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Christian Union
February 8, 2019
Geoff Sackett
Christian Union Ministry Director
Cornell University

Moments away from giving birth to our third child, my wife’s blood pressure dropped significantly. With two nurses, her doctor, and me by her side, her words to us in that moment were, “I feel like I am dying.” I feared the worst, but fortunately my fear was soon allayed. She was given medication, her blood pressure rebounded to a healthy range, and she, and our son, made it through safely. Speaking from my own point of view (the only point of view I can speak from), my wife’s desperate situation touched one of my concerns. It touched my concern for her. A particular emotion, specifically the emotion of fear, enabled me, we might say, to ‘perceive’ my wife’s distress.

What Emotions Are For

Freely borrowing from Christian philosopher Robert C. Roberts, we can say that an emotion is a ‘perception’ of a ‘touched’ concern (Roberts, 11). I see a truck barreling toward my son who is playing in the street. My concern for my son’s safety is ‘touched’ by the oncoming truck. Panic grips me. Panic enables me to experience the concern I have for my son’s safety in a way that sense perception alone doesn’t. It heightens my concern. While not identical with the physical sensation we normally identify with emotion, with my emotion I experience, or ‘feel’, my concern for my son’s welfare in a way that merely watching him doesn’t enable.

The use of the word ‘for’ in the title of this post is deliberate. It signals that emotions are for something. An emotion is for caring about and for caring about something. The ‘aboutness’ of emotions means that they are directed toward the things that are important to us. Many of our most basic and important concerns are simply ‘given’ to us apart from our choosing them. Humans naturally care about, for example, their own health and safety as well as the health and safety of their loved ones. We typically don’t have to choose basic concerns because we simply find ourselves with them. Other concerns are acquired or learned, and many of these concerns are no less important than the ones we simply find ourselves with. We learn from our parents, for instance, that it is important to care, not only for members of our family, but also for strangers in distress.

Believers in Christ have additional concerns that are unique to being a Christian. Christians are concerned for God’s reputation. We are concerned to grow in Christlikeness. We are concerned to trust the Lord in difficult circumstances. For the Christian, then, emotions are for caring not only for those things that all humans care about, but also for the things that God makes plain we are to care about. How does God especially make plain the things we are to care about? Through Holy Scripture. Because God’s Word uniquely discloses God’s say on what we should be concerned about, His words should play a determinative role in shaping our concerns.

Christians are well-versed in reading a passage of Scripture to discern its meaning and, having discerned what it means, to seek the Lord’s help to act on it in an appropriate way, whether by changing our attitude, our thoughts, our commitments, or our behavior. But if Scripture gives us a unique take on ‘concerns’, then Christians should also be interested in discerning its ‘emotional’ meaning. For if by emotions we ‘view’ concerns, and if emotions help motivate us to act upon our concerns, and if our concerns are to be shaped by God’s revelation, then Scripture ought to play the most important role in shaping our concerns.

If this is so, then of any particular passage we might ask: What does this passage suggest I should be concerned emotionally about (that is, what should I care about)? What emotion should be ‘enacted’ as a result of understanding this passage? How can I care more deeply for the concern expressed in this text?

Scripture-Shaped Concerns

With some passages the concern we should come away with is fairly straightforwardly easy to discern. King David’s affair with Bathsheba and his machinations against her husband should touch our concern for forgiveness as we see in David our own particular sinful proclivities. The gospel accounts of Jesus’s resurrection should touch our concern for assurance as we see victory achieved in the exultation of Christ. Our concern for final resolution should be touched as we consider the vivid, if brief, descriptions of the new heavens and earth given us by John. We don’t have the space to consider in depth the virtues that should be sought in Christ in the light of these concerns, but in passing we can note the significance of humility (with respect to our concern for forgiveness), hope (with respect to our concern for assurance), and joy (with respect to our concern for final resolution).

Let’s consider in some depth two additional examples, the first from the book of Job.

“[B]lameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil” 2 and, with his vast wealth, “the greatest of all the men in the east”, Job is struck with calamity after calamity, losing to natural disaster and foreign attack in a short period of time his livestock and servants and his sons and his daughters. Job, remarkably, “holds fast his integrity”, worships the Lord and, at least initially, neither sins nor blames God for his suffering. Later, after he is struck from head to toe with boils so disfiguring that he is unrecognizable to his friends, Job rebuffs his wife’s suggestion that he curse God and affirms his conviction that he should accept both good and bad from the Lord. In all this, we are told, Job “did not sin with his lips” (Job 1:22).

Job is left with his three friends, whom he calls “miserable comforters” (16:2) because their explanations of his sufferings are so wide of the mark and their condemnations of Job so swift. Job is then confronted by God himself, who offers not an explanation for Job’s suffering, but the disclosure that though His ways are oftentimes inscrutable they are wholly good and trustworthy. In response Job confesses, “I had heard of you [prior to my calamities] by the hearing of the ear, but now [after my calamities] my eye sees you” (Job 42:5).

Job knew God prior to his sufferings. But compared to the fuller knowledge of God he now had, his previous knowledge was like a “hearing of the ear.” Job’s knowledge of God was, relative to his new knowledge, second-hand or, we could say, knowledge as though from a third-person perspective. It was through his sufferings and his climactic confrontation with God that Job’s knowledge of God is likened to sight, to first-hand knowledge, knowledge from a first-person point of view. What Job got from the Lord was greater than an explanation of his suffering. Job got the Lord himself.

What ‘concern’ is touched in us by Job’s experience of suffering? Hope. The believer who is going through discombobulating suffering, the kind that Job himself endured, needs a sure hope, the re-assurance that God is unceasingly faithful to the sufferer. He or she needs to know, not in a second-hand way but from his or her first-person perspective, that “My heavenly Lord and Father is for me.” The story of Job teaches us that suffering, even suffering that leaves us deeply disoriented, is meant by the Lord to bring us into a deeper, more intimate knowledge of Him.

Let’s now turn to our second example, Ephesians 2:1-3. I have chosen this passage because it illustrates the enduring significance it has for a mature believer when its enduring significance may not be readily apparent.

Ephesians 2:1-10 forms a unit which describes the power of God’s grace which converts God’s elect from a way of life (‘walk’) of sinful disorder (vv. 1-3) to a way of life (‘walk’) of good works in Christ (v. 10). What accounts for this radical conversion? God graciously making His people alive in Christ (vv. 4-9).

For purposes of illustration we will focus on the meaning of the unit of verses 1-3 by itself, for the mature believer may justifiably wonder about its enduring significance for him. For what purpose would the mature believer need to ‘feel’ again his guilt from being a transgressor? After all, Jesus’ substitutionary death has decisively taken care of the believer’s guilt once and for all time. In a moment we will pick that question back up, but first let’s unpack a bit more of its meaning.

This unit describes in some detail our condition prior to conversion. We were spiritually ‘dead’, disobedient children of wrath, followers of the way of the world and of its prince. What is perhaps most distressing is we were unaware that we were in this condition. Of all the things we know, what we know best is ourselves, which includes our desires, our loves, our interests, our basic motivations, our commitments, our values, and our fundamental orientation to life. But, according to Paul’s letter, the most important thing we should know about ourselves was completely lost on us. God had to show us what we were really like, such was the state of our sinful blindness.

For the unbeliever whose eyes the Lord opens to see that this is a true description of himself, the ‘concern’ that is touched is that of his personal, eternal wellbeing. “How can I be rescued from this predicament!” is the cry we would expect to hear. But because all of Scripture applies also to mature believers, we should also ask which of the mature believer’s ‘concerns’ ought to be touched by this passage. I suggest Ephesians 2:1-3 should touch the concern believers have for God’s glory. Of course, it also touches our concerns for humility, worship, and awe, but I am taking those as constitutive of a more fundamental concern for glory. Believers, even mature believers, can stand to be reminded of the desperate situation from which they were saved in order to appreciate afresh God’s “great love with which He loved us” (2:4) right now in our current situation. Inwardly digesting and relishing God’s undeserved kindness brings glory to the Lord, which is the chief aim of every person who has been “made alive together with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5. Verses 6-9 describe in further detail the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”). The startling description of our pre-conversion situation found in Ephesians 2:1-3 is of continued relevance for the believer because it shows us that, even though we are no longer in that state, we are still sinners in deep need of God’s ongoing, renewing grace. That work of grace both causes us and prompts us to delight in God, forsake our idols, and walk in good works “which God prepared beforehand” (2:10). And this complex of actions, by God’s wise design, brings Him all the glory.

Hope and glory are just two concerns that Scripture holds out as worthy of adoption into our lives. And, of course, there are more. I leave it for homework to discover additional concerns for yourself!

The Gracious Payoff

Just as discovering the meaning of a passage of Scripture takes effort, so does discerning its emotional meaning. Its emotional meaning may not always be immediately apparent. Nor may it be what we first think it is. But working diligently to discern its meaning has a wonderful payoff: feeling in a deep way what the Lord takes to be important. And proper feeling is a needful part of what motivates us to faithful action.

Making a ‘concern’ of Scripture a part of who we are requires hard work, but we can take heart that our effort is prompted, sustained, and directed by the Lord himself. He is presently at work in maturing our emotions in Christlikeness to be of usefulness to ourselves and others for His glory’s sake. When we read or hear Scripture, we ought to pray that the Lord in His kindness would help us internalize these ‘concerns’ so that when they are ‘touched’, we will faithfully respond as the Lord would want us.

Thankfully, we can be assured that our Father is doing that deep work within us “both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). Consider just some of the ways He is already shaping your concerns as well as the concerns of every follower of Christ:

“We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2; for more, see verses 3-5 and 11. Colossians 1:5-6 echoes this theme).

“And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power . . . to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ . . . .” (Ephesians 3:17-18; compare with Philippians 1:9-11).

“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from His love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being likeminded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (Philippians 2:1-2).

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts  and strengthen you in every good deed and word” (II Thessalonians 2:16-17).

“Now may the Lord of peace Himself give you peace at all times and in every way” (II Thessalonians 3:16).

“May the God of peace . . . work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 13:20-21).

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20).

For by the gracious power of the Lord of heaven and earth, our Lord and Father,

“[t]he righteous man will be glad in the Lord,
and will take refuge in Him;
and all the upright in heart will exult.” (Psalm 64:10)

All Scripture quotations are from the ESV. Italics have been added.

Further reading:
Roberts, Robert C. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues.

Talbot, Mark. When the Stars Disappear: Understanding and Coping with our Suffering. The first part of the unpublished manuscript is available at https://christianscholarsfund.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/When_The_Stars_Disappear_Part_1rev_5.pdf

geoff sackettGeoff Sackett is Christian Union's ministry director at Cornell University.

After working in federal public policy and media relations for the US Congress and the American Electronics Association in Washington, DC, for six years, Geoff followed a call to Christian ministry. He served as the dean of students and lecturer in theology and philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary. Geoff has spent the past 15 years on the Washington, DC, campus of Reformed Theological Seminary. Geoff graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary with a masters of art. He went on to study systematic theology, ethics, and philosophical theology as a PhD student at the Catholic University of America.

Geoff enjoys studying and discussing Christian discipleship, theology, and philosophy. He also enjoys running, biking, and competing in triathlons. He, his wife, Heather, and their four young children enjoy exploring, playing, and laughing.
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