I’ll admit it: I don’t like altar calls or tearjerker Christian songs or rhetoric meant to scare people about hell. I’d prefer not to be prompted in the pews with a particular response—even a pastor encouraging me to repeat a phrase will find me with arms folded and lips tightly closed.
I’ve been to emotional spiritual experiences what Ebenzeer Scrooge was to Christmas: a cynical curmudgeon who takes pride in being that way.
Which means the last night of church camp has always been a struggle for me.
Back in sixth grade, I remember informing my friend about one of her favorite songs: “No one is actually thinking about the words—they just like dancing around.” In high school, I was the stoic silent one at the bonfire where all the other girls were weeping and dramatically confessing sins. And every time people went forward or raised their hands or spoke into a microphone about rededicating their life or laying down their burdens or accepting Christ (again), I thought in some small corner of myself that I wouldn’t admit to anyone else, “I wonder how long that will last.”
At this point, you’re probably either disgusted with me or you are me. Either way, keep reading. I’ve learned a few things since then, and it started with the prophet Jonah.
We tend to talk about Jonah’s disobedience in a matter-of-fact way: God told Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the corrupt city of Nineveh. Instead, he got into a ship headed the other way. That reaction makes sense when we’re telling the story to children, because what five-year-old hasn’t thought about running away when faced with a rule they didn’t like?
But Jonah wasn’t a five-year-old. He was a prophet, one of the few people consistently following God at the time, who must’ve known the psalm that said, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” and then answered that question with five verses that added up to a loud “nowhere.” For Jonah to think running away would fool God doesn’t actually make sense.
I’m guessing Jonah knew it probably wouldn’t work…and he didn’t care. Pride is the biggest blinder of common sense, and we can be pretty sure that was at work all along because of how the story ends.
Once Jonah was finally forced into preaching, the Ninevites put on a grand external show of repentance: fasting, tearing clothing, smearing themselves with ashes, and crying out to God. Come chapter 4, we find our leading man up on the top of a cliff, waiting for fire and brimstone that would never come, so sure that he knew how the story was going to end that the grace that showed up instead disgusted him.
What does that have in common with post-camp Amy? Both of them were running on equal parts cynicism and pride, their hearts set firmly to the motto of “I know how God works, and this is not it” with a hint of “Most of them probably aren’t sincere anyway.” Looking down on everyone, refusing to celebrate what God is doing.
I point this out because on the surface there’s a certain coolness to being aloof about other people’s come-to-Jesus moments. (Or at least, I sometimes think I’m cool.) It says I value logic and don’t need to get swept away by powerful but fleeting emotions to be secure in my relationship with God. It says I’m a Non-Millennial, someone who realizes you can’t patch together a spiritual journey with just mountaintop experiences and that what matters more is plain old-fashioned commitment and discipline.
That’s true, and that’s fine. But it’s also not enough, and sometimes it hides something uglier and more sinister that Jonah’s story brings out: the danger of pride.
I’m not convinced the Bible’s command to love God with your “heart, soul, mind, and strength” refers to four neat categories that you can diagram like the food pyramid, but I do think it means that the greatest commandment of any Christian’s life is to love God with everything you have. Every part of you. Holding nothing back.
Not even your emotions. Not even because you want to sound cool or you don’t want to open yourself up to ridicule or failure or you’re afraid of what might happen next.
I heard 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding once and got so distracted by the underrated first verses that I didn’t hear the Greatest Hits of the later ones. Here’s what I got stuck on: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Did you catch that? My service and logic and wisdom—my actions and words—mean nothing without love for God and others. Sure, that’s not just emotion, but it does include emotion as a pretty significant part.
Don’t chase after emotions. If you try that, it’ll lead to an insincere and temporary performance. Instead, the goal should be giving those emotions to God, not just on the exciting days, but on the ordinary ones.
So if you’re the only dry eye in a room full of weepers, that’s fine—but only if you’re able to celebrate what God is doing in your brothers and sisters’ lives, and only if you remember you are nothing without love. Nothing. Don’t forget that when you’re tempted to feel secure in your theology or service. Loving God is hard, and it might be as risky and uncomfortable for you as it is for me, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
I’m not saying you have to turn into a tambourine-tapping praise dancer in the aisles, but loving God with all your heart might mean asking for peace, seeking after passion for the gospel, coming to worship with expectation, and even being open to what God wants to do that goes outside of your normal routine.
And if you’re always carried away by waves of emotion during extended worship sessions or on Easter or during a particularly dynamic sermon or any of the other “special occasions” that pop up in our spiritual lives, that’s fine too—but only if you recognize that God also (and more often) works through the hard, daily work of ordinary faithfulness.
Life with God isn’t about burning a piece of paper or hammering a nail into a cross. It’s not about dropping a piece of twine or doing a trust fall or lifting your hands during worship. God can use those things as pictures and symbols, as marking stones of internal change, but life with God is daily times of prayer and bearing with the church and the sinful people inside it and the hard part of marriage they don’t mention in Hallmark movies or Valentine’s Day commercials.
It’s Elijah in the cave, exhausted and afraid and alone and waiting to hear God. But he didn’t speak in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in a quiet voice. You have to listen. You have to work. You have to show up when you don’t feel like it.
Our faith is not about emotions. But it’s also not about dismissing emotions. It’s about loving God with everything you have, on the easy days and the hard ones.