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 our 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, or 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. His 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 Thes 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.