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A Word-based or Feelings-based Faith

I have recently been reading the excellent book, “Prayer”, by Timothy Keller. One point he makes is that we need to know Scripture in order to pray well. In Scripture we find different types of prayer. These include praise, confession, arguments with God, complaints, requests, and desperate begging. As we study how the characters of Scripture prayed, we will grow in our understanding of how to pray.

Scripture also describes the God we are praying to. Keller says, “We should do everything possible to behold our God as he is, and prayer will follow.” Prayer is a natural response as we grow in our knowledge of God. Keller explains that it is dangerous to pray without knowing how Scripture describes God. He says, “We may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like. Indeed, if left to themselves our hearts will tend to create a God who doesn’t exist.”

The danger of prayer that is disconnected from God’s Word brings up an important question for us to think about. Is our relationship with Christ primarily based on God’s Word, or is it primarily based on feelings that we experience? I’m afraid that many Christians have grown to value feelings more than truth found in the Bible.

You don’t have to listen to Christian radio very long to hear several songs about the way God makes us feel or the way we want Him to make us feel. Many songs express a longing to feel God’s presence or to hear His voice. What these songs are really asking for is some kind of spiritual experience. Here is the problem. Why are we asking to hear God’s voice, when our Bible’s contain His voice in every word? Why are we begging God for His presence when His voice tells us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5[1])? God’s presence is with us whether we feel it or not.

Could it be that we emphasize feelings, because it is more exciting to feel something than to know something? Do we beg God for an emotional worship experience because we are too lazy to spend time studying the Bible? Do we find it easier to pray for God to show Himself than it is to open the Book where He tells us about Himself? Do we base our convictions on what we feel to be true, because we don’t know Scripture well enough to know what is actually true?

Don’t get me wrong, Christianity is an experiential faith. We personally experience forgiveness through Christ every day. We personally experience a growing relationship with Him. We personally experience entering His presence through prayer. We personally experience His protection and direction in our lives. The problem is that we equate experiencing something with feeling it. Sometimes God blesses us with feeling these things. Sometimes we feel close to God. Sometimes we are encouraged by the feeling of His presence. Sometimes we feel the weight of our sin taken away. However, we often do not feel these things. Our feelings are unreliable and often misleading. If our faith is built on felt experiences, it is built on the wrong thing.

Our feelings change by the minute, but God’s Word does not change. God’s promises are a firm foundation for our relationship with Him. When we don’t feel close to God, we hold to promises of God’s presence found in Scripture. When we don’t feel forgiven, we trust that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1 ESV). We know that we have experienced God’s forgiveness because His Word says so – not because we feel it. When we don’t feel like we are truly Christians, we remind ourselves that “we are justified by his (God’s) grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24) and that Jesus is “the founder and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2).

How firm a foundation

You saints of the Lord

Is laid for your faith in

His excellent Word

What more can He say

Than to you He has said

To you who for refuge

To Jesus have fled[2]

[1] All Scripture quoted from the English Standard Version ©2001 by Crossway Bibles.

[2] Lyrics from How Firm a Foundation, Ye Saints of the Lord.

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