Catalina and I have spent the last week at an MTW training called "Living in Grace." It's been a fantastic time of self-reflection, conviction, refreshment, and growth. At our first small group session, we were each asked what we wanted to get out of the week - what we needed most. That question triggered in me a quest to figure out how to achieve something I have longed for my whole life - feeling the presence of God. What better place to seek and find such a thing than at a retreat full of seasoned missionaries pouring their wisdom into us?
It may be surprising to those who have known me for some time - but expressing emotions is very difficult for me. I have no problem sharing very deep details from my life, but I do have a problem showing the emotions that accompany those details. I like for the content of my speech to remain detached from the content of my face. While part of this is just a preference for style and makes delivery of my dry humor much better, I'm sure there are some deep psychological issues that are behind this. Unfortunately, MTW's psychologist couldn't figure that out, as he told me "I've been doing this for a very long time, and you are the first person I've met who I can't read." Maybe I can be someone's dissertation one day.
A lack of personal emotions or emotional expression has lead me to struggle particularly with feeling the presence of God. A lack of feeling this presence has lead me to many attitudes that are just wrong. I envy those who express feeling this presence, I am cynical of those who can tear up at a Bible verse or song, and it has caused me to doubt my nearness to God - and even worse, his nearness to me. How can everyone else feel God's presence near - yet I do not?
With my goal stated from day one of our retreat, I decided to set out in dealing with my emotions as anyone in my state would - through mental dissection. It is hard to find something if you don't know what you're looking for, so it seemed best to first characterize what was being sought. In doing this, I believe I've had a revelation about the presence of God, my emotional state, and faith.
To begin, I defined what it is that emotions truly are. The best definition at which I could arrive was "the physiological manifestation of belief which aids in propelling one on to action." A very moving definition - I know - but I think it is accurate. Is it possible to find an emotion divorced from a belief - and even more, an emotion that isn't strongly tied to belief? I racked my brain and could not think of an exception. Emotion and belief are inextricably linked. When one encounters a bear in the woods, fear rushes in due to a belief that bears are dangerous and a belief that one's life is in need of preservation. When sorrow weighs on a heart because of something that was said, it is because there is a belief that what was said did harm and the relationship is in need of preserving. And when one receives a wonderful gift from their parents and are filled with excitement and joy, it may well be that they believe their parents care about their welfare and joy and want to bolster and preserve the relationship. I would argue that every emotion is directly tied to a strong belief - almost, if not always tied to self and another party. If there is an exception to be found, I would love to hear it.
That explains the first part of my definition - that emotion stems from belief. But a second part of my definition must also be explained as I don't think it is immediately intuitive. Emotions tend to propel one on to action. Now I did not say that emotions will always produce an action. In fact, many times we try to push back against what our emotions are guiding us to do. Nevertheless, emotions are directly tied to an action. Just as an emotion can stem from a false belief, emotions can also fail in leading to action or they can lead to ineffectual action. However, emotions are intended to spur one on to act. Looking once again at the bear in the woods, we see fear. Fear is an emotion that stems from a belief in danger, and its suggested course of action is that we remove the danger. We do this by either removing that which is dangerous (e.g. killing the bear), or by removing ourselves from the danger (e.g. running away from the bear). We can also see a call to action in the opposite emotion from fear. The opposite of fear is not courage, like most assume, but rather love, as I John 4:8 so wisely concludes. Courage, like fear, seeks to address a threat, but does so through bold confrontation. Love, on the other hand, is not the removal of a threat, but rather the embracing of that which is treasured. Fear repels while love receives.
We can also see this concept of emotional propelling when we consider the example of the relationship hurt by words and the relationship between the child and his parents when he receives a gift. In the first case sorrow ensues from a regretful exchange of words. We know what godly sorrow should lead to, as the Bible explicitly states it - repentance. When we feel sorrow, it should lead us to turn 180 degrees - away from the direction we were headed and back to that which is good. Repentance is the turning away from something. On the other hand, joy does not turn away from something, but rather exalts in that which it already has. This is why a child receiving a wonderful, thoughtful gift from his parents is joyful. While the child may be excited about the gift, the joy comes because the thoughtfulness and goodness of his parents reminds him and helps him to see what he has - a loving, secure, beautiful relationship with his parents. His excitement comes from receiving a gift he wanted, but his joy comes as he revels in his standing before his parents, represented in the thoughtfulness and sacrifice in the purchasing of a particular gift. Joy exalts in what is rather than turning away from what is.
I believe that my definition of emotion has strong explanatory power. When you start playing around with certain parameters, you can begin to see why two scenarios that look the same are actually quite different. How can one child be joyous at the gift he received while another is discontent? His beliefs may be mistaken. If the child believes that material goods will make him happy and relationships are unimportant, he may have received a very thoughtful gift, but joy escapes him as materialism is fleeting and can only provide initial excitement, not true joy. Unlike the grounded love that provides joy for one child, the other's emotions are tied through false belief to a material good that grows old in both its newness and usefulness.
With an understanding of my definition of emotions, I would like to provide one scenario that I am going to run with as I develop the rest of my reflection. Imagine that there is a sailor who has been captaining his ship for his whole life. Even before he was captain, he spent his whole childhood on this boat while his father captained. This man has a tremendous knowledge of both his ship and the sea. On this same boat, there is a passenger from Oklahoma who has never visited the ocean before. He is a first time passenger. As the vessel sails out to sea, an unexpected storm arises, and tosses the boat violently to and fro. How do you believe the emotions of the captain differ from those of the passenger?
For the captain, fear was likely not present - or if it was, it was in very small measure. For the virgin passenger, great fear most likely consumed him. Two individuals experience the exact same set of circumstances - riding on the same boat in the same storm - yet their emotional response is completely different. To understand my own emotions (or lack thereof), I needed to get to the root of this difference. Using my definition of emotion, I came to some conclusions I believe will help to parse these differences.
First, if we look at the Oklahoman - the land lover - we can see that there were two very big issues for him. One issue lay in the fact that he had never been out in the ocean on any boat - let alone on the particular boat that carried him into the storm he was made to endure. Due to this inexperience, there was a lack of belief in the boat's ability to hold up during the storm, and therefore a lack of belief that his life and welfare were truly secure. The second issue lay in the fact that the land lover had never before experienced the conditions he was now under. While he may have been perfectly fine facing the threat of a great Midwestern storm, experiencing the terror of a storm while on the open ocean and upon raging seas was up until now, unknown. Not only did the Oklahoman have a significant lack of belief in the vessel, but there was a significant presence of terror and wonder aimed at the storm.
On the other hand, the captain's extreme lack of fear by no means showed indifference. Rather, it showed familiarity. The captain had intimate knowledge of his vessel, her capabilities, what she'd endured before, how she handled, etc. He had tremendous faith in his boat - but faith grounded in experience and trial. This was the same boat that had endured Agnus, Andrew, and Katrina. It was the same boat that had preserved his father's life for the course of his career. And it was the same boat that had preserved the captain his whole life. This is not an empty faith. Likewise, the storm that was terrible and unknown to the passenger was the opposite for the captain. This storm was familiar and small. The captain had seen worse - and more importantly, his vessel had seen worse. The captain's confidence in his boat - a confidence which came through emotions like fear in the beginning - and familiarity with the storm meant he did not need his emotions to lead him to action. Action was no longer catalyzed by emotion stemming from untried beliefs, but rather through well tested belief.
When I apply this scenario to my life, I wonder if I am not like the captain. I have had the privilege of growing up inundated with Christian family, Christian friends, and Christian truths. I was poured into for my whole life. On top of this, I believe that faith is one of the prominent spiritual gifts in my life. I can't not believe. As William Lane Craig would say, belief in God is to me a properly basic belief. It is like knowing my own existence. I can't help but believe it. I have seen God work, I have trusted his word, I know him to be true, and I believe. I know my ark that carries me through life's storms. But while I do have a deep faith in my vessel, I have also been blessed with relatively small storms. I have not experienced the death of a close loved one in my immediate family until just a month ago, when my grandfather died. I still have three grandparents remaining. How many can say they have known all of their grandparents? I have not experienced life threatening illnesses, I have not been personally subjected to great injustices, and I have not been wanting and I have never lost my possessions.
I have been greatly blessed through experience. Just as the captain lost his fear due to the experience with his boat and with storms, so I have lost my awe at the security of my ark and have never had to weather the great darkness of life's storms. Experience has killed my emotions. This is a catch-22, as it is through our experience with the ark of the trinity that we come to have a bold, confident faith in its goodness and reliability, yet it is through experience that emotions fade. I know God's reliability because I have been sailing since a child. But it is also through experience that we come to lose our great wonder that such an ark exists. Just as many good and bad things are both enjoyed and dulled through repetitious experience (e.g. relationships, sex, drugs, etc), so it is with our belief in the trinity. The same is also true of the great darkness of life's storms. Just as those with diabetes become accustomed to the pin prick or guitarists to the thumb pick - so it is with our calloused hearts to darkness. There is no wonder in the the vessel and no wonder in the storms it endures.
Unfortunately, if my conclusion about emotions is correct, this means that I will continue to lack emotions as I sail on the sea of life. However, I think we can change the scenario slightly to provide our captain with some emotions. To do so, we can change one of two things. First, we can highlight for our captain a reason that would make him lose confidence in his boat. If the captain finds a small leak in the boat, the GPS or electronics go down, the rudder breaks, or some other damage occurs to the structural integrity - the storm may not change, but fear would arise for the captain. Second, we could change the storm. If the storm were larger than the captain had ever experienced before - the waves higher, the boat rockier, the boat taking on more water than it had ever taken before, etc - then the captain would likely encounter fear.
So for me to experience emotion and a nearer presence of God, it would seem I need to be in a position where I experience anew the realization of how well my boat can hold up, or how big the storm really is. I believe my delving into apologetics was an attempt to buffer the first category. I wanted to find "holes" in the ark and plug them up so I could be amazed at how sturdy she remained. But this was a short lived endeavor, as I never really found any holes - merely scratches and dents that were cosmetic issues rather than structural ones. Due largely to my experiences and the gift of faith I believe God has given to me, I just don't see my belief in the security of the ark as getting much bigger on its own.
The second option - to change the size of the storms - seems inevitable, but not something I can bring upon myself. Death will come to my family. Loss will come to my family. Injustice will come to my family. But I cannot bring those upon myself - nor should I. But beyond the darkness of the trials that come, there is another darkness that can be accessed, and that is my own heart. While I am unable to control life's storms around me, the sinner that I am creates sufficient turbulence through which I am often required to traverse - as others keep me accountable and the Holy Spirit illuminates my sinfulness. But even these storms are frequently small, as my experience with repentance and my own sinfulness has become rather mundane. I know the ark and I know this repeating storm of idolatry. I am broken about sin at times, but rarely surprised at my sinfulness.
I'm sure that sounds very sacrilegious to some - as it appears I am minimizing the cross and minimizing my sin. I assure you, that is exactly what I am doing. That is why I'm writing this piece. I don't know how to do it any other way. I have been on the same seas in the same boat since my birth! This is where experience leads me, and is why I have concluded that unless someone enlightens me as to how I can change my perspective, this is how it will be until the big storm comes. I guess I'm just hopeless.
But then Catalina hit me. I mean, then it hit me via Catalina. There are actually several ways that I come to experience God. The first is a conventional way within my analogy. While I cannot make the storms of my life bigger, it doesn’t mean I can’t sail into the unknown. We can take our ark into uncharted waters. This is what my gift of faith has pushed me to do. It’s why I had no problem throwing off a free college education to get into debt for a private one. It’s why I committed to teaching in Mexico within a few hours of being contacted – when my whole plan during my four years at college was to teach in Pennsylvania. It’s why I put myself out there and pursued Catalina. It’s why we have pursued missions though we had/have an “insurmountable” debt that it appears God will work out. And it’s why we have been praying for God to give us over and above the money we need for our debt through the sale of our house – as we plan on giving every penny extra over to him. We have prayed that our house would sell for at least $10,000 more than we owe in loans so we can give that back to God. It’s because of faith that we are able to sail into the unknown, moving ahead while looking back and resting on what we know. God is great. God is good. Now show us how much greater and how much better you are than we have known. Take us into the unknown so you will be magnified to the world - but also so you will be magnified to me.
I think I have been looking for a “feeling” as the presence of God when his presence has actually always been with me. It is evidenced by the faith he continues to give me and the steps I am able to take into the unknown. The captain's lack of emotion didn't negate his deep relationship with the ship and the seas, but rather indicated that he was more in tune with both than the Oklahoman who experienced great emotion. While there is certainly a line between contempt and depth, a confidence that may appear to others as indifference isn't always a bad thing.
But I also think God's more tangible presence has been here with me in the place that seems most obvious – in the emotions that I do have. While I don’t experience personal emotions of God’s presence, I do most certainly feel emotions. I am extremely sensitive to stories of loss and pain that others share. I am extremely sensitive to the beauty that others have seen. I am extremely sensitive to the goodness that others have experienced through their storms. While the storms I have personally experienced with the ark have been relatively small, I have seen the ark overcome guilt, sexual abuse, hatred, cynicism, pain, and death. When others share their experience with the ark and their experience through the storms, I feel the presence of God. I know his love, his goodness, his faithfulness, his glory, his gentleness, and his love anew. While the boat has been well tested and large storms personally not experienced by me, when I hear a story from another perspective – I experience the boat untested going through the darkest of storms. It's like watching a movie for the tenth time, knowing what the outcome will be, yet still clinging to the edge of your seat to see how it unravels.
This same concept also occurs when I share stories. It's part of the reason I have enjoyed writing so much. My recounting of how God has pursued me, preserved me, and brought me to a deeper understanding of him wells up inside of me great emotions. I am impassioned inside when I share. Though stories of my storms aren't like the stories of others, I sure do love my boat and have spent a lot of time on it, and I can share stories and perspectives of goodness and love and faith that others may be longing to hear, and I am in need of sharing. Just as the captain in my analogy likely loved to recount his stories night after night in the local pub, so I love recounting the tales of my boat, and hearing the tales of others.
Finally, as others share their own brokenness and darkness that rages inside their hearts, it helps me to put into perspective some of the storms I am currently experiencing. This week has highlighted this particular aspect for me greatly. My heart is deceitful. I live in sin but am immune to it in my mind as I rationalize it away, shift blame, or ignore it. Seeing the brokenness of others to their sin and having them guide me towards finding out how deep my sin truly is is invaluable. I am good at chopping down the shoots of sin sprouting out of the trunk of my heart, but without another's help, I rarely dig deep enough to see the massive tangle of roots that remain submerged and entrenched to the deepest layers of my heart. I need others to help me see that just because I've weathered storms before doesn't mean I truly grasp how big the current storm is. At some moments my confidence, boldness, and indifference are the result of a well tested faith, and at other moments, the result of a foolish faith protruding from ignorance. Like a child without fear because he doesn't understand the true danger, so it is with me and my sin. I need others to bypass my self-deception and help me to see the depravity of my heart.
My Westernized mindset has held me back from recognizing my experience with the presence of God that has been ever before me. I have been looking for an individualized experience that was centered around me. But that’s not who God is. God is triune. He is all about relationship. The Christian is no different, as we are part of a body of believers. It is by forsaking the assembling together of believers that we lose out on the body – becoming a disembodied, helpless ego. But by using my experiences to map out uncharted territories so I can share that experience with others, and by hearing stories from other believers about their experiences with the ark and their map – I am walking – we are walking in the presence of God. "For where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them."
Whatever it is you are going through, rest in the knowledge that your relationship with God is grounded in community - both with the trinity and the church. The times when you feel distant from God, either because of personal storms or complacency, are exactly the times you need to commune with others. Our connection to God is inextricably linked to our connection with his community. Share your triumphs and your trials with others and have them share the same with you. It is largely through community that God seems to make his presence known. "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."
So there is my treatise on emotions. I'm sure it's one big attempt at excusing away some deep personal issues, but I also feel like I learned a lot. I need to be willing to share of myself emotionally and I need to relish in the sensitivity that I have. I also need to avoid looking for some esoteric presence of God while overlooking where he is blatantly present. I need to stop worrying about being like others, for God has made me and gifted me differently. Emotions are wonderful things that lead to actions, and I am thankful for experiencing those through the story of all the saints around me. But the confidence to step out in faith into the uncharted waters without the prodding of emotions is a good place to be too. To be blessed so greatly with faith is a gift I must cherish and share. And when I do enter darker storms than I have ever experienced before, I must not only fall back on what I know, I must also rely on you to lift me up with what you know. When we allow ourselves to recognize that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses - past and present - we may better rest in our ark, as we pass through the eye of the storm.