Book Review: Love Is Not a Special Way of Feeling

I’ve mentioned before that I sometimes struggle with the concept that Christian love, agape love, is said to be more about what we do than how we feel. Yet 1 Corinthians 13 warns that we can do notable, even sacrificial things without love, which sounds like clanging gongs and such. So if I go through the motions of, say, caregiving without feeling warm and loving about it, is that lacking in Christlikeness and therefore assigned to the gong department?

Evidently this question has been on my mind for a long time, because I got this book, Love Is Not a Special Way of Feeling, way back in college. Yet, somehow, I never got around to reading it. I just rediscovered it recently and determined to get it read this year.

First of all, I do not know much about the author, Charles G. Finney. I had heard him quoted favorably in my first few years as a Christian (which probably was a factor in my picking up this book). In more recent years I’ve heard him referred to negatively as somewhat manipulative in his revivalist methods. His Wikipedia page says he was an advocate of Christian perfectionism, which I do not believe in (not until heaven, anyway). So I especially prayed for discernment while reading this book.

As it turns out, the text of this 1963 book is taken from a section of Finney’s 1846 Lectures on Systematic Theology titled “Attributes of Love.” The latter is much more accurate. The back of the 1963 books admits the new title was an attention-getting device.

After a chapter on “What is Implied in Obedience to the Moral Law?” Finney discusses three to four attributes per chapter. Some you would expect: kindness, impartiality, holiness, truth, justice, sincerity, self-denial. Some were a surprise and took a bit of reading to discern how he meant them in regard to love: economy, efficiency, severity, complacency, and others. Some words have changed since the book was originally written. Finney supports some of these attributes with Scripture; others seem based on conjecture.

The language was very difficult to work through: the back of the book and the foreword concede that. But if I am reading him correctly, he seems to be saying that emotions are in themselves neutral. They are only good or bad depending on one’s will or intention. Anger can be a sin or not, depending on what one is angry about. There’s a righteous anger against wrong-doing, like slavery, human trafficking, abuse, etc. But there’s an anger the Bible warns against, especially in Proverbs, Colossians, and Ephesians. I don’t think I’d agree entirely with the thought that emotions are totally neutral, because some of them spring from my sinful nature before I even have time to think about will and intent.

On the other hand, faith is not based of feelings: it is based on facts. He remarks rightly, I believe, that too many Christians, when asked about their spiritual life, will reply with how they feel.

They judge their religious state not by the end for which they live–that is, by their choice or intention–but by their emotions. If they find themselves strongly exercised with emotions of love to God, they look upon themselves as in a state well-pleasing to God. But if their feelings or emotions of love are not active, they of course judge themselves to have little or no religion (p. 31).

I agree that our spirituality is not just a matter of our feelings. But I disagree “that feeling and outward action are only results of ultimate intention and in themselves neither virtue or vice” (p. 125).

Some of Finney’s statements were helpful. Some I strongly disagreed with.

The biggest takeaway from the book for me was that a thought or feeling can sometimes be just a temptation and not a sin in itself. I’m sure I knew this to a degree, but these pages brought it home to me in a new way.

Patience as a phenomenon of the will, tends to patience as a phenomenon of the sensibility. That is, the quality of fixedness and steadfastness in the intention naturally tends to keep down and allay impatience of temper. As, however, the states of the sensibility are not directly under the control of the will, there may be irritable or impatient feelings, when the heart remains steadfast. Facts or falsehoods may be suggested to the mind which may, in despite of the will, produce a ruffling of the sensibility, even when the heart remains patient. The only way in which a temptation, for it is only a temptation while the will abides firm to its purpose, I say, the only way in which a temptation of this kind can be disposed of, is by diverting the attention from that view of the subject that creates the disturbance in the sensibility. I should have said before, that although the will controls the feelings by a law of necessity, yet, as it does not do so directly, but indirectly, it may and does often happen, that feelings corresponding to the state of the will do not exist in the sensibility. Nay, for a time, a state of the sensibility may exist which is the opposite of the state of the will. From this source arise many, and indeed most, of our temptations (pp. 66-67).

I wish now, then, to state distinctly what I should have said before, that the state or choice of the will does not necessarily so control the feelings, desires, or emotions, that these may never be strongly excited by Satan or by circumstances, in opposition to the will, and thus become powerful temptations to seek their gratification, instead of seeking the highest good of being. Feelings, the gratification of which would be opposed to every attribute of benevolence, may at times co-exist with benevolence, and be a temptation to selfishness; but opposing acts of will cannot co-exist with benevolence. All that can be truly said is, that as the will has an indirect control of the feelings, desires, appetites, passions, etc., it can suppress any class of feelings when they arise, by diverting the attention from their causes, or by taking into consideration such views and facts as will calm or change the state of the sensibility. Irritable feelings, or what is commonly called impatience, may be directly caused by ill health, irritable nerves, and by many things over which the will has no direct control. But this is not impatience in the sense of sin. If these feelings are not suffered to influence the will; if the will abides in patience; if such feelings are not cherished, and are not suffered to shake the integrity of the will; they are not sin. That is, the will does not consent to them, but the contrary. They are only temptations. If they are allowed to control the will, to break forth in words and actions, then there is sin; but the sin does not consist in the feelings, but in the consent of the will, to gratify them. Thus, the apostle says, “Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath.” That is, if anger arise in the feelings and sensibility, do not sin by suffering it to control your will. Do not cherish the feeling, and let not the sun go down upon it. For this cherishing it is sin. When it is cherished, the will consents and broods over the cause of it; this is sin. But if it be not cherished, it is not sin (pp. 67-68).

The example from which Finney posits this truth is Christ in Gethsemane.

Patience as a phenomenon of the will must strengthen and gird itself under such circumstances, so that patience of will may be, and if it exist at all, must be, in exact proportion to the impatience of the sensibility. The more impatience of sensibility there is, the more patience of will there must be, or virtue will cease altogether. So that it is not always true, that virtue is strongest when the sensibility is most calm, placid, and patient. When Christ passed through his greatest conflicts, his virtue as a man was undoubtedly most intense. When in his agony in the garden, so great was the anguish of his sensibility, that he sweat as it were great drops of blood. This, he says, was the hour of the prince of darkness. This was his great trial. But did he sin? No, indeed. But why? Was he calm and placid as a summer’s evening? As far from it as possible.

Patience, then, as an attribute of benevolence, consists, not in placid feeling, but in perseverance under trials and states of the sensibility that tend to selfishness. This is only benevolence viewed in a certain aspect. It is benevolence under circumstances of discouragement, of trial, or temptation. “This is the patience of the saints.” (pp. 69-70).

In conclusion, at the very least I can say that I have finally read this book. I gained perhaps a bit more insight into my original question of faith vs. feeling, but not a definitive answer.

As I have thought through this repeatedly over the years, I agree that love sometimes means doing the right thing despite feelings. A weary mom awakened by her baby for a 2 a.m. feeding probably doesn’t feel warm and loving at first. She probably feels groggy and maybe even grumpy at having to get up in the middle of the night. But those warm, loving feelings kick in later. I don’t necessarily feel the joy of ministering to my family as I make dinner: sometimes I am frustrated at not being able to finish whatever I was doing. I don’t feel kind and loving when I’m interrupted at the computer just when I’m on a roll in my writing. And some of those irritations at being interrupted are selfish. But the kind and loving thing to do is to give my attention to my loved one and hope that the brilliant ( 🙂 ) thoughts come back to me later. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would” (Galatians 5:17, KJV). But, hopefully, as I grow in the Lord, my feelings as well as my actions will line up more and more with a true expression of godly love.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Love Is Not a Special Way of Feeling

  1. I’ve read a couple of books on Finney, but never one by him that I can remember. From the books that I have read, I found Finney to be rather pragmatic. Thank you for sharing this review.

  2. Pingback: End-of-March musings | Stray Thoughts

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