Assurance of Our Adoption Part 6: God’s Love Poured Out in Our Hearts

Assurance of Our Adoption 6

God’s Love Poured Out in Our Hearts

Text: Rom 8:28-32; Rom 5:1-5; John 5:42; John 15:1-17 [see also passages like Rom. 12; Rom. 13:8-14; 1 Cor. 13; Eph. 4-6; Col. 3:1-17]

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Introduction: Last week, we saw that what we learn to think about and practice shapes our lives.

  • Relying on great thoughts about God & His love forms an enduring sense of joy, peace, & love that provide the foundation for our emotional life.
    • A reminder about how the HS and Satan will do different things in your heart and mind with the same sermon.

What is the mark of a disciple of Jesus? (John 13:34-35; 15:9-17; Eph 5:1-2)

  • Some would quickly answer, making disciples.
    • Making disciples is important but it is not the distinctive mark.
  • When you read and meditate on John 13-17, it becomes obvious that Jesus’ disciple is the one who loves Him & those He loves. (John 15:9-17)

Explore the Texts: Read Rom 8:28-32


The Problem

Our withered capacity to love has been shaped by the world.

  • Why substitute the performance of good things for the reality of love?
    • Growing up, we learned to hide our inner self and perform a role to impress others so that we could be successful.
    • Southern culture trained us to be “bless your heart nice” to a person’s face even when we promoted bad things behind their back.
      • I have a who friend in college read about how smiling influences people: for four years, she practiced smiling.
        • The problem: her bright smile hid a constant battle with depression & rejection.
      • I spoke with a friend who recently had to buy a car. He encountered salespeople who were skillful at this.
  • No new Problem! Consider the Pharisee culture in the time of Jesus.
    • In Jn 5:42, Jesus told a group of serious religious leaders: “I know you, I know that you have no love of God in you!”
      • They were expert sheriffs of the religious behaviors of others.
    • In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes beneath keeping the appearance of being religious and considers the heart of the person.
      • He invites his listeners to become the kind of people who do such things in love as they will God’s goodwill for themselves and for others, including their enemies.
  • Some of you may be discouraged and believe that performing loving acts is the best you can hope for.
    • Our vision of what is possible must change: we must be persuaded that with God’s help, this new reality is possible.
    • That poses the deep question: How does one with a limited range of love become a person whose heart overflows with God’s love toward a broader range of people in my life?

God’s Solution

God initiates the process of transformation by loving us through His beloved Son and the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 5:1-5)

  • As we grow in the experience of God’s love for us in Christ, we discover the deep beauty of the life we are cultivating.
  • Often you begin new behaviors as your heart changes, but you must not forget that Jesus is developing new men and women who are changed from the inside out: new hearts and minds expressing themselves in love.
    • I Cor. 13 makes clear that if my actions are not expressions of love, they are like withering cut flowers. (Mt. 7:21-23)
  • I realize that I Need Help! When you realize that you are called to have sincere love (Rom. 12:9ff.) in contrast to the pretense of love that masks contempt, unforgiveness, jealousy, malice, bitterness, resentment, etc., you realize that you need divine assistance if that it to become reality.
    • Many of us must undo the damage done to us earlier in our lives by those who claimed to love us, but who did not will us good.

Learning from Jesus, your teacher who embodies and models the way of love rooted in a relational life with the Father in the power of the HS.

  • I had to learn about this possibility later in my life. Mt. 11:25-30
  • Who can better teach you how to love?
    • If you are not learning how to love as Jesus’ apprentice, then you are learning from someone else what it means to love.
      • What do the lessons about love from our culture look like?
  • Jesus teaches what he practiced among us.
    • Being with Jesus, you experience his love and listen to him as in love and compassion, he points out things in you that must be dealt with if you are to grow as his friend.
    • Acknowledging the reality of your hidden self is essential if I am to also learn to deny my self, take up my cross daily, and follow Jesus.
      • A narrow path of a new & abundant life of freedom in Christ.
      • Why would you desire a stunted friendship with Jesus?
  • Increasingly, you desire what the Spirit desires: The mind & desires of the Spirit vs. the mind & desires of the flesh. (Gal. 5:13-25)
    • The desires of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit contrast with the desires of the flesh and the fruit of the flesh.
    • The desires I intentionally cultivate ripen as the fruit of my life.
  • God’s loving purpose can use everything can transform everything about us into great beauty and good.
    • In Eph. 4:26-27, Paul uses the example of anger now influenced by the love of Jesus.

The Result

Expanding your capacity to receive, experience, & enjoy God’s love as you love others.

  • Ephesians 3 prayer for our growth in the knowledge of God’s deep love.
  • When I have been hurt by people in the name of love, something within me contracts, it becomes smaller and more self-protective.
    • For the Spirit to transform my life, He works with me to remodel my heart space. Together we open up the narrow walls and remove dark things hoarded over long years that no longer belong in me.
    • What is my heart’s capacity to receive? A communion cup, a baptistry, or an ocean that receives and gives constantly.
  • If Being in God’s love is like being immersed in an immense ocean, then I must learn how to live in, flourish, and enjoy that new environment.
    • You begin where you are now: I remember as a young boy in FL learning to ride the waves on a raft or as a swimmer.
    • I was impressed watching videos of great surfers who trained themselves to ride the big waves that would terrorize most of us.


There are deep, powerfully beautiful rhythms in this new life with Jesus in the Spirit.

  • Will I resist or learn to ride these waves in the ocean of God’s love?


Dallas Willard on Love, Joy and Peace (and Faith and Hope), taken from Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, Chapter 7 “Transforming the Mind: Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings” (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), pp. 117-139.

Modernity and Deciding by How We Feel

All of this has special relevance to our contemporary life and to spiritual formation under modern conditions. We now live within the life form called “modernity,” where revered ritual and personal relations do not smoothly govern life, because human solidarity (in family, neighborhood, school, workplace, church) has been pulverized. There are few things of equal significance to this fact for serious Christians to understand today.

In the “modern” condition, feeling will come to exercise almost total mastery over the individual. This is because people in that condition will have to constantly decide what they want to do, and feeling will be all they have to go on. Here lies the secret to understanding contemporary Western life and its peculiar proneness to gross immoralities and addictions. People are overwhelmed with decisions and can only make those decisions on the basis of feelings.

More than a century ago, Leo Tolstoy experienced the effects of “modernity” in the circle of wealthy, upper-class Russians who made up his world. In that world, he relates, “My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink, and sleep, and I could not help doing these things; but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfillment of which I could consider reasonable.”

“Had a fairy come and offered to fulfill my desires,” he continues, “I should not have known what to ask.” This is exactly the world of pointless activity portrayed in such staples of the contemporary American consciousness as television’s Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and Will and Grace.

In the course of events, however, Tolstoy became involved in the life of the Russian peasants.

I saw that the whole life of these people was passed in heavy labor, and that they were content with life.… And they all—endlessly different in their manners, minds, education, and position, as they were—all alike, in complete contrast to my ignorance, knew the meaning of life and death, labored quietly, endured deprivations and sufferings, and lived and died seeing therein not vanity but good.

The peasants whom Tolstoy admired so much were not yet swallowed up in modernity. They had solid traditions of faith and community that provided a ritual form of life—and of death. The result was that they knew what was good to do without regard to their feelings. Good was not determined for them by how they “felt” or by what they thought was “the best deal.”

The same was true for the “homemaker” and the “wage-earner” of our recent past. Not to say that all was well with them or with Tolstoy’s peasants. But individuals in their roles knew without thinking about it what to do with their minutes, hours, and days, and only rarely were faced with having to do what they “felt like doing.” The overall order in which they lived usually gave them great strength and inner freedom derived from their sense of place and direction, even in the midst of substantial suffering and frustration.

In a situation such as today, by contrast, where people constantly have—or think they have—to decide what to do, they will almost invariably be governed by feelings. Often they cannot distinguish between their feelings and their will, and in their confusion they also quite commonly take feelings to be reasons. And they will in general lack any significant degree of self-control. This will turn their life into a mere drift through the days and years, which addictive behavior promises to allow them to endure.

Self-control is the steady capacity to direct yourself to accomplish what you have chosen or decided to do and be, even though you “don’t feel like it.” Self-control means that you, with steady hand, do what you don’twant to do (or what you want not to) when that is needed and do not do what you want to do (what you “feel like” doing) when that is needed. In people without rock-solid character, feeling is a deadly enemy of self-control and will always subvert it. The mongoose of a disciplined will under God and good is the only match for the cobra of feeling.

Images and “Moods”

Generally speaking, feelings and emotions are fostered and sustained by ideas and images, though social or bodily conditions also factor in. Hopelessness and rejection (or worthlessness and “not belonging”) live on images—often of some specific scene or scenes of unkindness, brutality, or abuse—that have become a permanent fixture within the mind, radiating negativity and leaving a background of deadly ideas that take over how we think and structure our whole world.

Such images also foster and sustain moods. What we call “moods” are simply feeling qualities that pervadeour selves and everything around us. They are, of course, extremely hard to do anything about precisely because one cannot stand outside of them. Clinical depression is an extreme form of a “bad mood,” but dread, deprivation, and deficiency, as well as simple anger, fear, or pain, can become moods of the negative type because of the capacity of feelings to spread and pervade everything they touch.

On the positive side, there are feelings and moods associated with confidence, worthiness of good, being acceptable and “belonging,” purposefulness, love, hope, joy, and peace. Being “accepted in the beloved” (Ephesians 1:6, kjv) is the humanly indispensable foundation for the reconstruction of all these positive feelings, moods, and their underlying conditions. We must be very clear on how the negative feelings rest on ideas and images. Those feelings can themselves be transformed by discipleship to Christ and the power of the gospel and the Spirit, through which the corresponding ideas and images are changed to positive ones. And we must be clear that the person given to moods faces special difficulties, though not insurmountable ones, in spiritual formation.

The Godly Feelings in the Spiritually Transformed Person

Now, the realm of feelings may appear on first approach to be an area of total chaos. But this is not so. There is also order among feelings, and it is a much simpler one than most people think. When we properly cultivate with divine assistance those few feelings that should be prominent in our lives, the remainder will fall into place.

What then are the feelings that will dominate in a life that has been inwardly transformed to be like Christ’s? They are the feelings associated with love, joy, and peace. For the sake of simplicity we shall simply call them “love,” “joy,” and “peace,” though, as we have noted, love, joy, and peace are not mere feelings but conditions of the whole person that are accompanied by characteristic positive feelings.

Love, joy, and peace are, we recall, the three fundamental dimensions of the fruit (note the singular) of the Spirit. They mutually interpenetrate and inform one another and naturally express themselves in the remainder of that one fruit: “… patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22–23).

Faith (confidence) and hope are also very important in properly structuring the feeling dimension of the mind and self. But they play their role in that regard in subordination to love, joy, and peace—that is, because of their relationship to them. The three primary dimensions of “the fruit” (love, joy, and peace) are in fact not separable from the three things “that remain” of 1 Corinthians 13:13 (faith, hope, and love) and of course are partially identical with them. All are focused on goodness and what is good, and all are strength-giving and pleasant even in the midst of pain or suffering. That is not what we seek them for, or something we try to make of them. It is, simply, their natural attire.

Hope and Faith

Hope is anticipation of good not yet here, or as yet “unseen.” It is of course inseparable from joy.Sometimes the good in question is just deliverance from an evil, which is here. Then “we are saved by hope” (Romans 8:24, par) and “we rejoice in hope” (12:12, par), because “if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (8:25). That eager anticipation strengthens us to stay faithful to God and to stay on the path of what is right.

One of the remarkable changes brought by Jesus and his people into the ancient world concerned the elevation of hope into a primary virtue. Hope was not well regarded by the Greco-Roman world. It was thought of as a desperation measure. And while, according to the myth of Pandora’s box, it may be all we have left with which to endure the agonies of life, it must be grimly held in check or it will give rise to vain expectations that only cause more misery. Christ, by contrast, brings solid hope for humanity.

Clearly, then, hope also is closely related to faith. Faith is confidence grounded in reality, not a wild, desperate “leap.” It is, as Hebrews 11:1 says, substance and evidence or proof, not—as contemporary translations usually have it—subjective psychological states such as “being sure of” or “having a conviction of.”

Rather, faith sees the reality of the unseen or invisible, and it includes a readiness to act as if the good anticipated in hope were already in hand because of the reality of God (compare 2 Corinthians 4:17–18). Jeremy Taylor drives the point home with these words: “He that believes dares trust God for the morrow, and is not more solicitous for the next year than he is for that which is past.” No one worries about what was going to happen last year.

Accordingly, Moses “left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king” (Hebrews 11:27). Egypt and its king were in the realm of “the seen.” Moses was able to disregard them and to stick with his goal because he saw the One who is invisible but none the less real for that. “For he endured, as seeing Him who is unseen” (verse 27). That is “faith” as the Bible portrays it.

Faith and Hope Lay the Foundation for a Life Full of Love

Romans 5:1–5 outlines an instructive and inspiring progression from an initial faith in God through Christ, with an accompanying initial hope, to a subsequent or higher-level hope that “does not disappoint.” The apostle Paul wrote this way because, in the progression of our experience, the Holy Spirit pours out into our own hearts the kind of love God has. This important passage needs to be studied in depth for any adequate understanding of spiritual formation in the Christian tradition, especially as it concerns feelings.

The initial faith in Christ gives us “our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand” (verses 1). This is the new birth into Christ’s kingdom. It puts an end to the war between me and God that has gone on most of my life and surrounds me with God’s gracious actions. Now, because of Christ’s death for me and his continuing graces, I know that God is good, and I am thrilled with the hope that God’s goodness and greatness will serve as the basis of my own existence as well as of everything else. Thus, “we exult in hope of the glory of God” (verse 2).

But this opens the path for transformation of our character. I am also thrilled about my tribulations! I know that they will prove God’s power and faithfulness in love to me, and to trust him in all things becomes my settled character. Therefore “we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character” (verses 3–4; compare James 1:2–4).

But godly character now brings about a different quality of hope (verse 4). Character is a matter of our entire personality and life, which has now been transformed by the process of perseverance under God. Hope therefore now pervades our life as a whole. And this new and pervasive hope—which is an outgrowth of our initial “hope of the glory of God,” but now covers our entire life—“does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (verse 5).


Thus faith in Christ and the initial hope it inspires lead us to stand in the grace (the action) of God, and standing there leads, in turn, to a life full of love. We will want to see how this love relates to joy and peace, as well as to the rest of the fruit of the Spirit. But first we need to get a clearer picture of love itself, of its four movements required to complete its work in our life, of how (when completed) it casts out fear (1 John 4:18). Then we shall see the effect of all this on the feeling dimension of our life.

And first, what exactly is love? It is will to good or “bene-volence.” We love something or someone when we promote its good for its own sake. Love’s contrary is malice, and its simple absence is indifference. Its normal accompaniment is delight, but a twisted soul may delight in evil and take no pleasure in good.

Love is not the same thing as desire, for I may desire something without even wishing it well, much less willing its good. I might desire a chocolate ice cream cone, for example. But I do not wish it well; I wish to eat it. This is the difference between lust (mere desire) and love, as between a man and a woman. Desire and love are, of course, compatible when desire is ruled by love; but most people today would, unfortunately, not even know the difference between them. Hence, in our world, love constantly falls prey to lust. That is a major part of the deep sickness of contemporary life.

By contrast, what characterizes the deepest essence of God is love—that is, will to good. His very creation of the world is an expression of will to good, and it is then to be expected that his world would be found by him to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31). His love and goodwill toward humans is, therefore, not an “add on” to a nature that is fundamentally careless or even hostile. It is another expression—one of the more important ones, of course—of what he always and in every respect is. It is not hard for God to love, but it is impossible, given his nature, for him not to love.

Our human world as we find it is not like God, though it was intended to be. We have already expanded on this in an earlier chapter, but must take note of it again here. Love is not natural in our world, though desire or lust certainly is. “The lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life,” the apostle said, is “all that is in the world” (1 John 2:16, par).

Pride is defined by desire, not by love. It is, above all, the presumption that my desires should be fulfilled and that it is an injustice, a crying shame, and an injury if they are not.

Lust and pride all around us inevitably result in a world of fear. For they bring us into a world of little dictators; and the most likely thing is that each person will be used and abused by others, possibly destroyed, and at least not helped and cared for. Our families, which should be a refuge from such a world, often turn out to be places where victimization is at its worst. “The dark places of the land are full of the habitations of violence” (Psalm 74:20). The tender young are initiated into an adult world hardened in evil. A baby is not even safe from its mother while in her womb. “And he who turns aside from evil makes himself a prey” (Isaiah 59:15).

Injury brings pain and loss, then fear and anger, which mingle with resentment and contempt and settle into postures of coldness and malice, with brutal feelings that drain the body of health and strength and shatter social well-being.

The Four Movements Toward Perfect Love

In such a world God intrudes, gently and in many ways, but especially in the person of Jesus Christ. It is he who stands for love, as no one else has ever done, and pays the price for it. His crucifixion is the all-time high-water mark of love on earth. “While we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). No other source, whether inside or outside of religions, even comes close to what God in Christ shows of love. This is the first “move” of love in the process of redemption. “He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). Therefore, “love is from God” (1 John 4:7, par). And “We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). All other loves are to be measured by this standard (Acts 17:31).

When we receive what is thus clearly given, the revelation of God’s love in Christ, that in turn makes it possible for us to love. Love is awakened in us by him. We feel its call—and first to love Jesus himself, and then God. Thus the first great commandment, to love God with all our being, can be fulfilled because of the beauty of God given in Christ. This is the second movement in the return to love: “We love, because He first loved us.”

But the second movement is inseparable from the third movement: our love of others who love God. “If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). The first great commandment makes it possible to fulfill the second: love of neighbor as oneself. And loving others under God will ensure that we are loved by others. For to the others in our community of love, we are the “other” whom they love because they love and are loved by God. The fellowship of Christ’s apprentices in kingdom living is a community of love (John 13:34–35). This is the fourth movement in the process of redeeming love.

Here, then, is the full account of the movements of love in our lives: We are loved by God who is love, and in turn we love him, and others through him, who in turn love us through him. Thus is love made perfect or complete. And “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). That is, those who live in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive love in human life will no longer experience fear. “Fear involves torment,” John notes, and torment is incompatible with living in the full cycle of love (1 John 4:18, par). We live in the community of goodwill from a competent God.

Now, as St. Augustine saw long ago, the opposite of love is pride. Love eliminates pride because its will for the good of the other nullifies our arrogant presumption that we should get our way. We are concerned for the good of others and assured that our good is taken care of without self-will. Thus pride and fear and their dreadful offspring no longer rule our life as love becomes completed in us.


Joy is natural in the presence of such love. Joy is a pervasive sense—not just a thought—of well-being: of overall and ultimate well-being. Its primary feeling component is delight in an encompassing good well-secured. It is not the same as pleasure, though it is pleasant. It is deeper and broader than any pleasure. Pleasure and pain are always specific to some particular object or condition, such as eating something you really like (pleasure) or recalling some really foolish thing you did (pain).

But for joy, all is well, even in the midst of specific suffering and loss. Self-sacrificial love is therefore always joyous—no matter the pain and loss it may involve. For we are always looking at the larger scene in which love rules: Where all things (no matter what) work together for good to those who love God and are drawn into his purposeful actions on earth.

Joy is a basic element of inner transformation into Christlikeness and of the outer life that flows from it. Thus when Jesus was explaining things to his closest friends on the night before his crucifixion, he left his peace with them (John 14:27). Then, after explaining to them how he would be the vine and they the branches, constantly drawing rich life from him, he said, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (15:11). This theme of being full of joy is repeated twice more in John’s version of his final discourse and prayer (16:24; 17:13).

Having one’s joy “full” means that there is no room for any more of it. Full joy is our first line of defense against weakness, failure, and disease of mind and body. But even when they break through into our life, “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Nehemiah 8:10, par). Thus the tribulation that came upon those in Thessalonica who received the word of Christ went hand in hand “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The joy of Christ that fills us is received as a gift of divine impartation. “The kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). That is, it is righteousness (love), peace, and joy of a kind that can only be produced in us by the Holy Spirit.

But here again we must not be passive. We may allow joy to dissipate through looking backward at our sins and failures, or forward at what might happen to us, or inward at our struggles with work, responsibilities, temptations, and deficiencies. But this means we have placed our hopes in the wrong thing, namely ourselves, and we do not have to do this. It is our option to look to the greatness and goodness of God and what he will do in our lives. Therefore Paul, in jail, speaks to the Philippians of his own contentment “in whatever circumstances” (4:11) and urges them to “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (4:4). We will be empowered by the Spirit of God to do this if we choose it and fix our minds on the good that God is and will certainly bring to pass.

“For Thou, O Lord, hast made me glad by what Thou has done, I will sing for joy at the works of Thy hands” (Psalm 92:4).


Peace is the rest of will that results from assurance about “how things will turn out.” It is always a form of active engagement with good, plus assurance that things will turn out well. The dead are often spoken of as “at peace,” but they are not at peace unless they are actually alive and doing well.

“I am at peace about it,” we say, and this means I am no longer striving, inwardly or outwardly, to save some outcome dear to me or to avoid one that I reject. I have released whatever is at issue and am no longer even putting “body English” or “spin” on it or inwardly gritting my teeth.

Of course everyone is at peace about some things, one hopes, but few have peace in general, and fewer still have peace that reaches their body and its automatic responses to such a depth that it does not live in a covert state of alarm. Most people carry heavy burdens of care, and usually about the things that are most important in life: what will happen to their loved ones, their finances, health, death, their physical appearance or what others think of them, the future of society, their standing before God and their eternal destiny. To be at peace with God and others (family, neighbors, and coworkers) is a great attainment and depends on graces far beyond ourselves as well as on our own efforts. That is also true of being at peace with oneself.

Peace with God comes only from acceptance of his gift of life in his Son (Romans 5:1–2). We are then assured of the outcome of our life and are no longer trying to justify ourselves before God or others. We have accepted that we are not righteous or even totally competent and that we cannot be so on our own. We have laid down the burden of justifying ourselves before God and are learning not to justify ourselves before men. This is the peace that grows within us.

From those around me I must simply assume grace and mercy, not that I will get what I deserve. I am a beggar on my way through the world. Justice is not enough for my needs, and I couldn’t stand it if I got it. When others do not extend the grace and mercy I need, I have to draw on the abundance of it in God. “Who is this that is condemning me?” I remind myself, “Jesus even died for me, was raised from the dead, and is now standing up for me before God” (Romans 8:34, par). Assurance of this allows me to “seek peace and pursue it” (1 Peter 3:11), no matter who is involved, and to “pursue peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14). That includes all our family members and coworkers!

Even in cases where, through no fault of my own, there must be a struggle between me and others, there does not have to be a struggle within me. I may have to resist others, for some good reason, but even so I do not have to make things come out right. I am not the one in control of outcomes. I do not have to hate those whose course of action I resist, or even get mad at them, and so I can always be at peace within myself as well as toward them.

Rest on the Greatness of God

The secret to this peace is, as great apprentices of Jesus have long known, being abandoned to God. We have to return to this for a fuller treatment in our next chapter, on the will; but the person who is heartily abandoned to God knows that all shall be well because God is in charge of his or her life. My peace is the greatness of God.

Because he, who not only loves me but is Love, is so great, I live beyond harm in his hands; and there is nothing that can happen to me that will not turn out to my good. Nothing. That is what Romans 8:28 really means. Because of this, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee,” the ancient text reads (Isaiah 26:3, kjv).

It makes supreme sense, therefore, that I should accept Paul’s instruction to “be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).

The poet Sidney Lanier put this into beautiful images:

As the marsh-hen secretly builds on the watery sod,

Behold I will build me a nest on the greatness of God:

I will fly in the greatness of God as the marsh-hen flies

In the freedom that fills all the space ’twixt the marsh and the skies:

By so many roots as the marsh-grass sends in the sod

I will heartily lay me a-hold on the greatness of God.

The greatness and love of God forms my peace, and at the same time, my love and joy. Job had many worrisome questions in the midst of his troubled life. But when he beheld God, they simply did not matter and no longer seemed to need answering. He did not raise a single one of the questions he earlier had wanted to press upon God (Job 42:2–6). He was not bullied into silence by God coming to him, but really saw the all-sufficiency of God to his life and his soul. And this brought love, joy, and peace to him at one stroke.

Love, Joy, and Peace Cannot Be Separated

Of course it is impossible to separate love, joy, peace, faith (confidence), and hope from one another in practice. They lose their true nature when separated. Try imagining love without joy and peace, joy without love and peace, or peace without love and joy, or any combination of them without faith and hope.

You will see, upon making a slight effort, that love, joy, and so on, without the others just wouldn’t be themselves. Or perhaps we have all already seen in this world far too much of “love” without joy and peace, or “peace” without love and joy, and so on. And joy without hope is one of the most exquisitely tortured blossoms of human despair, constantly cultivated by modern secularism (Thomas Hardy, Albert Camus, and on and on).

Far too often, however, we find such a separation to be something “religion” has accomplished. And that explains why “religion” as commonly practiced does not eliminate pride and fear, but routinely makes it worse. Pride and fear are the two roots of “the deeds of the flesh” described by Paul in Galatians 5:19–21 and elsewhere, governed by sensuality and malice and trailing clouds of other poisonous feelings resulting from them. So long as the will or spirit (heart) is governed by such feelings, life is simply hopeless.

By contrast, it is the positive movement into love, joy, and peace, based on faith and hope in God, that eliminates the destructive feelings or at least eliminates them as governing factors in our life. We do not go at the change the other way around, trying first to root out the destructive feelings. That is the common mistake of worldly wisdom and of much “religion” on such matters. But we know that in being with Jesus the destructive feelings, with their actions, will drop off us as we increasingly see that “with Thee is the fountain of life,” and come to realize that “in Thy light we see light” (Psalm 36:9).

Love, joy, and peace fostered in divine fellowship simply crowd out fear, anger, unsatisfied desire, woundedness, rejection. There is no longer room for them—well, perhaps there is for a while, but increasingly less so. Belonging to Christ does not immediately eliminate bad feelings, and we must not be drawn into pretense that it does. But it does crucify them. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus,” we read, “have crucified [past tense] the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).

Belonging to Christ does mean that the merely fleshly passions and desires are on the way to death and already have ceased leading a life of their own, much less, then, leading our whole life as they used to. That is how it is with all negative and destructive feelings in those who have put Christ on the throne of their life and have taken their place on his cross.

Some Things We Can Do

And so, practically speaking, the renovation of the heart in the dimension of feeling is a matter of opening ourselves to and carefully cultivating love, joy, and peace: first by receiving them from God and from those already living in him, and then as we grow, extending love, joy, and peace to others and everything around us in attitude, prayer, and action. Following our VIM pattern, we must intend this and decide that it shall be in all we are and do. Of course our thought life, as already described, will be focused upon God. Then through grace we can translate this intention to dwell in love, joy, and peace into the fine texture of daily existence. Our walk with Jesus and the Father will teach us and show us the details of the means required to bring it to pass.

Here is some of the work to be done. For many of us, just coming to honest terms with what our feelings really are will be a huge task. Paul says in Romans 12:9, “Let love be without hypocrisy.” That is, let it be genuine or sincere. To do only this will require serious effort, deep learning, and quantities of grace.

Our ordinary life and our religious associations are so permeated with insincere expressions of love, often alongside of contempt and anger, that it is hard not to feel forced into hypocrisy in some situations. But we can learn to avoid it, and we shall immediately begin to see what a huge difference that alone makes.

But there is much more to do. Very few people are without deep negative feelings toward others who are or have been closely related to them. Wounds carried steadily through the years have weighed us down and prevented spiritual growth in love, joy, and peace. They may have seeped over into our identity. We wouldn’t know who we are without them. But they can be healed or dismissed, if we are ready to give them up to God and receive the healing ministry of his Word and Spirit. This applies similarly to hopelessness over not achieving things long sought or long lost.

In general, the task, once we have given ourselves to Christ, is to recognize the reality of our feelings and agree with the Lord to abandon those that are destructive and that lead us into doing or being what we know to be wrong. This he will then help us with. We may need to write out what those feelings are in a “letter to the Lord,” or perhaps confer about them with a wise Christian friend who knows how to listen to us and to God at the same time.

Perhaps individuals or our fellowship group can have a prayer ministry to us. Journaling about progress with feelings can also help. It can bring to light the ideas and images or past events on which the destructive feelings are based. Those, too, will need to be replaced or revised. Many such details may play a role as we progress toward predominance of love, joy, and peace in that dimension of our mind and our self that is our feelings.

We can be very sure that this is God’s intent for us. Thus Paul prayed for his friends in Ephesus that they would be “rooted and grounded in love” and “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17–19). And we have seen the intent of Jesus: “That My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full” (John 15:11). Also his, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give you. Let not your heart be troubled nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). And here is Paul’s benediction to the Romans: “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

The Extreme Seriousness of Feelings for Spiritual Formation

Understanding of the role of feelings in life and in the process of spiritual formation is absolutely essential if that process is to succeed as it should. There are many ways we can go wrong with reference to feelings. They are extremely influential on all that we are and do—much more so than they should be for our own good, and mainly because we accord them greater significance than they deserve.

They, more than any other component of our nature, are the “trigger” of sinful action. If you consider all of the Ten Commandments after the first two, for example, you will see that it is feelings out of control that lead to their violation. In his own magnificent treatment of the moral life, Jesus makes a point of putting anger, contempt, and lust in their place (Matthew 5:21 and following). Until that is done, nothing else works.

We have noted how we go wrong in trying to manipulate feelings themselves without regard to their underlying condition. It is often done with good intent, but it is nearly always harmful to the deeper interests of the soul. That is especially true when we try to stir up feelings as a means of getting people to do what we think is good in the course of efforts at Christian ministry.

Feelings have a crucial role in life, but they must not be taken as a basis for action or character change. That role falls to insight, understanding, and conviction of truth, which will always be appropriately accompanied by feeling. Feelings are not fundamental in the nature of things but become so if we assign them that role in life, and then life will not go as it should. Many sincere professing Christians suffer in their walk with God because they made a commitment prompted by a feeling of “need” and not by insight into how things are with God and their soul.

Partly because of this faulty basis of commitment, the area of feeling is, I suspect, the most likely place of defeat for those sincerely seeking to follow Christ today. Satan uses feelings to captivate us today by making them more important to our life than they really are, as well as by inducing much false guilt about what we do and do not feel. Nowhere is this more obvious than in marriage and divorce as now practiced (or mis-practiced). But at all stages of adult life, feelings are among Satan’s primary instrument. They are used to devastate the soul in the processes of aging, sickness, and death among Christians and nonChristians alike. This need not be the case. Appropriate spiritual formation in Christ will prevent it. We must understand how love, joy, and peace can be our portion in every state of life and can lead us into a radiant eternity with God.[1]

[1] Willard, D. (2002). Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (pp. 127–139). NavPress.

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