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Roger Ailes, the late founder and president of Fox News, famously said, “People do not want to be informed, they want to feel informed.” This may explain why a 2012 Fairleigh Dickinson University study found Fox News viewers were less informed about current events than those who don’t follow the news at all. By no means is this phenomenon limited to conservative media, however. The same elevation of feelings over facts is evident among progressives too. For example, social media is full of those eager to take a stand against some injustice by liking a post, retweeting, or changing their avatar to affirm the cause du jour. Such cheap signaling allows a person to feel virtuous without actually having to be virtuous.
We shouldn’t be surprised to discover this same dynamic flowing into our spiritual lives. Even a brief exploration of the American church will reveal a disproportionate emphasis on feelings, emotions, and sentimentality. Studies have shown that most people choose a church not based on its beliefs or denomination, but on the music performed and the magnetism of the preacher. In other words, we're focused on how the church makes us feel, rather than on whether it's actually helping us obey Jesus. Likewise, over the last 30 years, we've witnessed a steady decline in theological teaching in churches and a predictable rise in biblical illiteracy—including among regular churchgoers. This is a stark departure from earlier Christian communities that emphasized the teaching of doctrine, spiritual disciplines, and participation in the life and liturgy of the church. In the past, being a Christian was defined by what you do not simply how you feel.
This prioritization of emotions over actions within consumer Christianity has deeply impacted the way we read and apply Jesus’ metaphor in John 15 about the vine and branches. Jesus repeatedly calls his disciples to "abide in me." Drawing on the metaphor, he said, "As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me" (John 15:4). He goes on to use the word abide, or in some translations remain, ten times in these few verses. Obviously, Jesus is emphasizing a very important point that hinges entirely on how we understand the command to abide in him. This is where our culture's emphasis on feelings can lead us astray.
I've most often heard John 15 taught as a call to an inner, emotional connection with Christ. We assume that to abide in Christ necessitates warm feelings of attachment as we call to mind soft Sunday school images of Jesus carrying a lamb or remember the goosebumps we felt at a particularly powerful worship event. If that's what it means to abide in Christ, then our goal will become the perpetuation of warm emotions—which is precisely what some ministries are designed to do. As we become acclimated to the emotional stimulation, however, like a drug addict, we will find that we need stronger, more concentrated doses to feel the same connection to God. So, we hunt for new and novel forms of spirituality—a more engaging preacher, a better worship production, or a secret teaching that our old church didn't engage.
Of course, feelings of intimacy with God are wonderful and we should receive them when they occur with gladness. They are part of his grace to us and a healthy part of a life in communion with him, but is that what Jesus meant when he said, "Abide in me"? There are two important and obvious problems with defining abide emotionally. First, Jesus' statement in John 15 is an imperative command. In other words, abiding is something he believed we can willingly choose. Emotions, however, are notoriously unpredictable and fleeting. To command his followers to continually feel his presence is both nonsensical because emotions cannot be chosen, and cruel because he indicates we will be judged for failing to do so. Second, within the same metaphor and just a few verses later, Jesus defines what abiding in him means by comparing it to the way he abides in the Father. "If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love" (John 15:10). Jesus was clear that we abide in him by choosing to obey his commands. Simply put, abiding is an action, not an emotion.
Once we recognize how consumer spirituality focuses on our feelings, and how Jesus focuses on our behavior, the shortcomings of pop Christianity begin to make perfect sense. Many of our churches are not designed to help us actually do what Jesus commanded in the world, but to help us escape emotionally from the world—if only temporarily for a few hours on the weekend. We may leave church with a renewed sense of the divine, or we may even feel on fire for God, but few are bothered when these sentiments do not translate into any actual change in behavior. This is because consumer Christianity is designed to give us what we want rather than what we need. To paraphrase Roger Ailes' credo, most people do not want to be righteous, they just want to feel righteous.
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Prayer of the Week:
From Thomas à Kempis (1380 - 1471)
O God the Holy Spirit, most loving Comforter of the fainthearted, I pray that you will always turn what is evil in me into good and what is good into what is better; turn my mourning into joy, my wandering feet into the right path, my ignorance into knowledge of your truth, my lukewarmness into zeal, my fear into love, all my material good into a spiritual gift, all my earthly desires into heavenly desires, all that is transient into what lasts forever, everything human into what is divine, everything created and finite into that sovereign and immeasurable good, which you yourself are, O my God and Savior.