Note: I will begin posting articles related to our teaching series again next week but am taking a quick detour this week with a separate topic (though not completely unrelated to worship).
The title is a question often asked of us by our family, friends, and neighbors. Sometimes we hear the question after being sick. This is entirely appropriate given physical illness does indeed make us feel bad. But when else have you heard this question? We just as commonly hear the question “How are you feeling?” after experiencing difficult challenges, trying circumstances, or painful experiences. (Sometimes, the question is rephrased as, “How are you doing?”) By no means is this a wrong or sinful question. Many times I have asked it myself as a means of empathizing with and showing compassion to someone. Nevertheless, I wonder – is “How are you feeling” the best question to use?
I do not know the answer. I am neither casting stones at the question “How are you feeling?” nor denying the validity of hearing someone’s feelings. The question is valid, and I am not advocating Stoicism. So, to steal another common phrase, “let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.” The question’s aim, which is to understand feelings, is something we can and should do when ministering to others.
However, I do think greater awareness of how others hear the question would help Christians to rethink gospel ministry. Asking others, “How are you feeling?” is the same question our culture incessantly hears from psychologists, psychiatrists, and the media (including social media). Is this really the approach we, as believers, should take when seeking to show something different from the surrounding culture? To make matters worse, the culture in which we live has elevated personal feelings to such a level that “how I feel” has become the equivalent of “this is truth.” Dangerous stuff!
To understand why, read the following (very brief!) article: A Therapized Age.
Though I do not agree with the following book on all points, it is still an insightful resource: One Nation Under Therapy: How the Helping Culture is Eroding Self-Reliance.
Consider this example from my childhood. At some point, in some grade, there was that teacher. You know the one…the one you felt never liked you. One of my elementary school teachers fell into that category. On a regular basis – weekly if not daily – I came home from school and complained to my parents. “Ms. V doesn’t like me and is mean to me!!” When my parents asked why and/or for details of what she had done, I might have given a few specifics, but I usually said something amounting to, “I don’t know. I just feel like she doesn’t.” To my parents’ credit, they consistently listened to and heard what I was expressing yet rebutted my feelings about the situation: “We hear you and love you, but she’s still your authority so you must obey her.” To say the least, I was not satisfied. So I chipped away at their resolve for several months by venting my feelings about Ms. V. Eventually, one parent gave into my emotional narrative and got angry. “I’m tired of hearing this. I need to talk to Ms. V.” I had won! …or so I thought.
Thankfully, my other parent had the wisdom to look past my feelings, to know my thoughts, and to watch my actions. This parent told the other to do the same before talking to Ms. V. What they saw while observing me was an immature, lazy, self-centered child who did not like being challenged by his teacher. Sad, but true story.
In the years since, my parents and I have shared other conversations about that experience with Ms. V. They have even told me some things I did not know about her (and could not have handled as a young child), which likely affected her teaching style. In some ways, I might have been right about her, but that is not the point. The problem was not with her. The problem was me, and my great sin in the previous story was how I used my subjective, emotional judgments to manipulate one of my parents against Ms. V.
At this point, you are probably wondering why I took time to tell you that story about my childhood… “What is the moral of the story?” The moral of the story, or at least its relevance to the topic of this article, is the danger of too frequently asking others, “How are you feeling?” There is nothing whatsoever wrong with asking the question once, or even a few times, but if we never move past how someone is feeling, we will never offer them anything more substantive than an ephemeral, emotional pick-me-up.
Brothers and Sisters, we are more than the sum of our personal feelings, and those to whom we minister are more than the sum of their therapeutic demands. Feelings are very much a part of being created in God’s image, but feelings do not define all of who we are or how we must live. Feelings might affect people’s perceptions of reality, but reality itself (i.e. the truth) does not change. Despite what we hear from the modern, therapeutically-obsessed culture, fixing feelings – whether ours or others’ – is not the work of a Christian. Our task is to proclaim the fullness of the gospel and the whole counsel of Scripture.
Let us continue to re-examine who we are, what we do, what we say, and what we ask in light of God’s word. And as we do so, let us trust the Holy Spirit to work in the minds, hearts, and souls of others. His work is far greater than fixing feelings. His work is giving new hearts. May we pray for him to do so as we minister to others!