Dear Fathers, Friends in Christ,
"And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net. And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake." Luke 5:5-6
One of the great weaknesses of religion in our age is the all-too-common belief that faith consists of powerful emotional experiences. This fundamental error about the nature of faith has become so general that many sincere people truly believe that strong emotions, and only strong emotions, equal "spirituality" (the contemporary replacement for the old religion of divine commandments and human obedience, of service to God with whole hearts, and souls, and minds).
A true faith, of course, does have an emotional element, especially when the God-given grace of faith lifts us up or sustains us during the crises of life. We feel joy at a baptism or wedding. We feel the sorrow of parting, however temporary, at a funeral. We feel the thrill of God’s power drawing us closer to himself at our first conversion or when he gives us some new insight into his goodness and love.
But most of life is not made up of crises, conversions, or major events. These stand out in our memories precisely because they are rare and unusual. Everyday life possesses its own modest joys and sorrows, but just as the drug addict begins to believe that every bump along the road requires an injection, so too we can become addicted to big emotional experiences. We can begin to demand them on a regular basis, like the drug addict’s "fix," manufacturing artificial crises and conversions that crowd out the reality of a Biblical life lived in communion with the One True God.
Pastors and churches add fuel to this false emotional fire by replacing the old work-based services of worship (and all the old terms for worship presuppose that prayer is work) that have guided the Christian Church for two thousand years, and the Old Testament Church for 1800 years before that, with Gospel shows and mantra-like praise songs that are designed to create emotion rather than faith. They encourage their people to remain in the infantile, self-centered, and highly emotional state of the newly-converted, without allowing them to grow up into the self-discipline and self-sacrifice that are the glory of the mature Christian.
The comparison would horrify them, but the pastors and members of such churches have more in common with drug pushers and users than with the Apostles and disciples we meet in the Scriptures. But catering to people’s weaknesses can only make them weaker and not stronger. Manipulating people’s emotions can only make them more dependent and less dependable. It is a shocking and exemplary fact, then, that atheists have a lower divorce rate than the members of emotion-based churches, despite the Bible’s clear teaching about the sanctity and the duties of marriage.
Why should this be so? Emotion is, first of all, a poor judge of truth. How you or I feel about "2 plus 2" cannot change the answer to the equation. What we feel about the revealed truth of the Blessed and Undivided Trinity cannot change the identity of God. Our emotional state has absolutely no effect on the moral obligation of God’s commandments.
Likewise, emotion is a poor guide to right behaviour. Emotional decisions routinely turn out to be bad decisions. The parents of an illegitimate child, for example, will almost always attest to the powerful emotions they felt at the moment of conception, and those who abandon such a child will also usually explain that "the feeling has passed." What goes missing in this world dominated by emotions is the simple fact that the greatest gift that parents can give to any child is their honourable marriage and a home ordered according to the discipline of faith in Jesus Christ.
Real faith, however, very often goes against the emotions of the moment. Most of us do not "feel" like being holy most of the time. We do not feel like saying "no" to our sinful impulses. We do not feel like denying ourselves for the sake of God or for the sake of others. Our fallen human nature tells us to surrender to our emotions, even as the grace of God appeals to us to trust in him alone.
Take, for example, the Patriarch Noah. If we read the Genesis account of his life carefully, we will discover that a hundred years passed between the time when God commanded him to build the Ark and the beginning of the Great Flood. There is, moreover, no record in the Bible of God’s giving Noah any kind of pep talk or further words of encouragement during that long century of waiting.
Noah had God’s commandment and nothing else but his faith in God. He surely must have felt like an idiot building a huge vessel in the middle of dry land. He must have burned under his neighbours’ taunts and jibes. He must have felt like giving up a thousand times. But it was not Noah’s feelings that ruled him or defined his faith. It was his obedient actions, his obedient life, in response to the commandment of God.
Or take St. Peter in this morning’s Gospel. He and his partners were professional fishermen and good enough at their trade that they owned at least two ships that we know of. After a whole night of back-breaking work they had caught nothing. No doubt in disgust, they had returned to the shore and started the equally hard work of washing, folding, and stowing their nets.
Then Jesus asks to use one of their ships as a pulpit, so that he can preach to the crowd gathering on the shore. After his sermon, Jesus asks Simon Peter to fish for him. It is the wrong time of day to fish, as he and everybody else in his fishing village know. He is already frustrated and embarrassed that he had failed to catch anything the night before. Now the nets will have to be washed again, and this time he will have an audience to observe and to mock his failure.
Every emotion of professional pride, of self-esteem, of simple fatigue, and of compassion for his fellow labourers must have cried out for Peter to refuse Jesus’ command that he fish. Instead, Peter placed Christ’s command above his emotions and said, "Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net."
That obedience (what he did, and not how he felt) is Peter’s faith. That faith was rewarded with a catch so big that it broke the net, but the fish were basically beside the point, since we read that Peter and his friends "forsook all" and followed Christ. Even without the fish, one can imagine Peter lowering the net again and again, until the Lord who had come to him told him to stop.
It is a good thing when our emotions are in harmony with our faith, but our faith will always reside in what we actually do, in how we actually behave, and in how we actually live. Christianity is a life of obedience offered to God, and of humble repentance when the obedience that we offer is less than perfect. There has never been a single Christian who has not had to say with St. Peter "nevertheless I obey" when his own thoughts, feelings, desires, or intuitions were contrary to the commandments of God. And there has never been a mature Christian who did not come to understand that forsaking our fallen feelings and desires for the sake of following Christ is really a bigger challenge than walking away from our material possessions.
St. Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, left us with this definition of the Christian Faith: "Be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous: Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing" (1 Peter 3:8-9). That "one mind" is the mind of Christ, and when we live in that mind, and look like Christ, we will be sure that we have a living faith that leads to salvation and eternal life with the Father in heaven.
Father Ed Bakker,
Anglican Catholic Church / Original Province
Mission of Saint Aidan of Lindisfarne,