Wednesday, 15 March 2017

How are you feeling?

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it”. Luke 11:27-28

Do you like being praised? Go on, admit it! Don’t we all? It makes us feel better about ourselves. 

When I was a very young minister a man came to the church for a bit, and, Sunday after Sunday, he used to quite embarrass me by his overdone words. “Colin, how do you do it?” he asked me on one occasion, shaking his head in awestruck admiration. Don’t worry, I told myself very firmly that I wasn’t to take this too seriously (though deep down I was grateful for the confirmation that I was, of course, the greatest preacher since Peter on the day of Pentecost). That man didn’t last long - probably went off to some other church where he did the same to the minister there.

There’s nothing wrong with praise, as long as it’s sincere and balanced. (If the word “praise” doesn’t seem quite right, let’s just say that we all need encouragement: is that better?) Do you, as a Christian, look for opportunities to give your fellow-Christians a bit of a boost with a genuine word of encouragement? How easy it is simply to take other people, and the contribution they make, for granted. I think there’s a challenge for us all there.

Well, what about the woman who shouted out to Jesus in the crowd? “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and who nursed you!” she cries out. Can you hear her? Can you picture her? She is responding to Jesus, it seems, on a purely emotional level - what a wonderful man you are! how I wish I had a son like you!

One commentary I looked at was, I thought, a bit hard on her. It described her words as “an extravagant compliment”, “sheer sentimentality” and a “pious effusion”. But is that fair? She has been listening to Jesus teaching some quite difficult things, and she is obviously impressed by his power, wisdom and boldness. Why shouldn’t she give vent to this heartfelt, spontaneous outburst?

Perhaps she herself had a son. Perhaps a son who had been a sadness and disappointment to her. Can we blame her if, as she looked at Jesus, she felt this strong stirring in her heart?

Well, we can only speculate what was really going on inside this woman. But what we know for a fact is that Jesus was not inclined to preen himself when he heard her! His response wasn’t exactly a put-down, but it was, let’s say, a bucket of cold water: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Ouch.

As if to say: “Well, thank you very much. But please don’t get carried away. What ultimately matters is not gushing feelings, however genuine they might be, but solid obedience to God and his word.”

Tricky things, feelings, aren’t they? Some people, including Christians, seem to lack them, so they come across as cold and perhaps rather hard: Christianity is all about correct doctrine and right behaviour. This, surely, is sad. But other people - the so-called “touchy-feely” type - are at risk of going a bit “over the top”. They think something’s wrong if they aren’t floating on a spiritual high every minute of every day. Which is equally tricky, for feelings are notoriously like the British weather: changeable and unreliable. 

Thomas a Kempis, the fifteenth century monk who wrote the classic The Imitation of Christ, said: “Do not trust your feeling, for whatever it is now, it will be quickly changed into something else.” Yes, indeed: one day we may feel great, and think that that will never change; but the next day the grey clouds come rolling in and pull us right down.

There is feeling - sentiment - in Christian living, and that is as it should be. Our faith is all about love, after all; and while, yes, there is a lot more to love than feeling, it would be wrong to disregard it altogether - emotion is a vital part of human nature. (I’ve just been leafing through the Good News Bible, with its wonderful little pictures, and couldn’t help smiling at the drawing that rounds off the Book of Psalms: no shortage of feeling there!) 

But feeling must always be subordinate to that day-by-day desire to know God, to trust him, and to walk with him in humble obedience - however we may be feeling. That is true love.

Heavenly Father, I want to love you with all my heart, my soul, my mind and my strength. And I want my will to be conformed to yours. Please make me daily more like the person you want me to be. Amen.

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