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Distinguishing Between Affections

This entry is part 16 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

A Christian understanding of the affections emphasizes the centrality of the affections in the Christian life, and distinguishes it from modern notions of emotion. Beyond that, restoring a Christian view of the affections requires distinguishing between the kinds of affections.

If the affections are our hearts’ expressions of value or response to the nature and worth of what we encounter, then it is possible for those affections to correspond or fail to correspond. When a magistrate enters the court, a corresponding – or appropriate – response is to stand out of respect. To break out into screeching, hysterical laughter, would not correspond to the office of a magistrate or the occasion. This would be inappropriate.

Our goal as leaders is to persuade people that the Bible is filled with examples of ordinate (appropriate) and inordinate (inappropriate) affections. When teaching through the Scripture, these can be pointed out, and questions for reflection can be asked. For example:

* What kind of joy was taking place in Exodus 32:6, 17-19? How is this different to David’s joy in 1 Samuel 6:14?

* What sort of fear is encouraged in Proverbs 8:13? How is this different to the fear of 1 John 4:18?

* What kind of anger did Jesus display in John 2:14-16? How is this different to Ephesians 4:30-31 anger?

* Paul contrasts two kinds of sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7:10. How are they different, and why?

* Contrast the kind of love the Pharisees had with the kind of love that Jesus had in John 12:43. How are these loves different?

* How did Paul want the love of the Philippians to grow, as recorded in his prayer in 1:9-11? Why or how would this result in “approving the things that are excellent”?

* Explain the difference between revelry (Rom 13:13) and rejoicing (Phil 4:4).

* Explain the difference between sober worship and sombre worship.

Another helpful start to this discussion is C.S. Lewis’ The Four Loves. Here the reader is introduced to the idea that there are at least four kinds of love, loves which differ in nature, degree and object. I would recommend including this book in a church library, at least as a conversation starter. Beyond that, tackling Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections will also help explain the difference between appropriate and inappropriate affection.

As communicators, pastors would do well to work on finding the right word for the right affection. What kind of joy? It could be flippant, hilarious, jolly, amused, playful, satisfied, exuberant, raucous, exultant, relieved, triumphant or many other kinds. What kind of fear? It could be horror, terror, despair, dread, timidity, panic, trepidation, intimidation, awe, caution, sobriety, reverence or many other kinds. Our goal is not merely to be experts in synonyms, but to find precisely the right nuance of affection. For this is the very point we are trying to make: there are kinds of ‘joy’ that are appropriate for some situations in life, but inappropriate for worship. There are some kinds of ‘love’ appropriate for some situations in life, but inappropriate for worship. Once again, the object determines the nature of our response, and the response can correspond of fail to do so.

And here is why we believe this to be so important: in the long run, inordinate affection is not only an incorrect response, it ultimately leads to idolatry. To respond to God with the kind of love you give a soft toy is not only an egregious error in itself, it ultimately leads to imagining God in just that way. It cannot be otherwise: the Christian who imagines God as dreadful, majestic and beautiful does not express that view of God with nursery rhymes and cutesy songs. The Christian who keeps speaking to God like an intimate lover cannot help imagining Him that way.

To put it another way, ordinate affection is essential to knowing the truth. When people love the wrong things, or love the right things wrongly, it begins a process of warping their understanding and perceptions. This is clearly seen in Romans 1:18-32, where the choice to love creature rather than Creator resulted in increasing foolishness. We end up becoming like whatever we worship (Ps 115:8).

Positively speaking, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the beginning of knowledge (Prov 9:10, 1:7). When we love God ordinately, and express it in obedience, the result is increasing knowledge (John 7:17) and discernment (Heb 5:14).  This is why the matter of ordinate affection is essential to Christianity. This is why churches that want to conserve Christianity care to conserve it.

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About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.