“EMOTION!” Screamed the Calm Voice of Reason

E.F. Schumacher wrote that we are most fully alive when we are reconciling the irreconcilable:

o Freedom and responsibility
o Forgiveness and justice
o Law and gospel
o The now and not yet of God’s reign

The key is keeping these opposites in balance.

The same holds true for preachers as we try to reconcile the irreconcilable opposites of reason and emotion. Is a sermon supposed to target the head or the heart?

As seminary professors love to say when presented with such a dichotomy, the answer is: “Yes.” The key is to keep these opposites in balance.

There are preachers who target the heart almost exclusively in their sermons. A member of my congregation, who used to be actively involved in another church, told me that one of the goals of the worship planners there was to make people cry. Tears were considered a manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Intense emotion was viewed as a sign that the worshipper had encountered God on a deep and personal level.

On the other hand, there are preachers who are the ecclesiastical version of Star Trek’s Spock, for whom emotion is a dirty word. In their minds, appeals to emotion are cheap tricks or dangerous exercises in mass manipulation. They view the sermon as an intellectual exercise in which soundness of doctrine, correctness of sentence structure, and consistency with the original Greek are the measures of success.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that if my sermon is a dry-as-bones lecture on the theological underpinnings of the doctrine of atonement, I am not reaching anyone with the Gospel.

If I argue that God formed the moon out of instant pudding in three delicious flavors, no amount of zeal or tugging at the heartstrings will transform my message from the utter bilge that it is.

Head messages come at us from the outside. Our minds examine these messages carefully before we accept them. Our detachment from the message gives us some perspective in determining its value. This helps us separate the wheat of proclamation from the chaff. But the deliberative process also strips the message of urgency or even interest.

Heart messages come through us from the inside. We don’t just hear the message, we experience it. We live it. That is why emotional appeals to the heart are the most effective means of conveying a message. The problem is that they are effective regardless of the value of the content.

o Attempts to avoid emotion in our preaching result in a lack of passion.
o Attempts to target the heart in our preaching result in crass manipulation.

How to solve the dilemma? There is no solution; there is only the life-giving task of reconciling the irreconcilable. We appeal to the head to safeguard the content of the message we are to proclaim, while at the same time we appeal to the heart so that we can best transfer the content.

We try to keep our minds focused on the head messages, while we let our passion for the Gospel carry those messages through to the heart.

For me, 1 Corinthians 13 is the best example of this in the Bible. Paul makes an incredibly sound, rational argument in these verses. Yet at the same time, a swirl of emotions–anger, frustration, passion for the Gospel of Christ–drives his message with such force that it jumps off the page in a way that none of his other writings do. The passage is beloved because it is both a sound exposition of a theological truth and a desk-pounding explosion of emotion.

In these verses, Paul is a flaming block of ice. A passionate, emotional, voice of reason.

That’s not an easy target to hit, but it’s a good target to shoot for.