Emotions in the Christian life - Simon Tugwell

Chapter 5 of "Prayer in Practice," which is entitled 'Feelings in Prayer,' is perhaps the best piece of writing on the subject of emotions in the Christian life that I have read. 

Tugwell begins by noting just how unreliable feelings are: "I may feel inspired without being inspired; I may feel marvelous... but that may be caused simply by a good dinner and an insensitive conscience. Conversely, I may feel awful, but 'if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart." He points out that in our era of "romantic fundamentalism of experience, which will believe only what I can feel on my pulse" that we must realize that we can be seriously deceived about our own experience. Yet, we cannot fall into unending doubt and so we begin by realizing feelings are not infallible and then getting to know ourselves, our feelings, and the ways in which our feelings may 'misfire', well enough that we can discern when to trust. 

Tugwell lists four ways in which feelings can misfire:

1. They may bounce like a bad cheque. That is, there may be nothing behind them. So we may feel charitable without living out the virtue of charity and allow the feeling to be a substitute for reality. 

2. They may be artificial or contrived. We may feel something, and feel it very strongly, despite it not being 'real.' The perfect example is the group high or happiness; everyone else in the room is jumping and shouting and singing, this is contagious, and so I join in. 

3. They may be distorted. We prefer to view things simply, to make them plain and clear, but real emotions come as part of complex reactions to complex life. It is tempting to ignore ambiguity for the sake of ease of understanding and in so doing distort how we see our own feelings. 

4. They may be absent. We may feel we should have felt something, but did not, and so either convince ourselves that we did. 

With this in mind Tugwell explains that feelings, by themselves, are not very helpful. However, as part of a whole context of our person they are not only necessary but good. And God will use them, sending us times of consolation and joy, wooing us with a more intimate presence, or filling our hearts with a fire and a passion from His Spirit. These are good graces from God, but "we must not try to stockpile good feelings. It is of the nature of feelings that they come and go, and usually not when you want them to. We must not try to perpetuate feelings, however elevated they seem to be. We must not try to recapture them when they have gone. We must accept them when they are there and, if they are helpful and good, then, other things beings equal, we should accept them with joy and gratefulness; if they are negative and unhelpful, we must find the bets way to get through them with a minimum of damage. But either way, we must be a fish, and not get swamped by them."

And it is in the midst of this, adds Tugwell, that knowing ourselves is so crucial. 

Tugwell's conclusion?

"And so we should seek, not so much dramatic feelings, as the simple 'feeling' of God. It is rather like learning to recognize the footsteps of someone you know well. Or it is like learning to recognize the style of a painter. Familiarity with his ways will enable us more and more to recognize certain patters, certain configurations, certain little details, as signs of his artistry. If we love him at all, then to recognize him will carry with a certain excitement and joy. But in itself it is a very simple recognition of sheer factuality. It is not a sense of 'I like this' but just of 'there it is.' This quiet sense... is a tremendous asset in the Christian life. It will enable us, underneath whatever storms of emotion may be raging, to rest tranquil in humility and peace. then our emotional response will be rooted, it will proceed from the depths." 
- Simon Tugwell, Prayer in Practice. 

1 comment:

Charlotte said...

Exactly! Some things I've advised young people:
=God's presence doesn't depend on whether we feel He's there or not.
-Our hearts deceive us all the time. -Love is not a feeling; it is an act of the will.