When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. — Acts 14:21-22
To say that doctrine matters more than feelings is not to say that feelings are invalid or shouldn't be considered. Feelings are certainly to be considered when studying, teaching or confronting someone else with Biblical truth, particularly the unpleasant truths. Of course, the truth is to always be spoken in love; and, in fact, it is this love which causes us to be sensitive to how someone might receive our words. That said, our consideration must only go so far. Biblical truth is not to be compromised or diluted for fear of upsetting and offending someone, or of making them uncomfortable. We shouldn't forget the reality that God, too, has feelings. And to believe that doctrine matters more than our feelings, as well as the feelings of others, is to believe that God's approval is far more important than that of any man.
In the name of love, much of modern evangelicalism caters to temporal feelings more than to eternal souls. They fear the discomfort of man more than the displeasure of God. Practically convinced that nice is a fruit of the Spirit, many in the Church refuse to teach or embrace many of the Bible's unpleasant truths, such as sovereign election, hell, sin and repentance, judgment, holiness, discipline, lordship, evangelism, etc. The result is an over-emphasis on "the love of God," and not the agape (God-kind of, self-sacrificing) love found in Scripture, but a version of love reduced to that which is only positive, encouraging, and feels "loving." This is done almost to the complete exclusion of God’s other attributes, when the reality is that God is all of His attributes fully and simultaneously. However, this incomplete image and misunderstanding of God is precisely what permits many to consider the feelings of others above the feelings of God.
A God who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol. — RC Sproul
There are a couple reasons we are tempted to smooth out and gloss over the hard Biblical truth of Christian doctrine.
- Christian doctrine is naturally OFFENSIVE.
The holiness of God challenges our natural sense of goodness. His sovereignty assault our natural sense of fairness. The doctrine of hell threatens our natural sense of justice. And the Lordship of Jesus shatters our natural sense of freedom. Sure, some Bible verses make great decoration for throw pillows and coffee mugs, but much of the Bible reveals a God, and demands a lifestyle that frustrates and even offends non-believers and casual adherents to Christianity alike. To understand this obstinate resistance to spiritual truth, we need to simply consider the spiritual condition of the lost. Paul tells us that the Gospel is foolishness according to those who are perishing. To preach the biblical Gospel to even a moral sinner is offensive, because the Gospel is predicated on the fact that they are morally wretched and spiritually depraved, utterly incapable of doing anything that is truly good. The Gospel then communicates to them that they will certainly suffer God's wrath eternally unless they repent of their sins and turn their life over to Him as their Lord. You simply can't dress up these initial implications. They are inconvenient and unpleasant truths. This, however, is only half of the Gospel. The Gospel, of course meaning "good news," is that Christ lived and died in our place in order to save us from sin and death. This understanding leads those who are being saved into a deep love for Jesus. Now, we are the righteousness of God in Christ by grace and through faith in his perfect life and substitutionary death on the cross for our sins. God's gracious revelation in Scripture is not only the problem, it is the solution.
And to the surprise of many professing Christians, the hard truths do not end once we are saved. In fact, it seems it has only begun. A believer enters the gates of the kingdom through suffering in this life. Christ's first commands are to repent, and lay down our very life and pick up our cross. Christ calls us to give up every worldly security and comfort. The Christian will spend the rest of his/her life mortifying the flesh and fight to faithfully following after Christ. Sadly, many Christians tend to live as though their challenges are over now that their eternity is resolved, and that to be a Christian is the cure-all to life's problems. But, most understand deep down that the goal of God is not our circumstantial happiness or comfort, but rather maturity and deep joy in the God of our salvation. Ironically, the Christian life actually promises trials, discomforts, loss of relationship, deep sorrow, and much more. We are living in a foreign land, going against the grain. While, no doubt, the Christian life offers a much greater sense of joy, hope, and purpose than the world will ever know, and while it leads to many significant pleasures in this life, we need to be careful that we don't make the Christian life out to be easier than or less than Christ Himself makes it out to be. It is hard to imagine someone more offensive to the natural man than Christ, Himself. That said, the Lord graciously allows for even our trials to be something we take great joy in, because we know He is making us more like Christ.
Sadly, our post-modern, relativistic culture has dramatically increased our obsession with the feelings of others, and many Christians are giving into society's demand for greater inclusivity and tolerance. While believers are to love without partiality, holding to sound doctrine will inevitably cause us to communicate things such as the exclusivity of Christ and God's righteous intolerance of sin. In some cases, our stand for truth will even put us in a position to offend someone to the point that the state is involved, because our convictions prevent us from giving someone what they deserve according to the law. In these situations, we must be first committed to God, giving Him the allegiance and obedience only God deserves. Whether it is the legal rights or the feelings of others, the truth and commands of God in His Word, even when spoken in love, will often times lead to offense.
- Christian doctrine is extremely SERIOUS.
In its seriousness, Biblical truth is more exclusive and urgent than what most are comfortable with. It's commands and implications apply to everyone, without exception, and it is a matter of eternal life and eternal death. Too many shy away from sharing the full range of doctrine for fear of being perceived as either judgmental or insensitive. However, taking everything in Scripture as seriously as it demands inevitably leads to these unfair perceptions. We cannot forget that Jesus was murdered for "blasphemous" claims and for teachings that threatened the security, if not the livelihood, of most who dared to follow Him. If the Bible was filled with divine suggestions, this wouldn't be a problem. But, one of the signs that we are doing it right is when we experience persecution from a world that hates us and speaks out against us. Paul knew that Jesus' purpose for him to boldly take the Gospel to the world would result in much suffering. However, the opposite is frequently taught and widely accepted, that becoming a Christian will result in all kinds of circumstantial blessings. The heretical abuse of Scripture, known as the prosperity "gospel," amplifies this lie, twisting Bible verses to promise health, wealth, and circumstantial happiness in this life - with enough faith, of course. This false doctrine misses the important fact that God's Word is from God and is about God and is therefore to be taken very seriously. Instead, the Bible is often used to address and meet the felt needs of people and appeal to the carnal desires of the lost. And, in order to do this the feelings and worldly desires of people must first be elevated beyond the truth in God's Word. What results is a belief that both the Bible and the Christian life is all about "me."
One of the most offensive things Jesus said was that the love we have for even our biological family must equate to hate in comparison to our love and devotion to Him. And while it can be said that the problem is that we love people more than we love God, it is more accurate to say we do not truly love these people enough, or else we would be willing to risk how the truth might make them feel in order that it would truly help, and even save them. Recalling what is perhaps an over-used and predictable Illustration of something called "tough-love." If you were about to be flattened by a Greyhound bus barreling down the road, the most loving thing anyone could do for you in that moment is to tackle you to the hard ground in order to get you out of it's way. Would you really stumble to your feet, after your life was spared, frustrated that you were tackled, because your fall resulted in a few bruises? Of course not. You would be grateful to be alive and appreciative that someone risked breaking your bones to prevent your sure death. But when it comes to being directly confronted by spiritual truth, many are so offended that someone else would make something so personal as their own relationship with God their business. But, to be offended by Biblical truth is to not grasp the urgency of the spiritual life or the inevitability of eternity. We are commanded to confess our sins to one another, gently correct one another, and speak hard truth into the lives of those in the Church that they may treat their sin like sin. Jesus warned of the immediate danger of sin with a potent Jewish illustration that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Sin, and for that matter, the whole of the Christian life, is neither casual nor private. In a word, it is extremely serious.
As it turns out this sentimentality isn't new. Writing about one of the "pressing dangers" facing the Church in the year 1884, J. C. Ryle wrote, "You are not allowed to ask, "What is God's truth?" but "What is liberal, and generous, and kind?" And while some truths in Scripture are positive enough to readily appeal to the masses, there are many more that are too sober and serious for comfort. Our love for all people ought to, at most, influence how gently we implement or communicate truth, however, God forbid it ever prohibit us from speaking truth for fear of offending them or causing them discomfort. We must not be so unloving.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die — Deitrich Bonhoeffer