Abstract of a Sermon Preached on April 8, 2001
I preached to you a week ago on whether there is any virtue in doing as we ought to do, in spite of the fact that our heart is not in it. I answered that, of course, in the affirmative. Religion does not consist of feeling. But then we ought to have some feeling in our religion, and the more feeling we have, the better.
In Revelation 2, in the Lord's letter to the church at Ephesus, he finds many works for which to commend them, but censures them for their flagging emotions. “I know thy works,” he says, “and thy labour, and thy patience, and how thou canst not bear them which are evil: and thou hast tried them which say they are apostles, and are not, and hast found them liars; and hast borne, and hast patience, and for my name's sake hast laboured, and hast not fainted.” All this is commendation, and he commends their works in spite of the fact that he must immediately add, “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” They did not have the love they ought to have had—-did not have the love they once had. Their works were done without the same heart with which they had once done them, yet the works were still good, still commendable, still acceptable to God.
But some, on the basis of the statement that they had left their first love, or forsaken it, have labored to prove that “love is a decision,” and not an emotion. You can't forsake an emotion. It is not said they had lost their first love, but left it. For this they are held responsible. They might have helped it. They might have chosen otherwise. Love, therefore, is a matter of choice, and not of feeling.
Such is the argument, but we deny its validity. Before we leap to any such conclusion, we must consider the manner in which they had left their first love. Do you imagine they woke up one morning, and said, “I will not henceforth love the Lord as I have done heretofore. This is my choice. I choose to forsake my first love for him.” Such an idea is really too absurd for serious consideration. Whatever the manner of their leaving their first love, it was certainly not this. The fact is, no man can leave love in such a manner. Ask some lover if she can decide one day to love her fellow less today than she did before. If she says she can, you can tell her she is no lover at all. These Ephesians did not thus decide to leave their first love. Love is an emotion, and is not subject to such decisions. But let us clarify one point before we proceed. Though I insist that love is an emotion, I do not mean to imply that there is nothing of commitment in it. I only affirm that it is primarily an emotion, and as such it is not subject to any decision, either to begin or end it, either to augment or diminish it.
How then did they leave their first love? No doubt gradually, imperceptibly, and in a manner involuntarily. “The love of many,” the Bible says, “will wax cold,” and this is no doubt exactly what happened at Ephesus. It waxed cold through neglect, or through giving the heart to other things. Not as the result of a single decision to diminish their love, but rather as the effect of numerous smaller decisions, and those not directly related to their love for the Lord. For those decisions they were responsible. They failed to maintain their first love. They too much valued other things. They were like Martha, exemplary in much service, all good and valuable in its place, but they too little valued the part which Mary chose, of nearness to the Lord himself. For all those choices they were responsible, and so were said to leave their first love. They left it little by little, doubtless more through neglect than by any deliberate choice.
Meanwhile, their works were good, as Martha's serving also was. We cannot doubt their works would have been better if their first love had remained, but still they were good. The Lord commends them, both before and after his censure for their lack of love. And though he censures them for having left their first love, he does not tell them to repent, and feel as they did before. He tells them to do as they had done before. “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” No doubt when they left their first love, they left off some of their first works also. The remedy is to do those first works again, with or without their first feelings.
The best illustration on earth of all these things is seen in the all too common experience of marriage. A young couple gets married, and in their first love they can hardly bear to be out of each other's sight. They want nothing but to look into each other's eyes, to whisper sweet nothings to each other, to kiss and caress, but little by little their love grows cold. Not by any deliberate choice, but by neglect, or even by necessary attention to other things. She used to walk to the car with him and embrace him when he left for work. Now she yells her “good bye” from the back porch. She used to put sweet love notes in his lunch box, but she doesn't do that any more. He used to stop at the store and buy her some little treat, but he doesn't do that any more. She used to labor to make him his favorite dish, and if she still does the same now, it isn't with the same feelings of delight with which she once did it. He used to get up from supper and do the dishes with her, but now he sits in his chair, and lets her do them herself.
Now if you come to such a couple and tell them to get back their first feelings, they will only look bewildered, and ask, “How?” If you tell them, “Love is a decision,” you only add to the confusion. You set them to work impossibilities. How do you decide to love more than you do? Ah, but move them to do the first works, and you have gained something. That they can do.
But at this point some will step in and say, “Yes, they can do the first works, but why should they? What does it signify, to act a love which is not there? Who would want it?”
To begin with the last question, I tell you, you would want it. Every woman would rather have her man help her with the dishes, than to neglect and ignore her. Every man would rather have his favorite dish than something out of a box or can. Every woman would rather have a treat than none. Every man would rather have his wife snuggle up to him and say, “Love me”—-or say nothing, for that matter—-than to turn her back to him, and say, “Leave me alone: I'm tired.” You gain something by doing the first works, and gain it even in the emotional realm, where you cannot gain it by a mere decision. Do the first works, and the first love may be rekindled. It is certain it never will be if you neglect the first works. And rekindled or not, we have a responsibility to do the first works.
The text says, “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” Remember the way it was. Remember how you used to act, what you used to do, and do the first works. Of course you want to get back your first feelings, but there is no way on earth you will do it, but by doing the first works. The emotions follow the choices, though it may be they will follow at a great distance. You may not like spinach, but you can learn to like it, by choosing to eat it, directly against your inclinations. Here lies the whole course of godliness. “Cease to do evil, and learn to do well.” Cease to do the evil which you love, and learn to do the good, for which you have little or no inclination. All this we do by choice, and much of it directly against our feelings, or in spite of feelings which are weak and languid.
Suppose the contrary. Suppose our determinations and actions ought to follow our feelings. Suppose there is no virtue in our choices and acts, if they flow not spontaneously from proper emotions. On this plan we ought to cease to act, while we seek or wait for right emotions. We ought, in other words, to do just what we feel like doing, no more and no less. Who cannot see that this is the direct road to the neglect of every good thing—-yes, and the direct road to the indulgence in every evil thing. To be perfectly plain, consistently followed, this is the direct route to hell. It puts a premium upon self-indulgence, and discourages self-denial. This is the devil's way, and the direct opposite of God's.