Emotional experience can play a huge and powerful role in Christian discipleship. For some individuals their prayer life, witness and service as a Christian are powered by emotion. People can remark ‘I felt this was something I had to do’, ‘I felt God was very close to me at this time’, ‘it just didn’t feel right ‘, ‘I felt moved to pray for him’. There are some readers who will be silently nodding their head and thinking ‘I know exactly what they mean’; and there will be some readers who will be thinking ‘I have no idea what they are talking about.’
If spiritual wellbeing is dictated by emotions then there are a considerable number of people who have no wellbeing at all. The ‘emotional’ Christian cannot begin to understand how another person can practise the Faith, pray and worship without any emotional movement at all. Yet some people of great maturity in their spiritual life would describe their experience as having very little strong emotion. They certainly wouldn’t understand someone whose only guide in life was ‘how they felt.’
I have met and come to know very well several ‘unemotional Christians’; these have been both male and female and of mixed ages. Some have been lay people and some have been ordained. For some the absence of emotion has been a source of perplexity and questioning. This is especially the case when they encounter Christians who are only too happy to describe the emotional heights they experience in their spiritual life. Some of them struggle to find worship that is congenial and fellowship that does not make them feel inadequate. I have pointed out that Jesus said ‘you will know them by their fruits,’ and not ‘you will know them by the super smile on their face.’
Christian life is not shaped or directed by feelings but by simple and trusting obedience; the handing over of the will to God. There is an experience that is not on the emotional register that might be described as ‘soulful need’; a hunger and desire. This is a hunger and desire for purpose and meaning in life; it can also be experienced as ‘something missing’. It is out of this profound need that some people respond to the Gospel and come to know Christ. This need is not met by emotional ‘satisfaction’ but by truth and the vitality of Scripture that brims over with light for our understanding.
One of the most prayerful and holy men I have known confessed that he had never had an experience of ‘closeness or intimacy with God.’ He did not have strong emotional experiences in his spiritual life but he did grow in wisdom and conformity to the pattern of life in Christ.
There might be two lessons to learn from these observations.
First, for those who are blessed with a rich emotional experience growing out of their spiritual life: Don’t assume everyone will know what you are talking about.
Secondly, for those who wouldn’t have a clue what these experiences might be: This is nothing to be anxious about. If you have come to recognise Jesus as Lord and you seek to submit your will to His then the Holy Spirit is at work in your life.