Emotions Matter, But They Aren’t Reliable

We’ve been studying C.S. Lewis’ volume The Screwtape Letters during the Bible study hour this summer. The most recent letter, number 16, raised an interesting point regarding preaching.

At one point along the way, the demon, Screwtape, encourages his nephew, Wormwood, to steer the Christian in his care toward attending a church where the pastor is more interested in generating emotional responses from the people than the faithful presentation of the Gospel. Through Screwtape’s fictional hand, Lewis describes Father Spike as someone who “cannot bring himself to preach anything which is not calculated” in this way. He describes the simple preaching of God’s Word as insipid, depicting a “sermon people could accept” as far less attractive than the moving words of a French philosopher like Maritain.

Having written this volume in 1942, Lewis proves himself prophetic, especially when considering American Christianity. But before I get into that, let me share something else.

I just returned from a visit to Vermont. Well, let me rephrase that. I almost visited Vermont. It would’ve been my second time traveling to and speaking with the Grassroots GOP this year. Unfortunately, I only made it as far as Chicago. The flight to Burlington was canceled. The first reason given by the woman at the kiosk was mechanical. An hour later, it was announced over the loudspeaker that they needed a pilot. An hour later, it was the weather, which I’m not sure I believe. Flights were backing up, leaving lots of stranded passengers. The airline isn’t required to reimburse or provide hotel accommodations to anyone for weather cancellations. As a result, my only options were to rebook on a flight to Burlington that left two days later or to fly back to Michigan the following afternoon. The first option would’ve put me well past my obligations in Vermont, not to mention requiring that I spend two nights sleeping at the airport. The second only offered one miserable evening. I cut my losses and chose the second.

I slept in the corner of gate E7 in Terminal 2. I’d say I got a solid 30 minutes or so of sleep until I noticed the ants. Then I moved to a different corner.

Anyway, as I said, the point of the trip was to speak to the grassroots GOP in anticipation of their primary elections. My goal in such things, as always, is to communicate the importance of Christian engagement in the public square. To accomplish this, I do what I can to unpack the biblical doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (or what so many today grossly misinterpret as the separation of Church and State), explaining its cruciality. From there, I explore where these two Kingdoms overlap, showing the importance of Christian engagement for the preservation of Religious Liberty, which, believe it or not, God intends by the doctrine.

In other words, the Church and the State can only be divided from one another absolutely when the Scripture’s teachings on the doctrine are abused. But when the doctrine is handled rightly, points of overlap emerge, and we discover that the Church and the State meet in more ways than one.

Thankfully, the trip wasn’t a complete bust. I did manage to visit the conference by Zoom, giving an hour-long presentation followed by questions. I couldn’t see the crowd, but they could see me, and I could hear them. I’m pretty sure I ruffled the theological feathers of another speaker, Dr. Carol Swain. I made an observational point during my speech, offering that, in my experience, most historically orthodox clergy are put off by politicians and public figures who, attempting to connect with American Christians, claim to receive direct communications from God. They make emotional statements like, “God told me I should run for office,” and other such things. I didn’t say it to be critical of Christians who believe Enthusiast theology (which I don’t) but rather to show a genuine divide in the Christian community. And how might a politician who’s genuinely worthy of the Christian vote bridge that divide and attract these voters? By digging deeper into what is objectively true for all biblically conservative Christians rather than what is subjectively true for some, which is that God most certainly speaks to His people through His Word—the Bible—God’s revealed will for all things. Dr. Swain was bothered by that, so she stepped to the microphone to insist that God couldn’t be kept in such a box. Well, whatever. I didn’t dig too deeply into the comment. Had it been a theological conference, I would’ve shown from God’s Word how He actually does put Himself into such boxes, not for His sake but ours. He wants us to be sure that it’s Him who’s speaking. The Scriptures do deal with this concern.

By way of example, after the 2020 election, I read countless posts from people online who repeatedly said how God had told them Trump would be rightly inaugurated as president in this term. And yet, here we are two years later, and no Trump. My guess is that whatever voice those people heard wasn’t God’s voice but someone else’s, most likely the voice of their emotions. If it’s something more, they might consider making an appointment for a CT scan—or an exorcism. My point: you don’t have to wonder about the Bible. It’s God at work communicating. Christians can be certain of this.

Again, I didn’t get into this with Dr. Swain. Maybe one day, we’ll discover an opportunity to discuss the point over coffee. In the meantime, it wasn’t my job to debate anyone’s theological traditions but rather to speak to ways Christians can unite for successful engagement in the public square. I think I did that.

After my presentation, I had a brief online conversation with one of the attendees I knew personally. During our conversation, he encouraged me to consider partnering with a local pastor he believed was “gaining popularity” in Vermont. I took his advice and looked him up. I just finished watching two of his sermons this morning.

I should interrupt whatever I’m about to type by saying the following: anyone who knows me will affirm that when it comes to engagement in the public square, I’m thoroughly exhausted by the “us against them” mentality among many Christians. A Lutheran won’t work alongside a Roman Catholic. A Baptist won’t partner with a Methodist. I think I’ve already made it clear, even this morning, that we need unity in the public square, not division. We’re not seeking altar fellowship. We’re trying to preserve some crucial civic fundamentals that maintain religious liberty, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing what’s called “cooperating in the externals” to accomplish this. Any Christian can unite with anyone else to accomplish something fully aligned with God’s will. There’s absolutely nothing theologically perverse in partnering with a Buddhist to fight abortion. Anyone who wants to stop the murder of infants in the womb is a Christian’s friend. As individuals, we may approach the goal differently and for different reasons, but we’re still aimed at the same target.

Having said all of this, of the two sermons I watched this morning (which, if I’m being honest, were really more like TED talks), the pastor mentioned Jesus five times. Not one of them was concerning the Lord’s life, death, and resurrection for the world’s redemption, but instead served more as supplemental to a song, movie, or hobby he enjoyed. He examined the spiritual “closeness of God” found in those favorite things. He referenced the Word of God a whole bunch of times while doing this. In the end, however, while he proof-texted his favorite things, he never preached the forgiveness of sins through the person and work of Jesus Christ. He didn’t preach the Gospel.

Yes, he was engaging. Indeed, he was dynamic. Absolutely, his brimming theater-style church was proof of his ever-growing popularity. All these things were true. And why? Because these were the emotional goals he was trying to achieve.

I’m sharing this as it carries me back around to where I started—which is, my mentioning of C.S. Lewis’ critique of pastors who calculate sermons, gearing them toward specific emotions. I’m willing to admit there’s a place for emotion in relation to theological things. I get choked up often enough while singing certain hymns or studying particular passages in Scripture. I think this is true regarding a pastor’s preaching, too. During last Sunday’s study discussion, I mentioned that a pastor needs to consider the listeners’ emotions when crafting his sermon. Hopefully, I explained that this is true, not because he’s calculating according to his personal preferences (as Lewis described Father Spike), but because he actually cares about the objective truth being revealed by God’s Word. When you care about something, it shows. People know if you genuinely believe what you’re saying. People can tell if it means the world to you, enough so that you’d rather die than see it snatched away from yourself or your listeners. In this vein, the preacher can’t help but do all he can to present the texts of Scripture clearly, having crafted the sermon’s language in ways that help bring the listener into what the texts are communicating. This can happen in lots of ways. Often, these ways will result in emotional exchanges between the preacher and the listeners.

I suppose I’ve gone on long enough this morning. In short, the pastor has to consider emotions while handling the Word of God. It’s not a process completely disassociated from human listeners. The preacher’s genuine love for God’s Word will resonate naturally, evoking particular sentiments in his writing as those same passions are inherent to the texts, and it will play out accordingly in the pews. I guess I’m suggesting that I believe as Robert Frost believed: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”

On the other hand, if, instead, the chief goal of the preacher is to wow his listeners—to give them a top-dollar emotion-filled worship experience assuring his own popularity and tenure—then he’s already going in the wrong direction. He should know that what he’s doing never lasts, and he may even be setting himself up for failure. Statistics prove that pew-sitters who are accustomed to getting an emotional fix in worship, when they find a different pastor or congregation with a better product, like addicts, leave for the superior pusher. C.S. Lewis explained in letter 16 how such scenarios waft sweetly for the circling demons.

As a pastor, I don’t want to make our time together in worship into a shallow exchange of subjective emotion, doing what I can to entertain you. I want to deal in objective things. I want to preach God’s Law and Gospel—the fullness of His Word—giving you what you need for eternity’s sake. You should want me to do that, too, because anything else would be shaky.

The Fullness of Time

I don’t want to poison your morning, but you must know that summer is fast fleeting. July of 2022 is about to see itself out. It may even give incoming August a scornful glare as the two pass one another through tonight’s midnight doorway. It’s likely July will do this because it knows it’s leaving for good.

July of 2022 will never be with us again.

That’s the funny thing about time. People talk about how they’ll do this or that to save time, but in the end, time isn’t saved. I know what they’re referring to is efficiency. Still, I’m left to the plainness of thought that no one can store away extra time, putting it into an account for use at a later date. An eighty-year-old can’t take and use the time he saved when he was twenty. Time is finitely linear. C.S. Lewis described time as something that moves along at sixty minutes an hour, no matter who or what’s traveling in it. The pace is not optional. It happens with or without its passengers’ knowledge or agreement. As it carries along, no allowance is made for banking time, only spending it. In fact, if you don’t use it accordingly, it spends itself. That’s what some would call wasting time.

One of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson, suggested in a letter to Thomas Higginson, “To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations….” Her point was that we make the most of the time we’ve been given when we’re truly living life. I don’t know for sure what she meant by living life. Knowing her poetry, I think it meant to appreciate as much of life’s vibrancy as possible before one’s last hour and the arrival of Death’s carriage. Whatever she meant, she went on to assume that living isn’t to be a solo act. In other words, for Dickinson, time was always best spent in the company of others—within physical reach, face to face, immersed in togetherness.

I think she was right. But I also think humanity is becoming less inclined to see things that way. Recalling the phrase “save time,” consider modern technology as an example. Humans have developed technologies designed to maximize productivity. These same things have breached the borders of social life and, in many ways, are all but guaranteeing lives lived in seclusion. They’ve become rearrangements of relationships for the sake of efficiency. Texting and email, Instagram and Zoom meetings; we’re communicating with others—and saying an awful lot through some wide-reaching tools. And yet, it’s all happening without ever having to experience others personally.

My friend, Rev. Dr. Peter Scaer, posted something recently that resonated in this regard. He wrote, “I know folks who are still attending church online. They prefer it. Well then, instead of the kids coming home for Christmas, they should just meet you on Zoom. Lot less hassle.”

His words sting, but they’re also sincere.

I went to see one of my shut-ins this past Monday. Her name is Frances. She’ll be turning 100 this December. That means she was born in 1922. For perspective, that’s the year the first issue of Reader’s Digest was published, the Lincoln Memorial was completed and dedicated, and the Bolsheviks murdered Czar Nicholas II and his family, securing total control of Russia. I asked this dear Christian woman what she remembered about her youth. Even though her memory is getting somewhat strained, she managed in her gentle way to explain how life today is absolutely nothing like it was back then. She wasn’t complaining but instead observing as best she could. She reminisced briefly about regular family gatherings as well as surprise visits from friends. Certainly, the telephone was an available means of communication in her day. Although, I read that only about 35% of American households had one in the 1920s. Of course, letter-writing remained the assumed means for communicating over long distances. Still, Frances seemed to suggest that in-person togetherness is what people preferred. To put it another way, a person would be more inclined to buy a bus ticket for a trip to someone’s home the next county over before walking to the corner drug store to use the community phone. People actually invested in being together. Convenience and efficiency weren’t as crucial to the human equation. The time it took to accomplish time together was considered time well spent.

The Christian community is geared similarly. A quick visit with the instruction given in Hebrews 10:23-25 shows this. It’s there we’re reminded to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

“…as you see the Day drawing near.”

Those are choice words. They’re another way of saying that this world’s time is running out. They also affirm Dickinson’s sentiment that time is best spent with others. In the case of the Christian community, it’s best spent together in worship. Of course, this is true not only for the Godly fellowship inherent to the gathering itself but for the sake of being together with and receiving from the One who established the community in the first place: Jesus Christ. We stir up one another to take time for worship because it’s time with Jesus, and there’s no better way to spend one’s time before the arrival of our final day. We need what this friend gives.

Thinking back to my time with Frances, she ended the conversation about her youth almost as quickly as I’d prompted it, saying, “It seems like it all went by so fast.” Again, she wasn’t complaining but observing. She certainly didn’t seem to be expressing regret. The time she’s been given has been put to good use. Like the rest of us, she’s not a perfect person. But she did manage to spend much of her time on all the right things. For one, she’s 99 years old and still sitting with her pastor, rejoicing in the mercies of God that are new each and every day. This tells me that by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in her for faith, she has taken into her very soul what it means to “make the best use of the time” (Colossians 4:5). She trusts her Savior, Jesus, having numbered her days accordingly (Psalm 90:12) to make sure each one includes Him. This trust is nothing less than a relaxation in the Gospel truth that all time has its fulfillment in Christ. It knows “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). Connected to Christ, Frances knows each of the clock’s ticks in her life was aimed at this adoption, and now as her mortal timepiece winds down, there’s an even greater ease of knowing her grandest moments are still before her.

The Day is drawing near, and it will be a time with family and friends in a place unbound by time. More precisely, it will be a wonderfully unimaginable togetherness with Jesus—an unending face-to-face existence with the One who spent His time on earth the wisest, giving Himself over to the cross to save us for the endlessness of heaven.

Eerily Applicable: The Screwtape Letters

Moving into the summer months, there is a transition that occurs here at Our Savior in Hartland. We move from a typical Sunday School arrangement into what we call “Family Sunday School.” The typical Sunday School structure is as you’d suspect. The adults gather for study with the pastor, while the children are shepherded according to their appropriate grade levels to classes taught by an adult volunteer joined by one or more assistants. When summer comes around, we gather adults and children together for study, with each lesson being taught by the pastors, seminarians, and others. Last summer we studied the liturgy. In summers before that we studied our Lord’s passion, the biblical themes of our congregation’s stained-glass windows, and plenty of other worthwhile topics. This year we’ll be trying something a little different. We’ll be visiting with ten of the thirty-one letters in C.S. Lewis’ book The Screwtape Letters.

If you’re unfamiliar with the book, just know it’s a stranger bit of Christian fiction, the kind that only the brilliant author of the Chronicles of Narnia series could summon. Although, I hesitate to call this unique work by Lewis fiction. In a way, its point is genuine. It observes the Christian faith through the eyes of a demon named Screwtape. An uncle to Wormwood and an undersecretary in hell, Screwtape is writing to his nephew, offering his best advice for accomplishing the condemnation of Wormwood’s “patient,” a young man in England during World War II.

I’ve read the book several times over the years, usually a few letters at a time, and only as the urge to turn a few pages surprised me. I’ll be starting this summer study, which begins today. I’ll introduce the book’s characters before handling the Preface and Letter 1. From there, I’ll turn over the remaining sessions to others throughout the summer. I’ll wrap it all up in August. Along the way, we’ll do our best to make the material graspable to all, even the youngest among us. The book does dig relatively deep. This means it will take a little extra effort to bring the kids along. That being said, I’m not one to impose upon children a list of inabilities foreign to them. In fact, I have a feeling they’ll understand far more than any of us may expect. Besides, Christ Himself reminds us that when we grow up, we need to be more like them than adults, especially when it comes to the things of faith (Matthew 18:1-6).

In preparation for this morning’s effort, there is a line in Letter 1 which reads, “The trouble with argument is that it moves the whole struggle on to the Enemy’s own ground.” By the “Enemy,” Screwtape means God. Screwtape continues advising Wormwood that it’s best to keep his patient away from the exchange of opposing viewpoints, primarily because it involves genuine contemplation, and genuine contemplation is the potential pathway to discovering objective truth. An honest handling of objective truth can only lead to the divine. Equally, Screwtape discourages courteous discussion. In other words, keep it as a heated exchange of little more than emotional declarative statements fed by the distractions of what he refers to as “real life,” namely, what interests the patient personally. “And don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real,’” the undersecretary demon makes clear. This is to say, let him define reality in whatever ways he wants to. This is the essence of the old proverb, “Devil take the hindmost.” It describes someone serving his or her own self-interests at the expense of what’s right or wrong, true or untrue.

These things being the content of just the first letter (and the doorway to all the others), already the reader can see how timelessly insightful C.S. Lewis is for revealing hell’s tactics. He wrote this book eighty years ago, and yet, when we compare it to what’s happening in our world today, it seems a much more recent editorial.

Not much has changed. And why? Well for one, I suppose Satan appreciates consistency, knowing not to fix what isn’t broken. In a way, his appreciation of consistency reveals his devilish hypocrisy, too. What I mean is that it’s a nod to the only things that truly are consistent: God and His natural law. By nature, creation is bothered by shifting inconsistency, but instead takes comfort in reliability. Just ask a preschooler, someone who is the epitome of natural law at work in humanity. Try swapping story time with craft time on the schedule. You’ll learn very quickly the innate urge to abide by the natural order of things. In fact, you’ll learn it takes some pretty smooth talking to steer away from it.

Again, part of Lewis’ point is that honest observation and genuine discussion have the potential for revealing these consistent boundaries—at least that they actually exist. When one realizes objective truth exists (as Lewis makes abundantly clear in his book Mere Christianity), the likely endpoint is, at a minimum, an acceptance not only of God’s existence, but an embracing of Him as the wellspring of these truths.

Of course, Christians equipped with the Word of God already know the deepest of all these things, which is the two-fold thread woven into and through the entirety of objective truth’s fabric. It’s God’s gracious warning of our dreadful condition—our unalterable predicament in Sin (Romans 3:23). And yet, He pierces the hopeless situation with the bright-beaming light of His love, revealing to us that He has sent and accomplished the solution to this humanly unsolvable problem. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, who by His incarnation became one of us and atoned for the Sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).

Interestingly, Screwtape references his disdain for Christ’s incarnation right away in the first letter. Referring to the patient’s humanity, he reminds Wormwood, “Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (Oh that abominable advantage of the Enemy’s!) you don’t realize how enslaved they are….” Amazingly, Screwtape speaks to humanity’s bondage in Sin while at the same time expressing frustration that Jesus, out of great love, stepped into it, submitting Himself to the same bondage.

As the book goes on, these types of theological premises expand. As they do, we get an inside look at just how frustrating they are to the old evil foe, Satan. At the same time, we become more attuned to the vile tactics he uses for obscuring our view of God’s loving effort to save us. As you get deeper into the book, I guarantee you’ll sense their familiarity.

And so, if you haven’t already, I encourage you to read The Screwtape Letters. It’ll be well worth your while. Although don’t be surprised if you suddenly find yourself being distracted from reading it. Again, even though it’s technically fiction, I doubt the devil is too appreciative of it. It’s far too accurate a depiction for his liking.