what of my initial question? Why isn’t there a flood of followers of Jesus pouring their time and resources into the cause of the needy? This was my realization at the conference:
Our emotions are not lining up with God’s.
We do not feel like God feels, and so we are not moved to act. Some of us are numb from our own emotional brokenness, or from materialism, or from the media. You know this is true if you have ever changed the channel when an advertisement for Feed the Children or some other similar group comes on. The idea that a child, not so unlike our own, could be so close to death for want of something so basic as food troubles us if we let our consciousness sit with it too long. The image clashes with the commercials for new cars and new houses and the lavish lifestyle portrayed on whatever show we were watching. The images are disturbing. Rather than feel the pain, the indignation, the urgency that they should naturally bring us, we change the channel.
Others of us ignore our emotions because we were taught that emotions are bad, or even unspiritual. Others of us live in a bifurcated world. In our “Christian lives” we live by dogma or duty. But then on the other side of a big internal wall, we live our “normal” lives where regardless of our intellectual justifications, we are truly motivated by our emotions. Those emotions drive us and all our time and resources are consumed with the pursuit of their objects. We are left with no attention for the things that move God’s heart.
The net result is that this powerful tool God has given each of us is divorced from the divine character. We fail to be moved by the things that move God’s heart. Without the motivation of Godly emotions, we have no lasting reason to act, and so we don’t.
I suspect that one of the solutions for our overwhelming justice problem is this: Christians need to experience and own their own emotions. We need to “get wrecked” as Ken Whytsma said in the conference’s first session. If our emotional life is broken, or suppressed, or wounded, we need to seek healing in this area. We need to start talking to God about how we feel, and asking God how God feels. We need to learn how to trust the Holy Spirit’s voice when it comes to us not just in the words of scripture and the historical practices of the church, but also through the internal motion of our gut. The emotional mantra of the 60s was “If it feels good, do it.” The emotional mantra of the church should be: “If it feels broken, fix it.” If this particular circumstance or system feels like it violates God’s character, that is enough of a calling to do something. We don’t need a burning bush.
If you aren’t looking at the circumstances in the world, then look. Once you look, feel what you feel. If you feel anger, look into that. Why? Because anger is a flag that someone or something you love is being threatened. If the anger is because your ego is threatened, let it go. Grow up; seek out healing. But if the anger is because someone else in the world is being hurt, taken advantage of, oppressed, then know that you are feeling exactly what God feels. Let that motivate you to do something.
There was one moment at the Justice Conference that wrecked my heart. Earlier that day a speaker discussed the rampant human sex traffic that is happening right now. It includes women, boys and girls, but predominantly it is poverty-stricken young girls who are bought and sold as property for use as sex objects. In India today you can rape a little girl for little as you would pay for a latte at Starbucks. Pastor Chan referred back to this disturbing fact and said: “If this was happening to your daughter, it would be an emergency.”
My gut twisted when he said that. I have a precious five-year old girl. She has a powerful and fiery spirit, but she’s tiny. I feel so protective of her because she seems so fragile, like she could be so easily broken. The thought of my daughter being used in that way made me flash cold. I could feel the edges of my rage. “If this was happening to your daughter, it would be an emergency.” And then he said quietly, “I don’t understand how it’s not an emergency when it’s happening to the daughter of someone else.”
It is an emergency. It just doesn’t feel like one because we’re not feeling the way God feels.
God, forgive us for our denial, our emotional numbness, our self-centered contentment. Break the callouses of our hearts, so that we can feel again. Help us to feel the way You do, full of love, compassion, sadness, and righteous anger, so that we can be moved to give ourselves away for those who have no one but you to stand for them.