A Matter of the Heart
Connecting Emotionally With God
By Chris Tiegreen
"I feel like a new Christian," my friend told me. He wasn't—not at all. But like me, he had recently discovered a new dimension to his relationship with the Lord. God was showing both of us, as well as several of our friends, what it means to share His heart. It felt like a spiritual awakening.
This awakening couldn't have come at a better time for me. Not long before, I was almost at the end of my rope as a follower of Jesus—burned out and completely unmotivated. I felt dry, barren, and unfulfilled. For years, I had pleaded with God to help me know Him more deeply, and I'd done all the things my solid evangelical training had taught me to do. I studied the Bible, prayed persistently, obeyed as well as I knew how, read lots of good books on how to live the Christian life, and worked hard to make an impact for His kingdom. I gained a lot of head knowledge and did a lot of good things, but I still didn't feel connected to God. The "abundant life" I'd been promised didn't seem very abundant.
I had always been taught that the Christian life was simply knowing God's Word and doing it—a practical obedience that doesn't rely on desires and feelings. So anytime a personal preference or honest emotion would rise up within me, I would "take it to the cross" and leave it there.
After all, feelings have nothing to do with discipleship when it comes down to it, do they? I'd heard it preached plenty of times: Faith isn't a feeling, love isn't a feeling, you can't trust your feelings, and so on. No, discipleship was supposed to be about truth alone. And I was determined to live in it.
The Whole Person
What was wrong with my picture of Christian discipleship? Well, for starters, it completely ignored about a third of my personality—or anyone's God-given personality, no matter what temperament. We were created as complex people, our soul encompassing at least three main aspects of who we are: the mind, the will, and the emotions.
In Mark 12:30, Jesus made it clear that He desires us to love Him with all of us, yet the discipleship I was trained to ascribe to emphasized only the mind and the will. I'd been taught that what we need most is to study God's Word and apply it—in other words, it's all about understanding the truth and then living it out. That's the Christian life. Or so I thought.
We can be pretty inconsistent about this. When our understanding doesn't line up with God's truth, what do we do? We try to conform our mind to what we know to be Christ's. When our behavior doesn't line up with His instructions, what do we do? We try to conform our actions to the example of Christ. But when our feelings don't line up with His heart, what do we do? We cast them aside and tell ourselves that feelings just don't matter and can't really be trusted. That's two-out-of-three discipleship, and I'm pretty sure God isn't satisfied with it.
And, when I got honest about it, neither was I.
How We Connect
God designed us for relationship, and relationships consist of emotional bonds. We know that by the ways we connect closely with other people. This doesn't happen simply through shared information or shared experiences. You can sit in a long class or business meeting sharing a lot of information with a lot of other people, but your relationship with them may not be any deeper after the meeting is over. You can watch a movie with a group of friends but have a completely different reaction to it than they do, and not feel any closer.
The key isn't the facts you're exposed to with others or the situations you encounter together. Closeness is created by the shared emotional responses to that information and those experiences. When our feelings line up with someone else's, we feel a connection. When they don't, we don't. That's how we bond in a relationship.
It's the same way with God. He doesn't tell us just to learn His attributes and be able to describe what He is like, or even just to obey Him. He calls us into a relationship—one that is deep and intimate. We're supposed to grow continually closer to Him throughout our lives. That simply can't be done apart from our emotions. When we eliminate feelings from the discipleship process, we're bypassing the one component that creates closeness in a relationship. If we don't learn to feel the way He feels, we don't connect; we never really know Him.
I believe emotion is a missing ingredient in most people's discipleship. This is why many of us feel empty or distant from Jesus in spite of His promise of an abundant life. Scripture is clear that God has a whole range of emotions—love, joy, delight, zeal, anger, and even jealousy, to name a few. We were designed to have His heartbeat: to come to feel the way He feels, love what He loves, get angry about the things that anger Him, and feel compassion when He feels compassion.
But far too often, when He stirs up feelings within us—or even just wants us to confront our own human emotions—we push them aside, thinking it's safer just to focus on knowing and doing. We rely on our own intellect and willpower. The result is that we learn a lot and perform some good works, but our heart doesn't beat with His.
Conformed to His Image
God's desire is for us to grow into the likeness of His Son. This means that we'll be moved with compassion, because Jesus certainly was (Matt. 14:14; Mark 1:41; Mark 6:34). It means we'll look on some situations with anger, as He did (Mark 3:5, Mark 11:15-16). It means we may offer up some of our prayers with loud crying and tears (Heb. 5:7). If we're going to be like Jesus, we'll need to be pretty emotional.
I know how unconventional this idea can seem. I have encountered some pretty confused or even negative reactions when I've been interviewed on this topic. "Surely you aren't saying we decide what's true based on our feelings, are you?" one interviewer asked. Of course not. God's truth is true whether we feel warm and fuzzy about it or not. The emotional side of discipleship has nothing to do with apologetics or the objective reality of Scripture.
But we can't grow closer to God without connecting to Him through our emotions. Just as a married couple doesn't develop a deeper bond by hanging their marriage certificate on the wall and staring at it together, we don't connect with the Lord simply by memorizing truth and agreeing with it. We grow closer to Him as we go through experiences with Him and learn to feel His heartbeat.
When we ask, His indwelling Spirit will help cultivate in us the emotions He already has. Instead of saying our feelings don't matter, we bring our heart into alignment with His and embrace the feelings that we share. Why? Because real relationships were designed to flourish at a heart level. And God desires nothing less from us than a real relationship.
Chris Tiegreen is the author of Feeling Like God: The Emotional Side of Discipleship—and Why You Can't Follow Jesus Without It.