Friday, August 26, 2016

Habits of the Heart - Psalm 57

We are discussing Spiritual exercises—the things we do to keep healthy and growing into the image of Christ. These exercises fall into three kinds—head, heart, and hands. Last week, we discussed the head; this week we discuss the heart. 

Head and heart belong together. One is not complete without the other. The head involves study, reason, and critical thinking. The heart involves passion, emotion, and intuition. With the head, we study God’s Word. With the heart, we connect with the Spirit. The head guides us, the heart motivates us. The head comprehends, the heart loves. The head critiques; the heart enjoys.  Jonathan Edwards describes the head as the rudder and the heart the sail. We need both. The head and the heart are two separate aspects. One should not be mistaken for the other. 

The relationship between the head and the heart is like a man walking his dog. The man believes he is the dog’s master, since he is smarter than the dog and provides direction and restraint. But the dog knows that she is in control. The dog begged the man for the walk. The man stays on the sidewalk and decides the route, but the dog enjoys sounds and smells the man cannot even perceive. He doesn’t know that three deer crossed their path an hour ago, but the dog does. He cannot smell the grass or see the squirrel behind a tree, but the dog’s keen nose and eyes experiences what reason cannot see.

 In this illustration the man is the head, and the dog is the heart. Reason guides us, but without our emotions, we go nowhere. If we forget our passion, then all the reasoning in the world will not motivate us to change. Passion drives us to make the decisions we do. 

Our emotions are like a pack of dogs. Reason decides when to keep them penned up and when to let them off the leash. Unleashing our anger in the right way protects us. Unleashing our passion in love shows affection. Listening to our feelings can lead us to insights the mind cannot fully comprehend.

You can give too much freedom to your feelings. Anger can lead us to lash out in rage. Love, can turn to lust or obsession, and that hurts the people we love. Depression can lead to despair. Fear turns to panic. We must practice good judgment and strengthen our minds to control our feelings.

You can also control your feelings too tightly. If we don’t let our feelings go sometimes, they grow harder to manage. We can’t pretend our feelings don’t exist. We can feel miserable even when we won’t admit it to ourselves, because we deny it. We lack energy to accomplish much, or the power to persuade, because our emotions are too tame. The power of passion is lost to us, along with the intuition of the Spirit. We become dull, ineffectual and just plain boring.

We aren’t all the same. Different people (and different churches) lean more towards reason, while others lean more toward passion, and we can all still be healthy. The strength of the Reformed faith for example, lies in its emphasis on knowledge and reason. That is a strong advantage to we who belong to in this tradition. Even so, this emphasis on reason can also be our greatest weakness. We often fail to appreciate the importance of passion. We hold our feelings in; when they come out, they explode. We hold grudges forever because we fail to admit we have them, that they are just feelings. We can be stubborn and insensitive.

Paul says in Ephesians 4:26, “Be angry and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your wrath.”  There’s nothing wrong with being angry, as long as we get over it.  But if we hold it in, even a little anger can grow into something huge.

Be afraid, but don’t let fear rule you. Be passionate, but don’t be carried away by your lust.  Be joyful, but know when to hold it in. It isn’t the expression of emotions that is the problem, it’s our denial of them instead of mastering them. What we fail to face becomes our master. If we run from our feelings, our feelings will control us.

The secret to managing our passion is to exercise our passion in the right direction so it will drive us closer to becoming like Jesus. Encourage the passions we have that are Christ-like. When the emotional wind seems to be pushing us backward, then we have to learn to tack our sails and use our feelings to go forward. 

Psalm 57 is an example of what can be accomplished when we learn to exercise our emotions. In verses 1-6 Psalmist is clearly upset. He has serious problems!  Verse 4 says,

 My soul is among lions; I must lie among those who breathe forth fire, Even the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows; And their tongue a sharp sword.

He is “among lions,” surrounded by enemies.  People are after him. He’s being put down, oppressed and lied about. Emotionally, his emotions are straining at the leash. His “depression dog” wants to get loose. So does his “fear dog”.  They are running wild in his life. If they do, they will head straight for rage, anger, and panic. He might have a nervous breakdown, run away or abandon God.  

Whose job is it to master our feelings?  It isn’t God’s--It’s ours!  Luke 21:19 says, “In your patience, possess ye your soul.” It’s your emotions that you must master. God gives us the tools we need, but he gives us the responsibility for putting our feelings in order.

The psalmist reacts to his fear, not by denying his feelings, but by expressing them. He acknowledges his fear--even his frustration with God, but he lets his other emotions—his positive emotions loose by enthusiastically praising the Lord. He celebrates God’s goodness instead of cursing his enemies. 

Don’t be afraid to admit to say how you feel to God. Tell Him when you’re scared, angry, or afraid. Let God know everything. By praying about your feelings, you are learning to trust in Him. But while you are being honest, not only to admit your negative emotions but to encourage his positive feelings. Let the “good dogs” of his heart loose. 

Listen to what he says next.  “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises! Awake, my glory! Awake, harp and lyre!”

“My heart is steadfast O God, my heart is steadfast” in other words “I’m making a decision, and I am sticking to it!” In spite of his desire to be afraid or angry, He makes a choice to focus on what is good, wholesome and lovely. His praise is an act of the will, not of the feelings. He restrains his depression and chooses to release his joy rather than despair. He expresses his feelings, but with an emphasis on the positive ones.  “Awake my glory!”  He awakens glorious sense of happiness in worship like a lazy dog on the porch, and tells it to get pulling in the right direction!

Christians have joy in them, but sometimes it is covered by thick clouds of sorrow and depression.  We still love, but our negative emotions drain us of energy to love. We must energize our positive feelings towards God in order to restrain the power of our negative ones. Worship and praise exercise our positive feelings, so they have a chance to compete with our negative ones. 

Worship cannot help us grow towards Christ if we approach it critically. The critical functions have to do with restraint, not passion. When worshipping alone or in a crowd, we stop to critique the job we or our church is doing, and we have ceased worship from the heart. The musicians may not be in tune, the singers may be off, the lyrics may be unbiblical, and the crowd may be small. But if we are thinking about these things, then we are not worshipping God. When we worship in such a critical manner with our mind, then it is not coming from the heart.  When judgment kicks in, our passion subsides.

Dr. Haddon Robinson is the author of several books on preaching, and was selected by Time magazine as one of the best communicators in the Western world. Famous preachers pay him thousands of dollars just to critique their sermons. I asked him once how he could sit in church on Sundays under vastly inferior preachers, and get anything out of it. He told me that to learn from God we must turn off our critical faculties, and realize that God speaks through preachers who are not good technically or precise theologically. If God could speak through Balaam’s donkey, then he can speak through donkeys today! If God can be praised through trees, rocks and stones, then intelligence is not required.

We should strive for excellence, and we have a right to critique. But during worship, the more critical we are, the less worship we do. Worship isn’t about human excellence but heart participation.  Children who play with crayons don’t have to be good artists. They just have fun. God enjoys our efforts even if we have no musical talent, and He wants us to praise him unselfconsciously even if we are not technically superior.  

“Awake, harp and lyre.”  The psalmist isn’t listening to perform—he is making music! Worship is performing before the audience of God. Sitting in church listening to others talk and sing is not how to stimulate our passion towards God. We must open our mouths to express our own passion.

“I will awaken the dawn.” The psalmist is worshipping every morning. Let the dogs of praise off their leashes daily. Sing to God, praise Him, and curl up in your Father’s arms every morning. Use your imaginations to come up with new ways of praising and thanking the Lord. 

“I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to You among the nations.”
The psalmist does not restrain his emotions to God in public, but praises God in the church and out in public. It is not Biblical that we should keep our passion for God to ourselves. Let them run loose in the yard! We tend to think of emotional displays as an expression of weakness, but the opposite is true.  A dog owner only takes his dog out in public if he can control the dog. A poor master is unable trust his dog enough to let her around other people. A strong Christian is willing to let feelings to God be shown.

Passion stimulates passion in others. The more we express our praise to God in the sanctuary of God, the easier it is for others to do the same.

We don’t master our feelings merely by restraining them, but by using them in positive ways.  If you want to develop a greater passion for God, then exercise your passion through praise and thanksgiving. You will find that God can use this in your live to lead you to a greater joy in Him. 

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