In his book Knowing Scripture, R.C. Sproul writes about the “Sensuous Christian.” Sproul doesn’t mean that in the usual physical use of that word. He defines that term as the domination of the Christian life by the intangibles of feelings. “Many of us” he writes, “have become sensuous Christian, living by our feelings, rather than through our understanding of the Word of God. Sensuous Christians cannot be moved to service, prayer, or study unless they ‘feel like it.’”
This hapless believer does good things when he is feeling close to God. But when he is depressed, he does nothing of service to Christ. He therefore looks for stimuli to ignite his emotions because he wants to experience God rather than genuinely know Him. The sensuous Christian evaluates the Word by his feelings rather than the other way around, and he stays immature because he believes this is childlike faith, when it’s actually childish. The Word constantly admonishes us to grow in our faith, but the sensuous Christian simply wants an experience of some kind. What eventually happens? He encounters tough times but he lacks the wisdom to meet the challenge.
This is, by the way, the basis of the apostle Peter’s two letters to believers. Letters written during tough times when believers were being persecuted and tempted. Peter is speaking to these believers about the need to establish their lives on the Word of God and not on their feelings or the circumstances they see around them.
Sproul and Peter make me realize I need to ask this question of myself, just as I ask you to ask yourself: Is my walk with God all about emotions and feelings? Or is it driven by faith and the Word? When I have one of those days when I don’t feel the victory of my faith, do I continue to serve Him in obedience? Or do I let my feelings hurt my faith? Strong faith is based on the facts of God’s Word – the truth of our salvation, the historic fact of Christ’s resurrection, the understanding that He will come again. Those things are true even if I’m not as excited about them as I should be on a gloomy day.
Peter in his letters to believers (1 and 2 Peter) is talking about laying a foundation of faith based on the solid and substantial Word, so that no bad day, no bad event, no national recession, not even COVID-19, can shake it. These are times when God smiles upon our response – when the world is treating us poorly, when our spirits are low, yet we pray anyway; we serve anyway; we open the Word anyway and say, “God, I’m not at my best today, but all that I have is still yours.” Any child that tells Him that is going to be taken up in His embrace and comforted.
His promises don’t fluctuate with our whims. We can cling to those promises and find a powerful emotional equilibrium. Living based on feelings is like riding a roller coaster without a seat belt. Living rooted in His Word is more like building a house with a foundation of pure, tempered steel. You’re going to be ready for anything that comes alone. Peter’s two epistles tell us , “Start digging! You have your shovel, you have your earth-moving equipment, now lay down that sure foundation.” You do so by applying all that is in the Word.
I’m the first to admit that I process through a series of emotions as I prepare to preach. Like most communicators, I’m always putting myself into the shoes of my listeners. How will this sound to them? What if they hear this teaching (sermon) and it drives them away from striving for Christian maturity? There’s always the temptation to give the people what they want, which may not be the same as what they need.
Every preacher and teacher of the Word struggles with this urge, but in the end, he knows that God has called him to be true to the Word. He knows the terrible implications of conforming his message to the world, rather than letting his message be transforming through the true Word of Christ, I get a sense of Peter having these same thoughts as he wrote the first chapter of his second letter:
“Therefore I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have. I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-15)
Peter knows that his old, tattered human body will soon perish. He can’t make small talk. He can’t spend his time telling people the feel-good messages that massage the ear. The situation is urgent, and he is already making arrangements to see that his words outlive him – as they have certainly done. Peter is reminding us that God’s truth is foundational to living a life pleasing to God. That God’s Word and not our feelings or even our needs are to be the guiding and motivational force in all that we do daily in our lives.
Peter and Sproul are both saying that we need to grow up and become mature believers who walk by faith and not by feelings. In other words, no longer be “sensuous Christians.”