“Yes, we eat grass and we’re proud of it because it demonstrates that, with God’s power, we can do anything,” is the statement and belief of young Rosemary Phetha as reported in TimesLIVE.

Rosemary is a 31-year-old member of Pastor Lesego Daniel’s church, Rabboni Centre Ministries, in South Africa. She goes so far as to say she was healed of her health problems after Pastor Daniel “turned her into a sheep” and told her to eat grass. Another member of the 1,000-strong congregation, 37-year-old Doreen Kgatie, says she literally started eating grass as the pastor told her and gained strength. Among other things, the pastor of this “emotional” church can put people to sleep and then stomp on them because he “doesn’t want to be bored.”

How is it possible for someone to allow themselves to be treated like an animal and to eat grass on command, believing that this is the work of God? There is only one similar case in the Bible—King Nebuchadnezzar ate grass like an ox—but this condition was not evidence of divine favour, but of his rejection by God (Daniel 4:33). How do some people come to abandon reason under the influence of emotion?

Legalism and sentimentalism

Allowing emotions to influence spiritual experience can lead to two extremes. On the one hand, there are those who believe that emotions are bad and should be completely ignored. Through the teaching of rigid doctrines in the name of an immovable God by cold teachers, these people have come to live bland and colourless lives. The image of a placid God they have adopted has resulted in dull lives, desolate families and dead churches.

On the other hand, there are those who live according to their feelings and emotions and let these guide their lives. They have made their feelings and emotions the measure of all things. This way of thinking and doing has resulted in immature people, disorganised families, and directionless churches.

None of these positions represent God’s ideal. The two broad categories—the cerebral and the emotional—are actually the product of each group’s image of God. Some will argue for a cold, distant, dark, and joyless God, others for a God without definition or outline, who manifests His presence through the emotions that people experience and feel. People become the image of the God they believe in. One of the slogans of the French Revolution was: “Stop being afraid of a God whom your own fear has created.” These words, though inflammatory, were not devoid of truth. The God we worship may unfortunately be the product of our interests, our ignorance or our emotions.

God feels, therefore we also feel

God is merciful, loves, suffers, laughs, delights, rejoices, sympathises, grieves, is angry with evil, and has patience. All these are not expressions of an anthropomorphism that is necessary for us to understand God. Jesus Himself, who lived and developed all these qualities, told us: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

The emotional human being is created “in the image and likeness of God”. Should we try to deny the image in which we are made? Who is the one described in a brilliant and moving expression in the book of the prophet Hosea? “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused”(Hosea 11:8).

Even the unsettling description of His name given to Moses portrays God as one full of holy emotion: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness,  maintaining love to thousands” (Exodus 34:6-7). If this is not truly God, then many will find that they have not had a correct revelation of Him.

It is very true that the church, but also culture, civilisation, nationality, economic status, and other factors have had a strong influence on the perception of the image of God. Depending on the church, God is presented in different ways. Methodists, Adventists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Orthodox, Mohammedans, Hindus, Brahmins, monks, priests, pastors or preachers, each presents God in a different light. The face of God takes as many forms as belief in God takes from different perspectives.

But God is neither Orthodox nor Baptist. He is not even a Christian God[1]. God is not European or South American. God is God, and in Jesus we have His only true and complete description. Therefore, the only way to get an accurate picture of God is to see Him in the light that shines from Bethlehem to Calvary to the Upper Room in Bethany to the Mount of Olives. Even though human emotions are not the equivalent of God’s emotions, we can still discern clear features of a sensitive and sacrificial God in the testimonies relating to the life of Jesus.

Between holy emotion and emotional worship

How does one go from holy emotion to destructive, demeaning and manipulative sentimentality? The popular saying is true: “Feelings are great servants but terrible masters.” The case mentioned at the beginning of this article is relevant in this respect. How did “the fine gold become dull” (Lamentations 4:1)? It is obvious that somewhere, somehow, something good was transformed into something destructive, and that “in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it used what is good to bring about my death, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful” (Romans 7:13). But what is the right way, the way of God? How can I prevent one good thing from being replaced by another good thing, holy emotions by the knowledge of the Word, and vice versa?

Both categories of believers—cerebral and emotional—should raise Paul’s prayer: “Who will rescue me…?” (Romans 7:24) One should pray: “Who will rescue me from this phylloxera, this barrenness of life? Who will bring me down from this mountain of Gilboa, where there is neither rain nor dew?” The other should pray: “Who will rescue me from these feelings that are subject to death, keeping me in bondage to sensation and leading me away from the path of divine wisdom?”

What is the solution, and what is the way to avoid both the drying up of the roots of life and the dizziness and drunkenness characteristic of sentimentality? There must be a way that involves neither the denial of biblical knowledge nor the withering away of any form of emotion, and this one way on which one can walk in eternal security is the Way itself: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it'” (Isaiah 30:21).

Therefore, whether you turn to the right (dry and dead theory) or to the left (chaotic sentimentality), the voice will guide you. Here is the way! “I am the way,” Jesus said, and with these words He made us understand that He is the measure of all things and that only in His light can we see the light.

Dry Christianity is a response to the abuses of sentimentalism and is, unfortunately, just as bad in itself. It is the product of the dissolution of any form of feeling in relation to God and then, of course, in relation to fellow human beings. You can have zero tolerance for murder, lust or any other sin, but you cannot have zero tolerance for holy and even divine emotions, which are part of what is meant by being created in God’s “image”. Emotions are not to be dried up at the roots in order to avoid sentimentality, but they are to be watered by the rain of the Holy Spirit, and then they will bear rich and blessed fruit. Anything is good if it is put to good use, says Paul. And that is true. But it is equally true that for something to be good, it must be in its proper place, the place that God has ordained for it.

A matter of priority

I recently preached on the question, “Where does God stand in your life?” Everyone answered without hesitation, but not without veiled suspicion: God is first. I opened the Scriptures and spent almost an hour teaching them where God is and should be. At the end I asked them again, “So where does and should God stand in your life?” They answered without hesitation or suspicion, “God must not be first, but God must be in God’s place.”

Great and many complications in family, church, and social life come from not putting something in its proper place, where it belongs, and where it should be. We have seen the tragedies in families when parental love is confused with spousal love and vice versa. We have seen what happens in society when Caesar is put in the place of God and God in the place of Caesar. In essence, Jesus was saying, “Put Caesar in the place of Caesar and God in the place of God.” The same goes for the knowledge of the Word and for the holy emotion that accompanies this knowledge and that must accompany it. Each of the two aspects is precious when placed in its proper place. However, when emotion is in the driver’s seat, controlling our lives, disaster is near. Likewise, when knowledge refuses the call of emotion, withering and death intervene. Knowledge and emotion are not mutually exclusive, they support and help each other. What would emotion do without knowledge, and what would knowledge be like if it were not expressed through the holy emotion that love of God and neighbour produces?

What would a church look like that was built on sentimentality, but disinterested in the knowledge of God’s Word? Reverend Stokely R. Chadick[2] was convinced that a religion based solely on sentimentality and sensationalism is the greatest of all plagues that could befall mankind. The break with reality is sad enough, but the exaggerated inflation of illusion is a deadly sin.

The primacy of the knowledge of the Word and its role as the measure of things is clearly expressed by Ewald Plass: “We must not judge by what we feel or by what we see before us. The Word must be followed, and we must firmly hold that these truths are to be believed, not experienced; for to believe is not to experience. Not indeed that what we believe is never to be experienced but that faith is to precede experience. And the Word must be believed even when we feel and experience what differs entirely from the Word.”[3] According to the same author, Luther would have said: “Feeling must follow; but faith, apart from all feeling, must be there first.”[4]

Illusions and confusions

A young convert recently threw his Bible into the fire. “I don’t need it any more,” he told a friend, “because I’m being led directly by the Holy Spirit!” During an evangelistic service I attended, the preacher held the Bible by one corner and climbed onto the stage in a contemptuous attitude, precisely to show the inferiority of the book in contrast to the “direct leading of the Spirit.” He claimed he was led “directly from the headquarters”! What a dangerous state!

C.S. Lewis writes with mixed fear and regret: “Tortured fear and stupid confidence are both desirable states of mind.”[5] Do you consider yourself led by the Holy Spirit and claim that you no longer need the knowledge of God’s Word? Do you replace the words, “Thus says the Lord” with, “Thus feel I”? If you don’t have this Word, who or what can confirm and assure you that the Spirit leading you is indeed the Holy Spirit? Do you feel safe to throw away your compass and walk in the fog as you feel is right? You won’t get far. At best you’ll go in circles. Feelings and emotions are acts of conscience that encourage or discourage the chosen course, but it is the Word, not feelings and emotions, that determines whether the course leads to the right destination or in the opposite direction. The Word must prevail, and trust and conviction will follow on that basis.

It’s not always easy… 

Establishing truth is not based on emotion—”I feel it is this way or that way”—but on God’s Word. Establishing truth is not based on personal experience either: “I saw the icon weeping tears of blood, so icons are from God!” Or, “I saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a plate of spaghetti, so it’s a sign to worship her!” Or, “A lady didn’t get on the plane that crashed on Saturday, so Saturday is the real day of rest!” These are not God’s means of establishing the truth as it is in Christ.

The doctrine of truth cannot be established based on what has happened to someone or something else, no matter how faithful and holy that person is. The doctrine cannot be based on anything other than the word of Jesus, “It is written!” He did not resist Satan with signs or magic formulas, with emotions and feelings, but with “It is written!” Even if there are traditions that are thousands of years old or generally accepted, that we hold dear and have come to love with our very souls, all of them together can never take the place of God’s eternal Word, no matter how strong our emotions and feelings towards these traditions may be. It is the Word that has the “last word” in matters of doctrine. The God we serve will either be the fruit of our emotions and feelings, or the fruit of the Holy Word in our minds and hearts.

…but it’s always simple.

Jesus always separated feelings from the truth of the Word and determined their order of priority: “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour” (John 12:27). If He had allowed His feelings to guide Him and let them decide, there was every chance that Jesus would have turned back from the way of the cross. We are in danger of having the same experience if we do not give priority to the Word and to a sound and Spirit-enlightened mind over our “deceitful” heart (Jeremiah 17:9).

Joyce Meyer, a well-known American preacher and trainer, describes her life experience at the crossroads of emotion and reason: “I’m frequently asked how I feel about things, such as ‘Joyce, how do you feel about travelling?’ I’ve learned not to live by my feelings, so I tell them, ‘I don’t really ask myself how I feel about it’. You see, if I let my feelings ‘vote’, I just might decide not to do what I know I need to do. I don’t always feel like travelling, especially on long trips that give me jet lag. And I don’t always feel like staying in a hotel. But I’ve decided to follow God’s will for my life and not let my feelings dictate what I do. I’ve learned to let what the Bible says dictate my decisions. That means I’ve set my mind to be a blessing to others and make right choices that honour God. We have to learn how to live beyond our feelings and do what’s right even when we feel wrong.”

However, struggling with negative or positive feelings is not easy. They tend to bypass and avoid the sound mind and the Spirit-enlightened mind, and to encourage or discourage a particular way of life. So what is the solution? We have a powerful image in the gesture of Ulysses in Greek mythology. He knew that he was about to pass through a territory where his feelings would be so strong that no amount of reason could prevent a tragic end. So he asked to be tied to the mast of the ship so that he would not succumb to the wild and fatal feelings and emotions that the song of the sirens inevitably aroused.

Our mast is the cross of Christ. Let us bind our souls and destinies to that mast, and we shall survive even the siren song of this world, as Paul so poetically and inspiringly wrote: “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

[1]“See Desmond Tutu, ‘God is not a Christian’, Huffington Post, 22 December 2014.”
[2]“Stokely R. Chadick (1818 – 1909), Cumberland Presbyterian pastor.”
[3]“Ewald Plass, ‘What Luther Says’, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1959, vol. 1, p. 513.”
[4]“Ibid, p. 514.”
[5]“C.S. Lewis, ‘The Screwtape Letters. Letters from a senior to a junior devil’, Collins Publishing House, 2012.”

“See Desmond Tutu, ‘God is not a Christian’, Huffington Post, 22 December 2014.”
“Stokely R. Chadick (1818 – 1909), Cumberland Presbyterian pastor.”
“Ewald Plass, ‘What Luther Says’, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, 1959, vol. 1, p. 513.”
“Ibid, p. 514.”
“C.S. Lewis, ‘The Screwtape Letters. Letters from a senior to a junior devil’, Collins Publishing House, 2012.”