Softening a Rigid Emotional Life

The faces I see each Sunday morning are often rigid from the week's tension, frozen against our society's assaults -- inhuman rudeness, aggression, and indifference. In their tension, these people yearn for a renewed emotional life. Their yearning is broadly shared. Quadrivium offers excellent comments (here) on the self-destructive behavior of celebrities. All the pampering money can buy does nothing to renew them. At the other end of the spectrum, Quadrivium notes that in one region of south Wales, thirteen young people have committed suicide over the past year.

When we see this kind of despair, we're tempted to extol the joys of life in Christ, the pure pleasures of the Spirit. But such generalizations won't help me minister to Sunday's faces.

Christian joy is not otherworldly. It is practical, a matter of investing time and focus.

Tim Challies gives a glimpse of one kind of investment here. He interviews Makoto Fujimura, a New York-based artist, about how his artwork is an extension of his faith in Christ. At one point, Fujimura refers to an international group he has formed and says, "We believe that God desires to re-humanize the world via the arts and creative expression, and we want to create a home for folks wrestling with deep issues of art, faith and humanity."

That got some comments.

One participant questioned the idea "that God desires to re-humanize the world via the arts." Is it biblical? We evangelicals are suspicious of creativity. So when we hear the phrase "re-humanize the world via the arts" we tend to smell liberalism. I wonder why. No one cares more about re-humanizing the world than the God of the Bible. He provided creativity as a tool for our emotional refreshment.

If evangelicals pushed the drab and stale things out of this world through the arts, they would be more potent evangelists. Fujimura's paintings took my breath away.

God has given us another tool for refreshment -- the Bible itself. His word was not inspired only to instruct our minds, or to command our wills. It was also inspired to change the way we feel. I say this because God chose to reveal his truth through high literary art. Take the Psalms.

Dale Fincher brings us a quote from Kathleen Norris here. She writes,

The value of this great songbook of the Bible lies not in the fact that singing praise can alleviate pain but that the painful images we find there are essential for praise, that without them, praise is meaningless.

Norris is right. We cannot express the greatness of God without reflecting on the depth of our sins, needs, and losses. That is why the most troubling moments in the Psalms can be the most edifying.

The emotional impact of the Psalms comes from several artistic devices.

The Psalms use structure to satisfy our emotions with balance and completion. On a broad scale, for instance, Psalm 103 both begins and ends with the words, "Bless the Lord, O my soul!" The words are bookends for the poem. On a small scale, Psalm 103 exhibits the classic parallel lines of Hebrew poetry: "He will not always strive with us, nor will he keep his anger forever." The second line is a reflective pool under the first.

The Psalms also use imagery to lift truth into liveliness. Psalm 103 says that in the Lord "your youth is renewed like the eagle." It pictures the greatness of God's love: "as high as the heavens are above the earth." It gives the power of God's forgiveness a spatial measurement: "As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

And much of the Psalms' imagery expresses pain. Psalm 103 says that God "is mindful that we are but dust."

Still another way the Psalms affect our emotions is through allusions -- references to other parts of scripture. For example, Psalm 103.8 is a partial quotation of Exodus 34.6. "The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness." The psalm summons the scene of God forgiving Israel for its idolatry with the golden calf.

We can gain this emotional power if we invest time and focus in God's word. The Bible is not only a source of truth, but a source of beauty. If we really believe the doctrine of inspiration, then we realize that God inspired the Bible's genres, forms, and images to impress his character on our feelings.

What people need on Sundays is to have their rigid emotional lives softened by the beauty -- the sometimes dark beauty -- of God's word.