Dear Church Family,
In our adult Sunday school class, we are studying the elements of God’s program of guidance as taught in the Scriptures. Of course, the first and only rule of faith and obedience are the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (WLC 1:3). Scripture is the only rule, but there are other elements by which God gives us guidance. The next priority of God’s program of guidance that we will examine in our class is ‘a heart for God.’
The immediate problem of developing a heart for God, and then listening to your heart, is that this is an abstraction. Scripture contains words, sentences, ideas, but listening to one’s heart (feelings, impressions, desires, etc.) can be both confusing and dangerous. So, it’s helpful if we can arrive at some definitions and distinctions. We’ll be talking about this more in our Sunday school class, but as I’ve been reading, studying, and thinking on these things, I was reminded of a miscommunication problem that my wife and I had when we were first married (stick with me – there’s a point, I promise).
Window-units and Central Air Conditioning
When my wife and I were first married, like all couples, there were some adjustments. One of these adjustments was with regard to how we adjusted the thermostat in our home. She would say, “Would you turn up the air conditioning, please?” To which I would respond, “Do you mean that you want it to be colder or warmer?” Then, she’d respond, “It’s too cold, I would like you to make it warmer, of course.”
The confusion in our conversations arose because I grew up in the north, in a home in which we didn’t have central air conditioning. Our house was heated by steam that ran through the pipes throughout the house. Everyone in the house knew when the heat came on because you could hear the hissing sound of the steam and the knocking of the pipes and the air in them expanding from the heat.
But in the summer, we had window-unit air-conditioning (if at all). This meant that when you asked someone to “turn the air conditioning up, please” you were asking them to increase the power on the air-conditioning window unit and thereby making it colder in the room. But, when you have central air conditioning (as I’ve come to learn), “turn the air conditioning up, please” usually means “make it warmer.” This seems strange to me.
This confusion is the result of us speaking about two different instruments, but thinking that we are speaking about the same thing. For those who grew up with window units, we are speaking about the power knob on the air-conditioning. For those who grew up with central air, we are speaking about the thermostat on the central air controller.
Affections guide Emotions (or Passions)
A similar thing happens sometimes when we speak about affections and emotions. However, our confusion is not a result of being from different parts of the country. Our confusion is usually a result of using the world’s language and categories as opposed to the Bible’s language and categories. The problem is that, most of the time, our language is deficient.
Unfortunately, the categories of affections and emotions are commingled in our thinking today. Our language and thinking is imprecise. So, before we go any further, perhaps we ought to have some definitions. I use the term emotions to refer to the desires or feelings or passions which are a response to some sort of stimulus. For the world, this is the only guide and rule for living— “You can’t help who you fall in love with,” “I’m just doing what feels right and natural, and that can’t be wrong.”
The problem with this way of thinking is that “man’s every intention of the thoughts of his heart is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). Without Christ, men set their minds on the things of the flesh, set themselves in opposition to God and His law, and are unable to submit to His ways. Setting our minds on the flesh and following our misplaced emotions inevitably leads to death (Romans 8:6-8). For those who are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, these are sons of God. Those who have the Spirit of Christ belong to God and are able to deny the flesh and live by the Spirit. (Romans 8:9-14).
Most people know about and have a basic understanding of emotions. In fact, the world seems to have only one category for desires: emotions (the things which you cannot control). However, as I use the term affection, I am referring to desires which one may control. As in, “I have set my affections upon my wife, therefore I love her.” This is the Biblical understanding. In fact, it is what God does for His people: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:7). Does God feel love for His people, emotionally? Of course He does, but this is because He has first set His affection on His people.
[By the way, as I read the Westminster Standards, these distinctions between affections and emotions are made by employing the terms ‘affections’ and ‘passions.’ As in, one of the duties of the sixth commandment is “subduing all passions…which tend to the unjust taking away the life of any” (WLC 135). “Affections” is listed as one of the “powers of the soul” along with “the understanding and will” (WLC 99). So, affections may be vile (WLC 28) or heavenly (WLC 189), and these affections of ours influence our passions (or feelings).]
Ordering our Affections
So what’s a person to do? How does one order his affections and thereby begin to control his emotions? Well, Scripture is pretty clear: those who are in the flesh (without faith) cannot please God (Romans 8:8; Hebrews 11:6). By nature, mankind lives in the passions of their flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). Properly ordering one’s affections, therefore, is impossible for those who are outside of Christ. But, for the Christian – the one who has been born again, who abides in Christ as He abides in the Father – the believer may order his affections according to the Word and Spirit of God: “Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21).
Let’s think about that central air-conditioning again. In our home, we have a thermostat (it regulates the temperature in the house) and a thermometer (it measures the temperature in the house). Affections are the thermostat by which we set the temperature of our lives. We will feel, and people will see, the effects of our affections in the thermometer of our emotions or passions. We enter into trouble (death) when we begin letting our thermometer (emotions) set our thermostat (our affections). Rather, we ought to learn from the Scriptures how to rightly order our affections.
In the first chapter of Philippians, Paul writes that the fruit of righteousness (good works) come through Jesus Christ (v 11). These good works come from approving what is excellent (v 10). Being able to approve the right things, however, comes from a love (affection) which grows with knowledge and all discernment (v 9). So, as we follow the logic of these verses, we pursue sanctification by ordering our love according to the knowledge and discernment which we learn in Scripture (v 9). In this way, we will begin to rightly order our affections (“approve the things which are excellent” – v 10). The result is: “being filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (v 11).
If you want to live according to the Spirit, then set your mind on the things of the Spirit (Romans 8:5). This means that if we want to learn to be more like Christ, to love the things that He loves, then we need to study God’s Word and set our affections in accordance with His.
The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch