I recently heard a sermon where the preacher repeatedly asked members of the audience if they felt close to God, if they felt saved. The thrust of the message seemed to be that people should feel a certain way.
There were at least four problems with this appeal. First, it was difficult to know whether I was experiencing the kind of emotion that the preacher wanted me to feel. Second, if I wanted to get the feeling the preacher was talking about, the sermon would have left me ignorant as to how to get it. Third, it is of little value to feel that one is saved, in comparison with the matter of whether one actually is saved. Fourth, if feeling close to God were a test of righteousness, then the mere feeling could be used as a justification for all sorts of sinful behavior.
The more preaching urges people to feel things that are possibly misleading and probably unidentifiable, feelings which cannot be manufactured, the more odd it becomes to preach the necessity of obedience. The Bible emphasizes that we must do what Jesus says whether we feel like it or not, and then good feelings will follow. There is a special Christian feeling known as Joy, but it is contingent on the pursuit of a right relationship with Christ. “If you love me, you will feel very close to me.” No, the text reads, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous” (Proverbs 21:15). The Philippians had joy “in the faith,” that is, they were progressing in obedience to Christ, and this obedience produced good feelings (see Philippians 1:25).
We are like little children who must obey their parents even though they cannot fully understand the benefits of obedience. For example, consider the Christian virtue of charity, which is to pervade the life of the Christian (1 Corinthians 13; 1 Corinthians 14:1). As C.S. Lewis aptly pointed out, Christian charity does not denote the pleasant feeling of affection, but rather a commitment of the rational will to seek the good of another:
But though natural likings should normally be encouraged, it would be quite wrong to think that the way to become charitable is to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings. . . . The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him. If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. If you do him a good turn, you will find yourself disliking him less. There is indeed, one exception. If you do him a good turn, not to please God and obey the law of charity, but to show him what a fine forgiving chap you are, and to put him in your debt, and then sit down to wait for his ‘gratitude’, you will probably be disappointed [cf. 1 Corinthians 13:1-7]. . . . But whenever we do good to another self, just because it is a self, made (like us) by God, and desiring its own happiness as we desire ours, we shall have learned to love it a little more or, at least, to dislike it less.1
If we preach that people must get a feeling of love while failing to preach biblical charity, then we have done them a great disservice by misleading them. This principle could be applied to preaching on any Christian virtue (brotherly kindness, courage, temperance, etc.). Remember: (1) Good feelings must not be mistaken for righteousness, and (2) Good feelings will follow true obedience.
Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2000), 130-131, parenthetical item in orig., bracketed item added; cf. ibid., 129. ↩