Watts All This About Emotion?

Isaac Watts is a hero of mine. Not only was he a great hymn-writer, but a model pastor and one of the sharpest theological thinkers of his day. One particular area of his thinking seems especially relevant for today, not least for our singing. It concerns the place of our feelings (or 'affections') in the Christian life.

I was struck by this some time ago whilst reading Graham Beynon's excellent book Isaac Watts, His Life and Thought. Beynon observes how, in Watt's day, being rational and intellectual was king. Christians placed strong emphasis upon knowledge over-and-above feelings in matters of faith. Expressing any feelings and experiences of God put you in danger of being labelled an 'enthusiast' (not a nice term back then: you did not want to be one of them). Watts sought to (in his own words) "vindicate the passionate believer" by showing our need to both think deeply and feel deeply about the truth of the gospel.

Watts saw that true Christian living comes as our minds engage our hearts, which motivate our wills. (For example: I reason in my mind that Jesus died in my place. This engages my heart to experience God's love for me, and feel love for Him. This motivates me to live for Him and say 'no' to sin.) Neglecting the heart here ‐ and making faith purely a matter of having right doctrine ‐ drains all power from living the Christian life. We can end up hypocritically giving intellectual assent to the truth but finding emotional fulfilment elsewhere. This is not God's good design. Downplaying the heart impedes faithful Christian living.

Are we in danger of making a similar mistake today?

Is it possible that, in our zeal for the truth, we neglect the place of the heart in Christian discipleship?

The great hymn-writer's thinking most obviously applies to our singing. As we sing in our church gatherings, are we looking to have our affections moved in line with the truth of God's word? Or has singing become mostly about reciting truth? As musicians and music leaders, are we aiming to help people think deeply and feel deeply about the gospel, or are we afraid of being called 'manipulative'. (The labels have changed, but the sentiment remains.)

How might we listen to Watts' "balancing voice", holding together reason and affection when it comes to our singing? Consider what we sing. Does your current canon of songs and hymns help (and teach) your church to express all the diverse emotions of the Psalms: the heights of joy and depths of sorrow; the brutal honesty and resolute trust? Much as Watts himself did with lines like:

"Such wond'rous love awakes the lip
Of saints that were almost asleep,
To speak the praises of thy name,
And makes our cold affections flame."

Or consider how we sing. It must always be God's word that we sing, but are we also wisely stewarding music's ability to move our emotions in accordance with that truth, so that the word might "dwell in us richly" (Col. 3:16)? Is our music helping us feel inexpressible joy at forgiveness, deep sorrow for sin, and resolve to reach the lost when we sing God's truth about those things?

Watts saw that some had taken this too far the other way and made relating to God all about their feelings. Some still do. He was always crystal clear that it's as we focus our minds on the truth of the gospel that our affections grow. Affection should be informed by reason: our hearts led by our heads. We mustn't try and manufacture an emotional response apart from the truth of God's word (now that is manipulation!) And yet we're commanded to "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength" (Mark 12:30), including our emotions.

True, deep engagement with God's truth "should result in feeling something as well as knowing something", Beynon summarises. Or as another friend says: we must be moved by the truth, but we must be moved by the truth!

With our own unique temperaments and emotional 'spectrums', engaged emotions will present differently in all of us. The goal is not a specific outward expression in a meeting, but a heart that delights in truth, which empowers the Christian life. Let Watts encourage you ‐ in your own life, in your church, and particularly as you sing ‐ not to fear engaging the heart, but to hold head and heart together.

Finally, if you feel the need for more songs that engage the heart and speak clearly of Christ, you're in good company. A young Isaac Watts said as much to his father, and his response is a warm invitation to budding songwriters: 'see if you can do better'. Who knows what good God might do.

This article was originally published in Evangelicals Now in November 2019.

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