How the Virgin Birth is important: The Purpose of Doctrine

In my previous post, I address the topic of the Virgin Birth and how important it is to Christian faith. In response to the controversy generated by the statements made by Andy Stanley, lead pastor of Northpoint Community Church, I suggested that the importance we attach to the Virgin Birth is based upon how we value different sources of theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Overall, however, I personally drew the conclusion that Stanley is not wrong to suggest that the resurrection is more central than the virgin birth, but I hedged that to say the Virgin Birth plays a critical role in maintaining the faith that Jesus is the Son of God. In this distinction, I made an implicit distinction that different beliefs serve different purposes. In line with the Apostle Paul’s proclamation in Romans 10:9 that salvation comes through a confession and belief that together contain only two propositions, there is a necessity in understanding the relationship of this central confession to the rest of the Gospel material in Scripture and, since I believe the early church traditions have something important to say about faith, the early creeds.

One might boil this down another way: what is bare minimum necessary for salvation and what do we do with the rest of beliefs that are not necessary? However, I would suggest this draws a too sharp dichotomy between salvific beliefs and other beliefs; this is especially problematic if one puts the label of optional” on the “non-essentials.” Why? The different ideas we hold in faith are not separate concepts that are isolated from each other; they interact together. They reinforce and rub up against each other. Faith as it is actually lived in human life operates as a system of interlocking urges, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. What I think about the creation impacts what I think about God who created. No single doctrinal idea exists in a vacuum, separate from other ideas.

I alluded to this in the previous post. I suggested that the reason the story of Jesus’ virgin birth got included in Matthew an Luke was because of the importance of reinforcing the idea that Jesus is the Son of God by denying the idea that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God as His baptism. I didn’t treat the virgin birth as an essential for salvation, but as important for maintaining an essential confession of faith, that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord.  Belief in adoptionism would render Jesus as the Son of God more so in title and even in authority rather than really in nature. If one held simultaneously to Jesus as the Son of God and to adoptionism, one’s belief about Jesus as the Son of God could potentially be radically changed where Jesus would be treated as a human who rose to a divine title in order to be consistent. If Jesus is simply an exemplary human who God later adopted, then the center of faith and salvation rests in human action rather than in God’s initiative. This may then manifest in how one’s life will be lived, focused on one’s own effort rather than trust in the loving provision and power of God. Even if something isn’t an “essential” it can impact the way we interpret the “essentials” so that we may use and affirm the same language but we mean something very different1 and thus direct ourselves in a different direction.

However, note that I place emphasis on the word “potentially” and “may.” While certain beliefs may be inconsistent, it is possible to hold inconsistent beliefs that do not dramatically impact each other. On the one hand, all orthodox Christians believe the Holy Spirit is the third person of the Holy Trinity, and yet, at the same time, many of them regard and speak about the Holy Spirit as a force and not a person; the Trinitarian belief remains because the inconsistent idea of the Spirit as a force is not given much analysis or importance. Inconsistency of faith does not lead to an inevitable change.

So, with this in mind, the beliefs that are not “essential” may still impact the “essentials” so as to radically change the meaning, but this is not inevitable or automatic. Paul’s minimal confession for salvation and the Nicene Creed, for instance, have an important relationship to each other but they sere different purposes. One purpose, amongst others, of the Nicene Creed is to protect the integrity of the central, salvific confession and faith. Trusting that Jesus is Lord who will save would be challenged if you think he is merely human; likewise, trusting that Jesus was raised from the dead can be undercut if you think Jesus is God merely appearing to be human.2 Orthodox beliefs do not bring a person into God’s salvation, but they do protect the integrity of saving faith.

So, to add more to what I said previously regarding the Virgin Birth, while I can agree with Andy Stanley that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is more important central than the Virgin Birth, if there is no discipleship that teaches and affirms the orthodox confession, the significance of the resurrection of JEsus showing He is the Son of God will potentially be undermined.

  1. Trinitarians, the Son of God refers to nature, whereas for adoptionists, the Son of God is title. []
  2. The heresy of docetism []

How important is the virgin birth of Jesus?

Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Community Church, has stoked the fires of controversy again, as various Christian leaders have been responding to his statement that “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”1  Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological seminary, reiterated the importance of the virgin birth. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary2, said via Twitter:

So, in the end, how important is the virgin birth of Jesus witnessed to by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, to Christian faith?

The answers depends on what is considered the most important sources for Christian doctrine and teaching. In my on United Methodist tradition, Albert Outler proposed the idea that John Wesley used four different sources for theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; I would suggest that these more of less enumerate most the sources that people use for theology, depending on how broadly you define tradition, reason, and experience.  How much people value these sources for theology and the way they deem appropriate to use them will determine how important the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is.

For instance, in the Southern Baptist denomination that Andy Stanley‘s church is a part of  comes from (but serves as renegade all too often),3 there is a high emphasis on Scripture to the point that the other potential sources may be largely excluded from having much legitimate place beyond forming opinions. Combined with this high emphasis on the importance of Scripture is a strong emphasis on the inerrancy of all Scripture also. An almost exclusively Scripture-centric theology combined with strong inerrancy means that the Virgin Birth is an essential point of Christian faith, because, at least in theory, if it is in the Bible, it is an essential part of Christian teaching.

While Stanley would disagree with such a vital importance for the Virgin Birth, he is more similar than he is different from his fellow Southern Baptists. Stanley employs Bible-centric teaching and he has affirmed his belief in the inerrancy of the Scripture; Stanley diverges however in that he is incredibly sensitive to the thinking of the average, unchurched and barely churched persons and making the Gospel and the whole Bible understandable to them. As a result, when doing theology, Stanley is engaged with Scripture along with people’s reason and experience and their skepticism regarding certain ideas, such as the Virgin Birth. As a result, his preaching and teaching does not simply ascribe to the “Bible says it, I believe it.” His preaching style is not dogmatic nor a presentation of a set of theological propositional, but persuasive in focusing on a) what is most important in the message and b) where people are most open to hearing what is most important. As a result, not everything in the Bible is of equal importance in terms of evangelism, but some claims of Scripture are more significant and persuasive than others.

One can say that Stanley doesn’t think believing all of Scripture is essential to Christian faith, but that there are certain beliefs that have greater emphasis and importance to the Biblical authors than others. In hearing him preach, Stanley does not make the inerrancy of Scripture an essential for others to believe, but he reduces the essential proclamation of Scripture to a few points of vital importance; the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most important of them all. This is not due to him personally rejecting what the Bible teaches on “secondary” ideas, but sensitivity to what the average person thinks. If it is not heavily emphasized in Scripture, Stanley does not place much importance on it for people to come to faith. If it is heavily emphasized in the Bible like the resurrection is in all of the New Testament, then it is important for people to accept to follow Jesus. Andy Stanley’s preaching exists in the tension between Scripture and contemporary reasoning and experience.

The difference between these two perspectives is not about whether Scripture is important, but what of Scripture is important. Is everything the Bible says important or are there some ideas that are more important and essential whereas other ideas are of a more marginal importance and can be de-emphasized when it comes into tension with what people think? In the former, the Virgin Birth is vital dogma. In the latter, the Virgin Birth is a part of the narrative about Jesus but is not what is most crucial.

The earliest documents of the New Testament, Paul’s letters, make absolutely no reference to a virgin birth. While the connection between the Virgin Birth and the incarnation is made in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in Romans 1:4 the Apostle Paul grounds Jesus divinity as the Son of God on the resurrection. Later in Romans 10:9, the fundamental foundation of salvation is the confession “Jesus is Lord”4 and the belief that Jesus is raised from the death. For the Apostle Paul, the reason one should believe that Jesus is divine/Son of God is because of the resurrection. This is held in common with the Gospel of John, where the disciple Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord and God based upon seeing the wounds of Jesus as proof of the resurrection.5 By contrast, Matthew and Luke were compiled later and outside of the early chapters, place little emphasis on the virgin birth. Furthermore, only Luke makes an explicit connection between the miraculous conception and Jesus’ divinity;6 Matthew only obliquely makes the connection via a particular quotation from Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 where virgin birth and the title Immanuel are connected.

Whereas the resurrection is the validation/proof/vindication of Jesus’ status as the Son of God, the virgin birth is the way God became flesh. While explaining why the New Testament places greater emphasis on the former than the latter should be done only cautiously, one might infer that the origins of the belief thatJesus as the Son of God came through the resurrection, whereas later it was needed to explain how God came into the world, to which an appeal to a virgin birth is made. Whereas the resurrection is the central persuasive argument of the early Church; the virgin birth is a matter of theological consistency.

The significance of the Virgin Birth is less a matter of salvation or even understanding the significance of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection and more a matter of ensuring that the narrative about Jesus it told in a way that is consistent with and reinforces the central aspect of Jesus divinity. While the resurrection is the ultimate reason people should believe according to the New Testament, without the virgin birth explanation for the Incarnation, there becomes potential for erosion of the doctrine of Incarnation. In early church history, the belief arose that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at His baptism. It is possible that may have arisen very early in the Church so that Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include information about Jesus’ miraculous birth. The question surrounding this idea is whether they constructed the virgin birth idea post-hoc or they referenced memories and traditions the Church already had but had never felt it important to record initially.7 The inclusion of the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke is perhaps an attempt to protect against heresy rather than a persuasive evangelistic proof of Jesus’ identity.

To that end, I can agree with Andy Stanley’s preaching and purpose. He is trying to bring people to faith; he is not trying to present a set of coherent, theological propositions that exclude heresy from the start. While I can not vouch that this is the method for Stanley, fleshing out the theological system is more the work of the whole process of discipleship. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with teaching and preaching on the Virgin Birth around Christmas time; at the same time, it doesn’t have the the same type and level of significance for the Biblical witnesses as resurrection does.

Nevertheless, the Virgin Birth has been deemed as important by Christian tradition, being a part of one of our earliest creeds, the Apostles’ Creed. Tradition has ascribed a vital role the virgin birth, which has played the role of making the connection of it with the Incarnation more explicit and robust. For those who highly emphasize the traditions of orthodoxy, they will be tempted to raise the important of the virgin birth on par with the resurrection given their co-occurence in the creeds without any differentiation.  However, theological traditions do not play as vital of a role in the Southern Baptist denomination, and Stanley has expressed frustration with theologians and theological ideas in the past as missing the point. As a result, Stanley’s emphasis on Scripture with differing importance attached to the various parts of Scripture will come into tension with the early creedal traditions that does not express any difference in importance between the points this explicitly affirm.

To summarize, how important the Virgin Birth is to Christian faith in large part comes down to how important people view the different sources of theology. The more equal every part of Scripture is considered, the more important the Virgin Birth will be. The higher role given to church tradition, the more important the Virgin Birth will be. But if one values Scripture to the near exclusion of importance of tradition and one does not see every word of Scripture having the same importance, then Andy Stanley is right on point. To that end, insofar as Andy Stanley is simply saying the Virgin Birth isn’t the most central doctrine of the Christian faith, resurrection is, he resonates with the early apostolic message more. In the end, if you are a Protestant who emphasizes Scripture above other sources of theology, including tradition, and understanding Scripture is about knowing the message about God and Jesus that Biblical writers proclaimed and testified to, then Andy is being consistent.

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/12/24/megachurch-pastor-ignites-debate-after-suggesting-christianity-doesnt-hinge-on-jesus-birth/?utm_term=.9f594342ea7b []
  2. I graduated from Asbury []
  3. Edit: I previously and wrongly attributed Stanley’s church to the SBC. Northpoint is a non-denominational church. []
  4. The Greek word for Lord, κυριος, is the word used in the Septuagint to translate the name of God, YHWH []
  5. John 20:24-28 []
  6. Luke 1:35 []
  7. I would suggest it was a memory, not a post-hoc construction, although there was not a single, unified collection of narratives surrounding the virgin birth that Matthew and Luke had access to []

The Flesh and the Shadow Self

Paul’s notion of the flesh (σαρχ in the Greek) is perhaps one of the most important concepts for understanding New Testament, particularly Paul. Matter of fact, it may be the most important concept for Paul’s theological anthropology, as ‘flesh’ describes the universal state of human life. While ‘flesh’ has been understood as sinful nature (as the NIV used to translate it as), this seems to metonymic confusion, where the product is confused with the producer. Fleshing out (pun intended) Paul’s usage of flesh would discover many related concepts beyond sin; it is used in reference to genealogy,1 circumcision,2 mortality,3 desires,4, and rebellion.5 While it is certainly related to sin in being a cause of sin, if not the vessel of sin,6 flesh is not reduced to the idea of simply being a sinful nature. Its wide range of associations suggests it represents the very embodied, material existence of human life. ‘Flesh’ is the very stuff of which human life is made and constituted, and it is very stuff that leads us to disobedience from God according to Paul

The manner in which it leads to sin and disobedience to God is implied in Romans 7:5, where Paul attributes “sinful passions” to the flesh. The Greek word for passions (πάθημα) refers to inner feelings.7. The problem of the flesh is strongly related to the problem of human emotions. Emotions are the bodily, physiological response we have to events that motivates us to think, act, and speak in a particular way. Anger motivates desires for vengeance and retribution. Fear motivates fleeing responses.  Sexual attraction motivates seeking sexual activity. As such, emotions are deeply related to desires, just as Paul associates them in Galatians 5:24.

Unfortunately, Christian tradition has made a habit of associated the presence of desires as sin: to feel sexual attraction is lust, to wish for a correction of injustice is to be unforgiving, etc. This is most readily expressed is teaching young teenage males not to “lust” after women because the thought is sinful and adulterous.8 Likewise, the feeling of anger and wanting recompense towards someone can be interpreted as a lack of forgiveness. This leads to a set of emotional norms we place on Christians to not feel and think certain ways because they are in and of themselves sinful.

However, Paul’s usage of the word we translate as “desires”9 does not seem to function well to describe the mere presence of some emotionally laden goal we want. Rather, it is associated with strong, excessive expressions. In Romans 13:13-14, Paul connects “reveling and drunkenness,” “debauchery and licentiousness,” and “quarreling and jealousy” with the flesh and it’s ‘desires.’  To want to feel good and celebrate can lead to excessive partying and consumption; to want to fulfill sexual desires can lead to excessive sexual behaviors; to want to better one’s life can lead us to fight against others who would prevent that or have what we want. Nevertheless, Paul does not seem to be referring to existence of desire, but its unrestrained pursuits and expressions. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a nixing of desires, but is more of the regulation of one’s desires to good expression and ends.

However, due to the tendency for us followers of Jesus to judge certain emotional and motivational states, we explicitly and implicit forbid certain ideas from coming into our conscious awareness by either trying to control our thoughts10 or by distraction. As such, the many desires that come from our embodied existence get placed into what the psychoanalytic tradition, particularly the Jungian branch of psychoanalysis, refers to as the shadow self. Robert A. Johnson defines the shadow self as “that dumping ground for all those characteristics of our personality that we disown.”11 Put another way, we are not aware of every motivation and desire that comes from our body; when we try to distract ourselves from and ignore certain desires, it still exists in the body but it is not a part of our understanding about our own selfs. As a result, so far as we are successful in controlling the desires we are conscious of, we become unaware of all those goes on inside ourselves and instead begin to idealize ourselves as better than we would if we saw ourselves accurately.

The reality about the body, however, is that while consciously thinking about something can increase the desire, not thinking about it will not necessarily reduce the wants, passions, motivations, and desires. The flesh as the spring of desires does what it does, apart from our intentionality to be different. This is along the lines of the very struggle the Apostle Paul laments in Romans 7:14-25. If we try to control the desires of the flesh by ignoring these desires, then it leads to a problem. When satiation is delayed, our physiology will adapt; most of the time the adaptation prioritizes the delayed need or want even more than previously. The most salient example of this is hunger. We may push the desire for food out of our minds for a while if we are not in a place to eat, but eventually the body will compel itself upon ourselves and we will be focused on finding nourishment. What exists in the shadow will eventually come to the light. As Johnson says, “If [the shadow self] accumulates more energy than our ego, it erupts as an overpowering rage or some indiscretion that slips past us; or we have a depression or an accident that seems to have its own purpose.”12 Paul employs the metaphor of athletic training and disciplining the body.13 Living one’s life for the sake of the Gospel14 entails an active part in controlling what could get in one’s way. Similarily, in light of freedom from sin that Christ provides,15 Christians should submit their bodies as instruments of righteousness to live out that freedom and realize it in sanctification.16 Paul’s point is an active dedication to what God ultimately wants is the pathway to following Jesus; it is not built upon distracting and avoiding the desires of the flesh but actively dedicating ourselves to the will and desire of God. For those in Christ, the way to overcome the excess that comes from the desires of the flesh is to a) not making any provision for the flesh by not justify the excess as we are so often want to do17 and b) actively dedicated our lives and bodies to a different direction providing for us in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This does not eliminate the desires we have as embodied creatures, but it confines them to appropriate fulfillments (food in moderation, sex in the confines of marriage, expression of anger without retaliation, etc.)

This means, however, that we have to be aware of our “shadow self.” This means a humility to recognize that in reality we are not as much in comformity to our ideals as we might wish we were. Few things can be more threatening to our pride in ourselves than the idea that we are not the person we idealize ourselves to be. For instance, a narcissistic individual may idealize them as cool, calm, and in control when their behaviors are being impacted by their own feelings. It can be even more agonizing to struggle with vanquishing a feeling or desire in pursuit of perfection and to find it will not go away. For years, I remember praying to God and asking for the gift of celibacy because the idea of sexual desire was threatening, for both the reason of the standard evangelical struggle with sexuality and due to recent traumas from the past. The struggle to conquer this “disowned” aspect of humanity, beyond not being healthy was ineffective. It can even operate to be counter-productive as desire can potentially be sated by substitutes, such as recognized in the process of sublimation where unwanted desires are channeled in a different direction, but the failure to recognize these desires means these alternative and healthy avenues of satiation are far from personal intentions. For instance, anger can be channeled with the imprecatory psalms18 where desires for vengeance are not enacted, but simply expressed to God to allow God to choose to fulfill or not. However, in denying anger, one can not take the intentions to engage in a ritual acknowledgement and symbolic act in conformity to the desires of the shadow.19

Overcoming the control of the flesh and circumventing the uncontrolled expression of a shadow self entails both safe and appropriately direct expression of desires and the dedication of our body and actions to the higher goals that the Spirit of God leads us into. This is no easy task. It is even impossible on our own, because as ‘enfleshed’ creatures, we can not possibly serve God on our own. However, that is precisely the significance of the Incarnation that we celebrate this Christmas! As Carolyn Moore over at the Art of Holiness says in her blog post The most profound theological truth you will hear this Christmas..., 

And because he has made perfect peace with these two parts of himself, he is able — Spirit-Man — to offer us both pattern and permission to find peace with our two halves. Jesus has accomplished in his body through the perfect union of divinity and humanity what we all long for most: peace.

In other words, Jesus is the answer to that fight that goes on inside us. The one answer with power to speak peace into the divided mess that is us is the perfect union of Father with Son — of deity with humanity. Because he has broken through that barrier for us and now lives in perfect unity within himself, Jesus — fully God, fully man — has carved out our pathway to peace.

For the the Gospel of John, the Word became flesh20 and for the  Apostle Paul, Jesus takes on the likeness of sinful flesh.21 It is precisely this reality of God in the flesh, Jesus Christ that provides the freedom from the problem of the flesh and sin. Romans 7:14-24 climaxes with a cry for freedom from the body and its control over one’s own actions; Paul outlines that Jesus is the solution in Romans 7:25-8:4, as His humanity allows for our obedience through the Holy Spirit.

As a result, fighting against the flesh and bringing to light the shadow in a holy way is not a matter of simply self-will and practice; it is something that we must be freed to live into by Christ and guided through by the Holy Spirit.22 If being enfleshed means we are on our own incapable of obeying God, then every attempt on our own to attain wholeness and holiness will simply be the result of moving one desire out of the shadow by moving another into its place as so much of our desires conflict with each other. Only in a new, fresh direction that transcends (but not ignores) our embodied reality can we direct ourselves away from giving any desire of the flesh prominence and thus excess and ignoring the rest to lurking shadows of our self. Therefore, Paul’s mini-treatise on being lead by the Spirit in Romans 8:1-17 transitions in a cry creation looking for redemption of the body; the struggle against the desires, and the sufferings that are connected to desires, is not ultimately through self-control, symbolic action, distraction, etc. but through the realizing of the new creation first enacted in the resurrected Christ being realized in our own selves.

  1. Romans 4:1 []
  2. Galatians 3:3 in light of Galatians 5:2-4 []
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:50 []
  4. Romans 13:14 []
  5. Romans 8:7-8 []
  6. As in Romans 7:17-18 []
  7. Sometimes the inner feeling reference is the feeling of suffering, as it is frequently used in reference to Jesus’ sufferings or even later in Paul in Romans 8:18 []
  8. Jesus’ reference to adultery of the heart in Mtathew 5:27-28 is a reference to directing one’s sexual desires towards a married woman, as adultery was traditionally defined; it is not a reference to the sexual imagination but to what people does one direct the sexual imagination towards. []
  9. επιθυμὶα []
  10. which is generally unsuccessful []
  11. Owning Your Shadow Self, Kindle location 32 []
  12. Ibid., 3)

    However, in addressing the flesh, Paul does not employ a plan of avoidance of desires. Prior to warning the Corinthians about following the behaviors of the Israelites in the wilderness, ((1 Corinthians 10 []

  13. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 []
  14. As Paul mentions is his goal prior in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 []
  15. Romans 6:1-12 []
  16. Romans 6:19 []
  17. “Who is this going to hurt?” “It really isn’t that big of a deal!” []
  18. Psalm 137 is one of the most well-known and shocking imprecatory psalms []
  19. Ibid. 19 []
  20. John 1:14 []
  21. Romans 8:3 []
  22. I often says that in Christ we have the potential of holiness and through being lead by the Spirit, holiness becomes actualized []

The Gospel of Liberation vs. the gospel of emotional imperatives

Don’t be scared! Calm down! Don’t get angry! Be happy, not sad! These and a littany of other emotional imperatives are common in our day to day life. We hear them as funerals when well-intentioned people try to encourage the family of the departed. When someone is visibly emotional, a reactive “cool it” may be uttered. We exist under a set of norms that dictate what type of emotions are acceptable to express and when, if ever. Sometimes, we can control the emotions we feel and when we express it. If what we feel is only a twinge of pain that is on the margin of consciousness, then we can readily suppress our feelings and never notice any effects from it. We can only suppress stronger emotions for a short time period, but we will almost inevitably be tempted come back to the feelings and memory of the triggering events soon. However, in the end, we are not in conscious control of our emotions, only how we experience, express, and direct our emotions.

While these emotional norms may seem burdensome, they are often times the social glue that keeps people together. If one shows and expresses anger every time a friend says some innocuous that mildly irks you, that friendship will not likely last much longer. Suppressing emotions is a vital part of our social. connected life. However, the net effect is that it leaves us feeling more isolated the more we hold back. So suppressing emotions is often a balancing act between authenticity and connectedness; too much suppression may make the relationship feel fraudulent, while too little suppression may ruin the existence of the relationship.

Furthermore, we are deeply aware of the dysfunctionality of emotional haywire, whether it be depression, the persistently low-self esteem of an endlessly shamed person, persistent anxiety, etc. Even though the more adept at helping to heal those people with these conditions don’t speak explicit emotional imperatives, there is an understood emotional norm we place upon people that say they should not be sad, ashamed, anxious, scared, etc. We all have a deep sense of norms about what we should feel, when we should feel it, and how we should express it.

The end result is that we may be tempted to simply promote a gospel of emotional imperatives. We Christians are often times very eager to employ emotional imperatives. These well-intentioned imperatives are geared towards helping people managing the emotions we feel should not exist. “Do not fear!” may be followed up with a Scriptural quotation from 1 John 4:18 saying, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” The Scriptures are employed as a source for emotional imperatives that are supposed to have authority or influence on our feelings in the moment. It is as if being a Christian and committing your life to Scripture is supposed to make you able to control your emotions. But I would suggest the predominant way we employ Scripture to manage our emotions is different from how Scripture calls people into a different emotional experience.

Take Isaiah 35:4, part of the lectionary reading for this upcoming Sunday in Advent. There is an emotional imperative provided there: “Be strong! Do not fear!”However, the emotional imperative is based upon a different appeal. What follows is a vision of what is happening. God is about to come to take care of the evildoers and save the innocent. The emotional imperative is provided, but the reason for people to shift their emotions is due to what God is doing. In order for people to feel as they should, God is going to act to end the injustice. This not a call to emotional suppression, however. Instead, it is what one may refer to as a cognitive reframing: God is doing something, so I should not fear. The management of emotions is grounded upon the action of God, not naked authority.

Looking closer at 1 John 4:18, it is not a naked emotional imperative about feeling love instead of fear. Rather, in context, it is more of a descriptive statement about one’s spiritual state based upon God’s love. John follows by saying “We love because God first loved us.”1 The perfected love that drives out fear is not simply our love. It is not a matter of controlling our emotions in order to vanquish fear. Rather, it is a matter of living and receiving God’s love, which draws love out from us. It is God’s love that perfects us, not our own attempts to makes ourselves love. As God’s perfect love ensues within us, our love is perfected and fear of punishment is vanquished. God’s action is the groundwork of the new, emotional experience.

There are emotional imperatives in the Bible, but the emotional imperatives are based upon God’s action to redeem us. The Gospel is not a set of emotional imperatives about trust, love, fear, hatred, etc. The Gospel is about God’s liberating action in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit that creates trust and love, casts out fear and hatred, and overcomes guilt and shame. Adherence to emotional imperatives are a result of seeing God in action and then trusting, not simply saying one should feel differently because Scripture says so. The Gospel of Liberation in Jesus Christ impacts how we process emotions, not dictating what emotions we should and should not feel. Liberation assumes divergence from the ideal and so there is grace and mercy that accepts, but not celebrates or justifies, the reality of dysfunctional emotions. However, the danger in our modern society that is deeply aware of our inner, emotional realities is trying to employ Scripture as a set of emotional norms rather than as a story of God’s actions that can produce within us a set of emotions. Scripture becomes a way to manipulate and control our feelings rather than as a source of understanding to hope in the One who liberates us. Instead of being the decisive way to be spiritually formed, Scripture becomes a mere authority of imperatives.

In the end, the emphasis of Scripture and the Gospel is on God’s action, not on our inner realities; how we employ Scripture and how we direct and encourage our brothers and sisters who struggle with various emotions should reflect the liberating realities.

  1. 1 John 4:19 []

Grappling with forgiveness

Forgiveness is one of the most difficult, if not at times, the most difficult part of following Jesus. It is one thing to struggle with what one wants and to sacrifice our desires to God; these struggles of the flesh are difficult but I would suggest it is generally to offer those up as a sacrifice. However, it is another thing to have to forgive someone, particularly when the violation and hurt cuts deep to a person’s heart. The deepest violations and betrayals cuts against the most basic part of our life lived together: trust. The reknowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the very first stage of life is about developing trust. Since we are social creatures to our core, trust plays such a vital role in life together; it is the very foundation of healthy relationships, families, organizations, and even nations. So when something happens in our life that cuts at the very foundation of what it means to be human, we can find it hard to find a place for those who betrayed us.

Nevertheless, Jesus’ lifts up forgiveness as one of the central, if not the most important, aspects of discipleship. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 finds it’s rhetorical center at the Lord’s Prayer, after which Jesus immediately exhorts others to forgive or they will not be forgiven.

Herein lies the dilemma: In cases of serious victimization, it is next to impossible for a person to get rid of the feelings of anger, hurt, and loss of trust. The amygdala, the part of the brain that processes fear, does not extinguish the connection to the source of memories; those memories will last for a lifetime. One of the main routes for managing the regulation of the feelings of threat is via the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for processing memories. In effect, when one remembers a threatening part of their life, people have to access memories that counter those feelings of fear in order to mange fear. One has to experience a threatening reality in an unthreatening way and rehearse the feeling of safety in the midst of the memories of violation. As a result, the feelings of hurt do not vanish; they remain and linger, even after recovery. So how can a person forgive like Jesus calls us to forgive if the feelings can linger long after the harm has been done?

One option may be to say that the Holy Spirit gives us the ability to forgive. However, the experience of many devout and genuine followers of Jesus who have not experienced a deliverance from wounds of days past suggest that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is not a magical answer to the psychological and neurological realities of deep violations of trust.

Another option would be to say that forgiveness is not about emotions but simply behavior in not extracting revenge. While I would suggest this is the beginnings of the answer, it doesn’t go far enough. In Jesus’ Parable of the unforgiving Servant1, Jesus concludes by saying that one should forgive “from the heart.” While the ‘heart’ was not seen as the center of emotions, it would be considered the center of a person’s inner life. This would include thoughts and emotions. So forgiveness for Jesus extends beyond the external aspects of behavior into the inner person, which impinges on the emotional life.

So how then can one who has been deeply hurt find a place for forgiveness if it isn’t a miracle of the Holy Spirit (but no doubt a process that the Spirit can lead us through) yet it does extend into one’s feelings about others?

The answer lies within the wisdom of Jesus’ own teaching. While Jesus was not legalist, Jesus’ teaching suggests he saw the wisdom of heart change coming through behavior. For instance, in teaching people to avoid hate, Jesus does not call people to control their emotions, but calls forth a practice of praying for one’s enemies.2 By taking action in opposition to one’s feelings, one can begin to process feelings differently. In the literature on cognitive dissonance, it has long been noted that people’s actions tend to cause change in people’s beliefs and feelings. If you feel one way but yet act differently, your feelings will begin to change to align with your behaviors. Likewise, the way to forgiveness is through the action of benevolence and kindness, not in trying to directly manage and suppress emotions.

Upon closer examination of Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, we can infer the role of action in forgiveness. In discussing the King who forgives his servant a debt, the emotional state of the King is mentioned; he is said to have pity when he forgives the debt and is said to have anger when he decides to hold the servant accountable. When it comes to King figure who is an analog for God, the emotions are mentioned and they lead to the behavior that follows. However, when it comes the unforgiving servant, there is no reference to his inner, emotional state as he refuses to forgive the debt of another servant. He is described simply in terms of behavior and words. Yet, Jesus drawing the parable to talk about forgiveness from the heart is making a reference to our internal part. This suggests the beginning of forgiveness is the relationship between the inner and the outer.

Synthesizing these insights I would suggest the following: inner intentionality in the heart to forgive leads to outer behavioral actions of forgiveness, which then leads to an inner reformulation of the heart. Furthermore, that inner intentionality starts from a deeper inner attitude connect to our dedication to Jesus. As a) our devotion to Christ guides us to value mercy over vengeance, it guides b) our intentionality to act consistent with forgiveness that then c) becomes enacted through various practices of forgiveness, resulting in d) a resolution of the cognitive dissonance between emotion and action by reforming our feelings more in line with the action. However, since deeply felt attitudes such as distrust don’t change immediately, sometimes the intention and action to forgive has to occur multiple times; this is particuarly true if a victim has to repeatedly endure the costs that the violation has had on their life.

Having personally dealt with and still dealing with this in my life with the deep hurts of the past, I would suggest the following points:

1) To forgive deeply starts with a devotion to Jesus and being led by God’s Spirit – One must have a commitment to mercy rooted in our trust in God before one can resist the desire for vengeance and retribution with a contrasting desire for forgiveness. We must be motivated to forgive already, otherwise the experience of anger and hurt will lead us to seek and believe various justifications for enacting vengeance and retribution. Reminding oneself of the very way Jesus lived his life and letting our mind be drawn into the Spirit-led imagining of life and peace serves as the moral and spiritual foundation of forgiveness.

2) With the deepest of hurts, you will have to retake the intention to forgive again and again – There is no easy way to forgive sometimes. In the worst instances, each time of remembering is a little act of revictimization, so one must take those steps again and again to counter the potentially building rage. Over time, our heart and mind can slowly stitch things together.

3) Don’t measure your forgiveness by how much you feel the anger, and don’t accept other’s judgment of the presence of anger as the lack of forgiveness – In a society that wants quick and easy results and in cases where the offender has a vested interest in the victim overcoming their feelings, resist the temptation to assess your faithfulness by how often you feel the anger, fear, and hurt. The Gospel is not a gospel of emotional management, but it is a Gospel of liberation; sometimes that liberation happens over the course of time.

4) Do not feel guilted or manipulated by statements that imply the continuing presence of anger is hurting you – You may hear statements such as “Forgiveness is good for the soul.” While certainly, it is true that learning how to forgive can improve one’s life and outcomes, it doesn’t happen by directly controlling the emotions you feel and pasting over them. It happens by the Spirit-lead-and-motivated processing of the offenses as we move back towards the fundamental position of trust, most particularly towards God. However, I would suggest that overcoming of anger comes when one has overcome the hurt and accepted the reality moving forward. The resolution of anger is the result of a healthy approach, not the cause of it.

5) Forgiveness does not mean failing to speak the truth – Forgiveness should never be justification to cloak an offense, particularly if it is an egregious offense that suggests a fundamental danger to oneself or others in the future. Ceasing vengeance is not the same as ceasing to speak about what happened or getting help if the situation is continuing. While our speaking out against the offenders can readily bleed over into a subtle desire for retribution, wisdom can lead us to discern where, when, and how it is appropriate to speak about the offense without enacting vengeance. In fact truth-telling in a context where one does not seek vengeance can be an act of forgiveness, as we uncouple the memory of what happened from an intention to act with hostility.

6) Forgiveness is a matter of our heart and not about keeping the status quo – Forgiveness is an act of mercy where we do not seek retribution or further recompense on our behalf from the offenders; it is not about blindly maintaining or restoring the same patterns of relationships and authority. If a person has acted in such an egregious and abusive manner that there is a fundamental lack of trustworthiness for them to continue in the same relationship or power that they have, change may be necessary. Maintain and restoring trust is different from avoiding retribution. While the act of forgiveness does seek to keep a basic dignity for the offender, that dignity may necessarily be enjoined with various forms of accountability and restrictions.

  1. Matthew 18:23-35 []
  2. Matthew 5:44 []