Churches that say we should see God acting primarily in our own emotions miss a more complete picture of God’s salvation.
Today I visited a church that you could probably say was thriving: it was the city branch of a larger church; it had several Sunday services, all of which are full; in fact, it had already raised enough money to rent a larger space. During the service, I connected with God through the lighting and worship band set-up. It was pretty close to the picture here. After all, if we can appreciate God’s grandeur through old stone church buildings, we should be able to appreciate God’s grandeur through strobe lights, fog machines, and a bass drum that I literally felt in my body.
It was something else that made me feel disconnected to God, something about the way that they talked about where to find salvation, where to see God at work. The songs had this aspect, but I’ll focus on how it came out in the sermon.
The sermon began with the story of Mary and Martha and then transitioned to the triumphal entry since today is Palm Sunday. The story of Mary and Martha, the pastor explained, was really a contrast between thinking that we had to work for Jesus (Martha) versus seeing Jesus as the source that we should tap into (Mary). And the main marker of that different stance was how we felt: if we are anxious or distracted or full of worries, then we are drawing on this theological error of trying to offer something to God for our salvation. No, the pastor exhorted, God will give us everything we need. We can see this reversal, he continued, in Jesus’ triumphal entry. During the Passover feast, everyone had to go find their own lamb to sacrifice. Now Jesus was offering himself as the lamb for us.
What stood out to me about this was that it made salvation purely internal, purely psychological. To see God’s salvation, the pastor was saying, we should look at our own feelings. Are we worried? Then we are rejecting God. Do we feel joy? Then we are seeing God’s salvation. This salvation is private: at the end, the pastor asked if anyone wanted to accept Jesus as their source, and to do that he had us all close our eyes. Closing our eyes gives people privacy, and helps them perceive what they feel internally. It reinforces this message that a person’s sense of peace and joy is first something that you feel, and then something that you enact. Or again, at the begining of the sermon, he said that we weren’t there to “do church” (which is suspicious because it’s an action that could be faked), we were there to “meet Jesus.” As I analyze in my dissertation, this emphasis on internal salvation is common in evangelical churches. I’d like to explain an alternative perspective. But first, what does internal salvation look like?
The pastor didn’t actually give any examples of what “needs” God would (or wouldn’t) provide for, but as an opener, he asked if anything ever just “set us off,” and gave the humorous, over-the-top example of being frustrated this week when a cashier asked him if he wanted a plastic bag. So presumably we should think especially of small day-to-day emotional struggles as the “needs” that God will be the supply for. I was visiting the church with a friend who’s often stressed out by her Master’s program workload, so I used her work stress as my example.
How well, I asked myself, was my friend’s stress being spoken to by the pastor? Well for one, he was inviting her to pray more, I guess. Then with Jesus as her supply, she wouldn’t feel stressed. And he was encouraging her to read her anxiety spiritually, as a practical chance for her to take up—or not—Jesus’ offer to be her source. Those are fine, I guess, but it seems like a really narrow view of salvation. Is that really all God can offer? Because I can get a therapist who will help me not feel stressed, and I can meditate and not feel stressed. Heck, I can drop out of my own program and not feel anxious about school assignments ever again! I think the pastor would answer this by saying that in the long run, God’s stress relief is truer and therefore more effective than worldly methods. But this still misses my point: God’s salvation for us is bigger than how we feel, and it often comes by doing new things.
In my experience, the answer to feeling stressed is rarely “feel less stressed.” Or to say it theologically using the pastor’s language, the answer to rejecting God’s offer to be our source is rarely just for us to feel God’s provision more. Usually, it means doing something different! I’ve written about the topic of rest before.
Here are a few ideas when I think about my friend’s work stress. To start with the pastor’s example, she could intentionally thank God for God’s provisions in the past. The pastor mentioned that the Jews had a whole festival for that after the harvest, but it takes some more pastoral work to apply... how could we do that in our society, where everyone is on different schedules? Maybe in a school context, that means having a thanksgiving meal with other Christians after mid-terms. That would be a corporate response! Maybe following Jesus means regularly spending time in rest—a Sabbath, you might say. Maybe in order to rest, it means being willing to get a lower grade, or maybe it means trying to be more focused when actually working. For that matter, maybe it means going to sleep earlier. “Sleeping as an act of faith.” Maybe some of the stress is actually concern for the world’s problems that the course projects are exposing. It’s hard to study important problems at work and not feel a little bit that society as a whole needs to do something different. (I say this the day after the largest march for gun control.) In that case, maybe having a kind of holy anger and stress is itself an act of faith that leads toward praying for God’s redemption of the world. This would mean less praying about our own reactions, and instead praying about the problems in the world that our academic work describes. Maybe our anxieties (say, about finding a job after graduating, especially if in the process of resting you’ve given up the possibility of getting the highest grade) are produced by unjust societal systems. Maybe then our stress can function as a kind of solidarity with those who literally can’t find jobs. “Giving to beggars as an act of faithful solidarity in a stressful economy.” Or finally, maybe work stress is actually a time of refinement, a “going through the desert like Jesus” (it is Lent, after all) that prepares us for some special work afterward.
The common factor in all these ideas is that the next step from noticing our sin/anxiety shouldn’t usually be to pray harder, but to actually do something in faith. Then God works through those actions to shape us and the world around us. God’s salvation is not only psychological, it’s holistic. It affects our media choices, our work habits, our relationships, our passions. If Martha was listening to Jesus well, it means that she would change what she was doing. The contrast isn’t between doing and not doing; it’s between how our actions (cooking, sitting) are shaping us, and how we become more like Jesus together through those.