By Audrey Stallsmith
Mel Gibson’s recent remarks about Jews have caused some to opine that what a man says when he is drunk is what he really believes. I’m not so sure about that myself.
Having led a somewhat sheltered life, I haven’t encountered many intoxicated people. But the ones I have seen tended to repeat, with tedious insistence, the same silly comments over and over. I sincerely hope that wasn’t the real them!
I suspect alcohol tends to suppress the thinking part of the brain and releases the entirely emotional side. Let this be a lesson to those of you who are intent on getting in touch with your feelings. Some of those sentiments won’t stand the light of day!
Anger and/or exhaustion can, occasionally, have the same effect on us teetotalers. We’ve all said or did things, when tired and irritable, that we wouldn’t have when we were in our right minds—just because we felt like lashing out at someone. Fortunately, most of the time our willpower doesn’t allow us to blurt out every hurtful thing we’re thinking. Although some might consider this restraint hypocrisy, it’s actually the better side of our nature asserting control over the worse.
Jane Austen does a very good job of portraying the conflict of emotion vs. principle in her novels. In her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, the first impressions the hero and heroine get of each other are very bad. So much so that Mr. Darcy, when being urged to dance with Elizabeth Bennet, snaps, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
Obviously one of those irritable remarks of which I was just speaking. But it is doubtful even the arrogant Darcy would have uttered that one if he weren’t being pressured, or if he were aware Elizabeth could overhear him. And he spends the rest of the novel paying for it!
Because her feelings are naturally hurt, Elizabeth is more than willing to believe the worst of Darcy, when she is told lies about him by the much more agreeable and flattering Mr. Wickham. Like the serpent in the garden, evil almost always appeals to our emotions rather than our reason. When Elizabeth later looks back on what Wickham told her, she realizes how unlikely it is. But, by then, the tempter has taken in her even more impressionable younger sister.
It’s always the silly characters in Austen novels that are ruled by their emotions. And it’s only when Elizabeth looks at herself and her family through Darcy’s critical eye, that she realizes how shallow and without moral compass most of the Bennet’s really are. Then she has to acknowledge he has some valid reasons for wanting to steer himself and his friend clear of her kin.
If I stretch a metaphor a bit drastically here, I can say the first impression many people get of God is as bad as the one Elizabeth got of Mr. Darcy. They perceive Him as someone equally lofty and distant, and seeing themselves through His eyes is also a quite lowering experience. Evil, on the other hand, appears easy and attractive. The devil, like Mr. Wickman, knows where our weaknesses are and how to appeal to them. But he certainly doesn’t have our best interests at heart.
God can often seem as demanding and far above us as Mr. Darcy. Rather than reassuring us that we’re all right the way we are, he expects us to change. But many of us have been as badly informed about Him as Elizabeth was about Mr. Darcy.
It was he, after all, who cared enough for Elizabeth to endure humiliation for her, even though he didn’t expect her to ever hear about it. And it was Christ who endured much greater humiliation for all of mankind, even though some of them will probably never hear of Him. On the other hand, evil is--like Mr. Wickham--entirely selfish.
Now, we all know Elizabeth was, despite herself, actually attracted to Darcy. She wouldn’t have been so preoccupied with him otherwise. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, we females always prefer a challenge! And, as has frequently been pointed out, all of us humans have a God-sized hole in our hearts that isn't going to be filled by anybody else. But we’re aware He is going to expect much more from us than evil ever did.
And, due to our fallen natures, a relationship with good is much more difficult for us than a relationship with evil. I sometimes think we less emotional types might actually have an advantage since we don’t expect a constant cloud nine. Like C. S. Lewis, I didn’t feel any huge surge of euphoria after my conversion. And you can’t miss what you never felt to begin with!
I’m convinced most people who abandon their faith, their marriages, etc., can blame those unreliable emotions, not their reason. “I just don’t feel it anymore,” they say. Well, tough cookies! What has that got to do with anything?
Actually, my own “lack of proof” did bother me for a while, because many of the people I heard testify had had such fervent emotional experiences. So I worried I might not be “saved” after all. Lewis does a good job of describing that earlier me, when he writes in The Screwtape Letters, “the Christian often thinks his conversion is something inside him and his attention is therefore turned chiefly to the states of his own mind.”
It finally occurred to me, however, that conversion doesn’t change personality. And I’m simply not an emotional person by nature. But I had just “tied the knot,” as surely as a bride does. If you sincerely and willingly take the vows, you are married—whether you feel married or not. And God has promised He won’t be the one to break that covenant.
You don’t even have to be “in love” to seal your troth. We might ask ourselves just when Elizabeth “fell” for Mr. Darcy. But I’m not sure “fell” is the right word. I think she gradually came to love him, as she discovered how deeply his character really ran.
Our conception of love-at-first-sight is, after all, a fairly modern innovation. Many marriages in the past were based on other considerations, as are even some more recent ones! Lewis originally wed Joy Davidman simply so she could stay in England. As anyone who has seen Shadowlands knows, however, he came to love her deeply.
In Lewis’ book, The Screwtape Letters, a demon advises his protégé that humans “be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result. . .humans who have not the gift of continence can be deterred from seeking marriage as a solution because they do not find themselves ‘in love’, and, thanks to us, the idea of marrying with any other motive seems to them low and cynical. Yes, they think that. They regard the intention of loyalty to a partnership for mutual help, for the preservation of chastity, and for the transmission of life, as something lower than a storm of emotion.”
Even romance novelists, who concentrate mostly on the “storm of emotion,” frequently use the contrivance of having a couple pretend to be married. They know the enforced togetherness of such a situation often creates the affection the relationship was only supposed to be simulating.
In other words, as Tony Campolo asserts, “It’s the action that creates the feeling. You act and then you feel.” Catherine Marshall agrees in Beyond Our Selves, that “the emotions trail behind the will.” And, in Creation in Christ, George MacDonald insists “action must precede feeling, that the man may know the foundation itself of feeling.”
So even those who do not feel any affection for God are not excused from binding themselves to Him. How are they going to know Him well enough to love Him otherwise?
Lewis surrendered himself reluctantly, simply because reason had convinced him of God’s existence. In other words, he probably wasn’t “in love” with Deity at the beginning either! But the devotion he developed toward his Lord over the years survived even the untimely death of his beloved wife.
So, if your emotions offend you, cut them off. In other words, if you feel no desire for God, give yourself to Him anyway because it is the right thing to do.
To our modern minds, making a commitment before we feel any love seems rather like putting the cart before the horse. To us, love is an emotion that springs up involuntarily, not something controllable. So we wonder how Jesus could make it a commandment. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” (Matthew 22:37)
If you are devoting a lot of attention to a person, naturally you are going to feel warm towards them. And, once you stop devoting that attention, chances are you will fall out of love very fast. As Arthur Gordon writes in A Touch of Wonder, “Unexpressed feelings tend to wither. Affection is not a static thing.” Thus, love is actually a choice.
Elisabeth Elliot asserts in Let Me Be a Woman, “love does not preserve the marriage, the marriage preserves love.” She goes on to note severely, “When you promise. . .to love, you are not promising how you expect to feel. You are promising a course of action. . .”
To the ancients, all this probably wouldn’t have been so baffling. Accustomed to arranged marriages, they knew love is something you do, not something you feel. And, in our relationship with Deity, it is based on the worthiness of the Subject. Elizabeth Bennet’s story illustrates that our judgement about who merits our affection, if based on emotion, can be extremely faulty. But she made the right choice in Mr. Darcy, whom she had originally despised, once she began assessing men on their actions rather than on how much they flattered her. And, if we judge Christ by what He did, we can have no doubt of His love for us.
Fortunately, the better acquainted we become with Him, the greater love we feel for Him too. But, if we stop devoting time to that love, we will feel it slipping away. So we must do whatever we can to focus our thoughts on Christ as much as possible. And that, of course, means daily Bible reading and prayer even when we don't feel like it!
This isn’t easy, I know. When we cannot see or hear the Person to whom we’re speaking, our attention tends to wander very easily. We writers, having overactive imaginations, can find ourselves “miles away” instantly.
I've found that it helps to read from several different sections of the Bible, say one chapter from the historical books, one from the poetical/prophetical books, one from the Gospels, and one from the epistles. Since this offers a lot of variation, it keeps scripture reading from becoming boring--as it might if one is bogged down in all the Old Testament instructions for sacrifices. It also helps my concentration if I make myself find one lesson for the day in all that I have read. If your mind, like mine, tends to stray during prayers, try writing them down. Run back through them occasionally, and you'll probably be surprised to note how many have been answered! (It's the ones that haven't that we tend to harp on.)
I find that, the more I think about God, the more loving I feel towards Him. That’s why I also attempt to write one of these articles every month or so. Not only may it help others, but it also forces me to think about why the Church believes what she believes. The more clearly we understand our faith--and God--the better we will be able to sustain our trust in Him despite any muddle of emotions. As the article forces me to review notes I’ve taken from the works of much more intelligent Christian writers, I hope it will prevent me from wandering off the narrow way as well.
The devotion I have to work to give God means more to Him, I suspect, than the spontaneous affection that sometimes springs up just because I happen to be in a good mood. The first requires a greater effort on my part, after all, so it must be more valuable. And, as has already been indicated, spontaneous moments can just as easily give unpleasant snapshots of our nature. But it’s what our wills do that will determine our fate.
I’ve concentrated mostly on love here, since it’s our favorite “feeling,” and marriage does make such a good metaphor for our covenant relationship with God. But there are far too many people who have instead fed their hatred by giving too much time and attention to it.
It sounds as if Gibson is making a sincere attempt to “cut off” sentiments he knows to be wrong and to replace them by better ones. When we stop letting our emotions have the upper hand and force ourselves to follow God’s lead, we open ourselves to His Spirit. And, what we can’t do on our own, He can do through and for us. Like Elizabeth’s, it’s a much better union than we ever had any right to expect!