Keep Your Heart (6)
… let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10.22
Engaging the affections
As we look to the Word of God, our desire, wherever we may be reading, is at least in part to illuminate or instruct our minds in the beautiful things of God and His will. We need to pay careful attention to the teaching of Scripture about affections – what they are, how they should be focused, and how they may be made more vigorous. By being alert to whatever Scripture teaches about affections, we can begin nurturing our hearts consistently with the kind of holy affections that are the fruit of a true and vibrant faith.
Jonathan Edwards has some very good suggestions about how we may do this. He writes, “If true religion lies much in the affections, we may infer, that such means are to be desired, as have much tendency to move the affections.” By “move” here he means to engage them, get them properly focused, and begin to nurture them to a growing vigor or fervor. When our affections are properly moved, they move us to act in line with what we rightly desire. So it’s important to know whatever and as much as we can about moving our affections.
To what means shall we turn?
First, Edwards says we must turn to prayer: “…in the duty of prayer; it is manifest, we are not appointed, in this duty, to declare God’s perfections, his majesty, holiness, goodness, and all-sufficiency; our own meanness, emptiness, dependence, and unworthiness, our wants and desires, in order to inform God of these things, or to incline his heart, and prevail with him to be willing to show us mercy; but rather suitably to affect our own hearts with the things we express, and so to prepare us to receive the blessings we ask.”
Now let’s not miss this. Edwards is not saying we shouldn’t exalt God in prayer, humble ourselves before Him, and lay our requests at His feet. He’s saying we should do this, but not to inform or persuade God as much as to affect our own hearts with God’s greatness and our utter and complete dependence on Him. Prayer provides a conversational setting in which we may visualize the beautiful things of God and reflect on the state of our affections before Him. We need to be continuously reminded of the greatness and goodness of God and of our own meanness and need. We can do this in prayer, while we are in the very Presence of God, because we know that there we are safe and loved, no matter what we bring before our Father.
Prayer is a context, in other words, for talking with God so that the way God sees things – Himself, our lives, our needs, and so forth – becomes the way we see them as well. This can be an invaluable aid in nurturing godly affections, because in prayer we can survey our affections and wait upon the Lord to search, know, affirm, or correct us as needed (Ps. 139.23, 24).
Second, Edwards recommends singing as an aid to nurturing godly affections. He writes, “No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”
He’s right, of course. We all understand the power of music to engage and move our affections. Music can lift our spirits, bring us to tears of joy, move us to boldness and shouting, and much more. So why don’t we sing any more than we do? Scripture offers many instances of commands to sing to the Lord. But how many of us actually do sing, other than when we’re together for corporate worship? Are we learning new songs to sing to the Lord? Do we take a song of praise or thanksgiving with us throughout the day? Do we work as hard at learning the lyrics and music of great hymns as we do at making sure our emails, texts, and social media are kept current?
Singing can greatly move our affections, but only if we actually do it unto the Lord.
Third, Edwards says that the sacraments of the Church should be a resource to move our affections. Such “sensible representations,” as Edwards called them, of the work of Christ as we encounter in baptism and the Lord’s Supper are designed to affect our hearts and not just engage our bodies in rote activities. The better we prepare for the sacraments, and the more faithfully and devoutly we apply our hearts and minds to participating in them, the more they will help nurture the kind of affections that lead to godliness in Christ Jesus.
Paul says that the bread and wine of the Supper are a “participation” in Jesus (NKJV “communion”, 1 Cor. 10.16). Jesus is truly present in these elements, albeit spiritually; but if we prepare well for the Supper and participate with full focus on the sacrament, we can know His Presence in deeper and more real ways. And this can have a powerful impact on our affections, beginning with our love for Him.
Edwards also mentions the role of preaching in shaping our affections: “God hath appointed a particular and lively application of his word, in the preaching of it, as a fit means to affect sinners with the importance of religion, their own misery, the necessity of a remedy, and the glory and sufficiency of a remedy provided; to stir up the pure minds of the saints, quicken their affections by often bringing the great things of religion to their remembrance, and setting them in their proper colours…”
Here is counsel to pay careful attention to the preaching of the Word, so that we don’t miss the ways Scripture can move, convict, and improve our hearts. Too often we listen to preaching only for the information a sermon contains. We need the information, it’s true; but we also need to let the Word of God enter, search, and transform our heart, engaging our affections with the truth of God and strengthening our soul.
Keep it up
Finally, Edwards insists that affections must be nurtured through practice, what he calls “a spirit of earnestness in the Christian work and course.” We must apply ourselves in daily life to suppress and overcome affections that distract us from our walk with the Lord, and to implant and improve those that do.
Only daily practice, walking in obedience to the Lord, will bring together all these other means to help us grow in godly affections as we should.
We can grow our hearts and keep them growing toward maturity in Christ, but we must do so consciously and conscientiously, waiting on the Lord to cleanse, renew, and improve this liveliest spring of our Christian lives, to strengthen our soul and move us to action for His Kingdom and glory.
1. Why is prayer an excellent place to work on keeping our hearts and nurturing proper affections?
2. Can you think of a hymn or praise song that especially engages your affections? In what ways? How does feeling this way affect your walk with and work for the Lord?
3. Explain how taking the Lord’s Supper should affect our heart. Which affections should we expect to experience? How can taking the Supper improve our affections?
Next steps – Transformation: How many of these “means” for nurturing proper affections are in place in your life? Where can you improve? Add something new to your today, and commit it to the Lord for nurturing your affections.
T. M. Moore
Your soul in the Kingdom of God
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.