The following is an excerpt from a series of essays entitled “Towards Conservative Christian Church” (parts 17 and 18). The series continues at Towards Conservative Christianity as well as Religious Affections.
One of the most difficult tasks facing the conservative Christian pastor is teaching that the affections are shaped, and that Christians ought to give attention to what shapes them.
Once again, most Christians live with an incorrect view of the affections. They see the emotions as more or less reactions to various stimuli. In that sense, their focus is merely on controlling (or suppressing) emotional expression. They become oblivious to the whole discussion of shaping or molding the affections, and tend to regard such discussions as extra-biblical pontificating or even legalism.
However, if we see the affections as expressions of value or worth, or more simply, our loves, it becomes obvious that what we love or treasure or value can be shaped. We do not love all things immediately, but learn or acquire some loves over time. We can grow certain loves, and weaken others.
The problem we encounter is that the loves are not under our direct control. While some of our loves may have been pursued by an act of will, others have been picked up without our knowing why. Many of our loves are loves that grew because of what our family loved, what our peers loved, what was loved by people we respected. Some loves came very late in life, while some were there early. Some loves were hard to develop, while others seemed almost natural. Not many people can explain why they love what they love without some serous thought. The affections do not come by sheer acts of will.
The fact that we have a responsibility to shape our loves to be ordinate, alongside the fact that these affections are not all seemingly under our direct control, leads many to deny that such a responsibility exists. It is at this point that many call the affections mere expressions of personality, personal preference and varying tastes. And since no one wants to pass judgment on these things, the discussion is given up altogether. After all, God would only require us to change those things that we can directly change, right?
I sometimes wonder if this kind of thinking comes from imagining humanity as some kind of machine or computer. You hear this kind of language all the time: our brain is a “supercomputer,” the body is “an amazing machine,” thinking is allowing people to “process things,” to ask for people’s views is to look for “inputs” or “feedback,” people tell you that they are just “wired a certain way” and so forth. With this kind of idea forming the backdrop of our view of man, we can easily see sanctification as a matter of “entering the right information” so as to “gain the right outputs.” To be honest, some biblical counseling material sometimes makes it sound that way. When you think of mankind like this, you believe every issue is a matter of finding the right Bible verse, programming it into the CPU, and looking for obedience as an output. This then, is sanctification. None of that elusive affection-shaping stuff. Just give me the “put off/put on” pair of verses, and I’m on my way.
Unfortunately for this theory, we cannot so lightly dismiss the place of the affections in the make-up of man. Our nature will have its revenge on our mechanistic views of sanctification and prove them insufficient to replace inordinate loves (i.e. lusts), with ordinate ones. Nor can we deny that the affections must be shaped (Phil. 1:9-10, 1 Thess. 5:21). And we cannot deny that their shaping involves matters not under our direct control.
This then brings us to the sixth mark of a conservative Christian church: understanding and teaching the means of furnishing the inner life with those ideas and images that encourage these loves and affections. We turn our attention to that next.
Doorposts, frontlets and the affections
The first and greatest commandment is to love God ultimately. Immediately after giving this command, God insisted that this kind of ultimate love be the most conspicuous reality in the homes of His people. Deuteronomy 6:6-9 are commands to structure the home and family life so that loving God is taught through conversation and life indoors and outdoors, at rest, at work, when the day starts or when it ends. God wanted this kind of love for Himself to be as prominent as one’s own hand, as visible as something stuck in front of the eyes. He wanted it to be something His people would know every time they entered or left their dwelling.
God’s intention was not that His people would wear strips of leather on their forearms, tie boxes with the law between their eyes, or place tiny versions of the Shema in little receptacles and stick those on their doorposts. God was figuratively teaching that love for Him ought to saturate the home-life of His people.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 gives us a helpful take on how the affections are shaped. Certainly, the Hebrew parents were to teach their children to love God, quoting the very words of Scripture and explaining them. There was a cognitive, intellectual aspect to shaping the affections of the Israelites. They needed to know that loving God ultimately was their obligation, and they needed to know why He was worthy of such love. What we love is very much informed by intellect, refection and learned moral precept.
However, God’s words reveal that the shaping of the affections is not an intellectual exercise in the strictest sense, at least not merely an intellectual one. God’s words did not mean that He wanted the Israelites to discuss nothing but loving Him in every situation and on every occasion. Rather, God was commanding that parents should structure the environment and atmosphere of their homes so as to cultivate a sensibility of love for God. It is not merely the cognitive instruction on loving God that counts, but the myriads of cultivating influences that express or explain what loving God means and why loving God is beautiful, sensible, wise, compelling and even obvious. It is one thing to gain an understanding of what is true. It is another matter to gain appreciation for that truth. It is one thing to know that something is worthy. It is another to sense the worth of it. The first category are matters of cognition, while the second are matters of affection.
How would a child of Israel gain not merely assent to the truth claim that Yahweh alone is God, but proper affections with respect to that truth claim? By hundreds of daily shaping influences. It would be cultivated through what the parents loved. What did the parents prioritize? Was the worship and service of Yahweh first? Did they embrace sacrifice and inconvenience to worship Him? How did their treatment of Him compare to their pursuit of food, or honor or wealth? What sort of time did they devote to God? How much pleasure did they express in God? When they spoke of Him, how did they speak of Him? When they spoke to Him, how did they speak to Him? In relating to one another, how did husband and wife display the meaning of being in a covenant relationship with a loving God? How did their authority, instruction, chastening and exhortation of their children reveal the meaning of knowing and loving God? In other words, the loves of the parents would inevitably be communicated to the children. Example is a major part of why we love what we do. The prejudices, sensibilities, priorities, pleasures and attitudes and tastes of our family, our peers, our church and the wider culture tend to shape our own.
Beyond that, Israelite family life was filled with custom, ritual, and tradition. The parents were to be faithful to keep the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routines of prayers, feasts, celebrations, days of worship, days of assembly or other ceremonies, not to mention all the civil and ritual laws. Through these tangible routines and habits of life, the Israelite’s life was filled with analogies to explain not only who God is, but how His people respond to Him. These features of life helped him know the difference between the holy and the common. They provided sensibilities about the truths he knew. In attending worship, he heard the prayers and songs of Israel and was catechized as to how God’s people love Him. By hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting Sabbath meals, slaughtered animals, Solomonic choirs, golden menorahs, Davidic poetry, priestly incense, accounts of the Exodus, unleavened bread, kingly authority, Jubilee celebrations and hundreds of other things, the Israelite gained living metaphors of truth that evoked and shaped his affections. The affections of Israel were shaped when they were exposed to forms used by God to help His people rightly respond to the truths they knew.
Apart from God’s revelation, none of these forms would shape ordinate affection. But assuming its presence, faithful exposition of it, and Israel’s practical submission to it, the forms were a necessary part of shaping the religious imagination of the Israelites. And as Tozer said, what comes into your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you.