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.

Lighten Up and Laugh a Little

I just returned a few hours ago from three days in Vermont. I spoke briefly at a dinner on Thursday night, and then gave two speeches, the first on Friday in Montpelier (which is the capital city), and the second on Saturday at a conference in Burlington. Sitting here this morning, the only thing I can think to say is that I know for a fact God has a sense of humor. This is true, not only because he often displays it in His Word, but because we all still exist. No, I’m not cranky. I say this after a short layover last night at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. What a place! If God lacked the ability to laugh at our ridiculousness, I’m guessing He’d have pressed heaven’s gigantic red destructo-button a long time ago. The fact that He hasn’t is confirmation that His humor is directly related to His patience, which, in turn, could only be born from His unfathomable love for His creation.

But again, the proof of His humorous side, especially the times when He has poked fun at us, are already visible in His Word. It’s likely I’ve shared some of my favorites with you before. For starters, when God describes by Solomon’s hand a beautiful woman engaging in indiscretion as a pig with a gold ring through her nose, that’s kind of a funny image to me (Proverbs 11:22). Or when eleven chapters later, God calls out slackers and their lame excuses (22:13), it’s as if Solomon knew what it was like to have kids who play video games all day long. I also enjoy the story of Elijah facing off with the prophets of Baal, especially that moment when God moves him to taunt them, calling out, “Cry aloud, for (Baal) is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). Relieving himself? If the reader only knew what Elijah meant by that, he or she would likely blush.

I could go on and on, but that’s plenty. Okay, maybe one more from that grittier vein.

Have you read Galatians 5:7-12? God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, is upset with the Galatians for being led by the Judaizers back into thinking that the Law can somehow save them. In this section of the letter, Paul pokes fun at the belief that circumcision is one of the proofs of an Olympic-sized Christianity, and so he recommends those who are saying as much should just go all the way to the big leagues and “emasculate themselves” (v. 12). In other words, why settle for the minor league badge of honor with God, having cut off only a little, when you can step up your game of faith and take the whole thing off?

That, right there, is funny.

Truth be told, to even come close to discovering these biblical gems, you need a sense of humor. You most certainly need to be able to laugh at yourself. In my humble opinion, the ability to laugh at one’s failings—not proudly, but with a genuine admittance to one’s own stupidity—this is one of the ways of dominating the guilt that Sin, Death, and the devil try to impute. I mean, those times in my life when the devil tries to remind me of my Sin, it’s easy enough to say, “Well, what do you expect? I’m an idiot. Thankfully, the Lord loves and forgives idiots like me.” Unfortunately, the world we live in appears to have long since lost the ability to laugh at itself, and instead, epitomizes what Will Rogers meant by the words, “Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”

If there’s one thing we do a lot of in the Thoma house, it’s laugh. Sometimes we do it at each other’s expense. Trust me, it’s not cruelly intended, and I always receive my fair share, for which I’m glad. There are far too many miseries stalking the countryside beyond our walls, all of them promising ample opportunities for sadness. Thankfully, it seems that whenever we meet up with these meandering brutes, the Thoma family continues to prove an uncanny ability for discovering what’s funny about them.

A smile is something of a human wonder. And yet, there are few things better than a smile giving way to genuine laughter. God willing, this truth is not lost on you. Hopefully you’ve known a time or two with family, friends, or even complete strangers when you’ve found yourself laughing so hard that you nearly cried. During our recent time together in holiday quarantine, I can promise you that I and my family laughed a lot. In fact, I learned anew just how funny each of them can truly be.

To come at all of this from a different direction, I mentioned to the folks in the adult Bible study last Sunday that I’ve begun the application process necessary for pursuing a doctorate. I’m not fully vested in the idea just yet, mainly because I already have way too many irons in the fire—and not to mention, I have one child in college and two more nearing the same thresholds of expense. But we’ll see. Jennifer is supportive, and I know many of you are, too. That’s helpful. But either way, I haven’t even been accepted, yet, so there’s that. Still, those who know me well can affirm that I’m a fan of creative language, and so if I do go forward with the effort, I’ll likely settle on a course that has something to do with creative writing in service to the Church. I’m telling you this because, while scanning the horizon of relative possibilities, I found myself chuckling while reading an article written by a youthful PhD candidate suggesting that Philip Stanhope, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield (best known as Lord Chesterfield in the literary world) was both a sexist and a pietist, being someone who prided himself on never laughing, even counseling his son in various letters to never be caught smiling, and to treat women with the same care you’d offer simple-minded children.

Again, I laughed when I read what this up-and-coming scholar had written. And why? Because he completely misread Chesterfield. For his era, Chesterfield tended to be somewhat of a “Bob Newhart” with his style. When you get a chance, just take a look at the portrait of him painted by Allan Ramsay. You can see the sly facetiousness sketched right into the contours of the man’s face. While his humor may have been dry, his wit was incredibly deep, and I’ve read enough of his scribblings to know he appreciated working in opposites. In other words, if he wanted his son to laugh more, he’d forbid him from laughing altogether, assuring him hyperbolically “that since I have had the full use of my reason, nobody has ever heard me laugh.” If he wanted his boy to be respectful of women, he’d describe with an encouraging tone outlandish things the young man could do that would certainly put them off—like treating them in every way as one would treat children.

I use the same style while teaching and with public speeches, whether my audience is comprised of youth or adults. I became more aware of this style’s value through my favorite seminary professor (who also preached at my ordination), Rev. Dr. David P. Scaer. He’s the one who stoked the coals of this comfortable style that helps make the details of just about any topic of conversation more memorable. And why does it work? Because it changes the rules of communication in drastic ways, ones that force the listener to do more than just take in information. A person must think abstractly, analyzing the ridiculous in comparison to the obvious, taking what’s genuinely bad and setting it alongside what’s genuinely good.

What kind of dolt completely misreads this skillfulness in Chesterfield? My guess is either the kind of person who has no sense of humor, or the kind who wants to do what so many others are doing these days—which is to rewrite history in order to cancel goodness. Unfortunately, I think it’s the latter rather than the former. It seems one can make a name for his or herself in today’s academic world by coming up with radically overanalyzed premises intent on canceling what society has long understood as good, and Lord Chesterfield hasn’t been spared.

In the end, the rest of us—the normal people who aren’t offended by every little rhetorical barb causing the slightest discomfort—will continue to laugh at funny things, all the while enjoying the ability to laugh at ourselves. We’ll do this because we know we are sinners who are already well-deserving of any jab we might get, all the while recognizing the value that even God sees in humor. It’s an exceptional way of bringing insight to dimly lit situations, ones that need a little bit of jostling in order to make sense of them.

I need to get along to other things, so to close this all out, I’ll end with a joke from the movie “Big Fish,” which is a favorite (and an incredibly underrated) film by Tim Burton that Jennifer and I revisited last week. Interestingly, the main character, Edward Bloom, played at various ages by Albert Finney and Ewan MacGregor, in many ways epitomizes what I’ve already described. For instance, in one scene, Bloom describes with great seriousness for his daughter-in-law a recurring and terrifying dream he used to have as a child. He told the story of a crow that came to him and said his aunt was going to die. When he awoke, he was so rattled, he went to his parents and told them about the dream, but they brushed off his concern. The next day, his Aunt Stacy was discovered dead.

“That’s terrible,” the daughter-in-law said.

“Terrible for her,” Bloom replied, “but think about me, a young boy with that kind of power.” He continued, “It wasn’t three weeks later that the crow came back to me in a dream and said, ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ I didn’t know what to do. I finally told my father, but he said, ‘Oh, not to worry,’ but I could see he was rattled. The next morning, he wasn’t himself, kept looking around, waiting for something to drop on his head, because the crow didn’t say how it was gonna happen, just those words: ‘Your daddy’s gonna die.’ Well, he left home early and was gone for a long time. When he finally came back, he looked terrible, like he was waiting for the axe to fall all day. He said to my mother, ‘I’ve just had the worst day of my life.’ ‘You think you’ve had a bad day,’ she said. ‘This morning the milkman dropped dead on the porch!’”

Bloom never broke his stare of seriousness, making the moment even more impactful.

Now, this short theatrical exchange I just shared could offend you as being in poor taste, or it could make you laugh, because in a memorable way, it allowed genuine human beings the opportunity to own the foolishness of thinking we can forever hide our transgressions, especially from the divine; or that any seemingly serene context is free of Sin’s fingerprints. These are important lessons to be learned. But as I said, whatever your preference may be, I’ll leave it to you to laugh as you become wiser, or to frown from offense. Just know that if you are offended, give me at least until Monday to let me know. I’m far too tired right now to respond.