St Mary’s Lewisham
5th March 2006
First Sunday in Lent
Our Western World is going through a phase of thinking that people’s feelings, our own feelings in particular, are the most important thing to get right in our lives.
But the world’s ideas and priorities change often and radically. So there’s no reason to suppose that today’s popular belief – in the all-importance of feelings – will last any longer than those it replaced.
However, Christians should always look carefully at the world’s current Number One Idea, because:
Since we Christians are human beings and part of creation, we have to learn to live in the world. So anything our fellow-human beings believe is bound to ‘rub-off’ on you and me. We all get caught up by the latest fashion whether it’s clothes, or furniture, or ideas.
Secondly, the world’s ideas aren’t always totally bad or wrong. On the contrary, many contain a grain or two of truth. The trouble comes when the world insists on following up these ideas to such an extent, or in such a way, that something that’s good in itself turns into something evil.
So let’s first look at what’s good about our feelings.
A moment’s thought tells us that if we didn’t have any feelings at all we’d all be dead in a very short time. If we never felt hungry, for example, we would starve; if we never felt unwell we’d never go to the doctor’s to be made better; if our feelings didn’t warn us against touching a flame, we’d get badly, perhaps fatally, burnt. A mother’s instinctive feeling towards her children is essential to their welfare.
So feelings begin as reactions which we should thank God for having created. Without them we should be short-lived, very anti-social creatures. It’s precisely because God has made pleasant feelings accompany things like eating and drinking and socializing that we can achieve anything resembling civilization or personal fulfilment. It’s because we were made by God for Him to love us, and we to love both Him and our neighbour, that we should be grateful for the means of grace and the hope of glory he has provided to help us enjoy that love. So our feelings are an essential to our happiness.
But now let’s look at the down-side of our feelings.
Feelings are an unreliable guide to what is right and wrong, true or false. Anyone who is feeling satisfied with him- or her-self needs to beware.. We all know complacent and self-satisfied people who have fallen flat on their faces. If you don’t, just read today’s newspaper! People like that fall because their success has blinded them to their own shortcomings. It’s a deeply painful experience, too. The higher people stand in their own eyes, the harder and further they fall – and let’s face it, it’s not just pop-stars and politicians who suffer from pride; it’s you and I.
Feelings are also untrustworthy because they begin, and often end, inside ourselves. Do I feel satisfied? Am I feeling fulfilled? What’s in my best interests?. Unless we consider the effect on our family, our neighbours, and our fellow-Christians of doing what our feelings suggest, we shall discover that any satisfaction we may get from gratifying them is more than paid for by the disapproval we attract from our fellow-men. The principle ‘if it feels good, then do it’ is a deeply flawed one. We should be asking ourselves ‘is it lawful?’, ‘is it moral?’, ‘what’s it going to do to my relationship with others?’, and, above all, ‘what will this do to my relationship with God?’
A moment’s thought should tell us that ‘what I feel like now’ depends on a number of factors: on how well we slept last night; how we’re getting on both with the people we work with and with our work itself; our bodily health; and how many unpaid bills and unanswered letters are on our desk. Think how different you’d feel during the time you had to wait to hear the result of your hospital tests, from how you’d feel two weeks later when you heard those blessed words from your GP, ‘It’s all right, Sharon: the tests are negative. That lump’s nothing to worry about’!
Lent doesn’t just offer us the chance to discover and admit what we’ve done wrong. Another question we should ask ourselves is, ‘quite apart from anything I’ve done wrong, what sort of person am I really?’
The answer to this question – what sort of person am I? – was discovered by a doctor nearly two thousand years ago. His name was Galen and his method of classifying people into four categories or ‘humours’ is still used today. Galen realised that everyone’s personality stems from the prevalence within them of one of what he called the four ‘Humours’: the Sanguine, Choleric, Melancholic or Phlegmatic.
Sanguine people are habitually optimistic. They naturally look on the bright side of things; Choleric people are impulsive and easily annoyed when things go wrong; the Melancholic tend to be anxious about the future and easily get depressed when disappointed; Phlegmatic people see things ‘from the outside’ – this tends to make them very cautious about getting involved with other people and their interests.
It’s important to understand that, in God’s eyes, none of these humours makes anyone better (or worse) than anyone else. Like our height or the colour of our eyes or skin, our humours are something that we are ‘given’. On the contrary God expects us to use our prevailing humour in His service, just as He does our other talents – whether it is wisdom, artistry, physical strength, leadership, teaching or something else.
For instance, a choleric person might find himself being told by God to ‘do something’ about an evil which his fellow-men, by their complacency, have allowed to flourish. The great reformers were often choleric-natured people who felt so angry about some evil – slavery or child-labour for instance – that was going on around them that they ‘refused to put up with it any longer’; whilst everyone else was shrugging their shoulders, agreeing it was dreadful, but failing to lift a finger to do anything about it.
Of course the same choleric person’s quick temper needs the grace of God to control it. Otherwise he will find himself taking offence at anything he personally happens to dislike. The choleric man’s irritability is no less of a sin than the sanguine man’s complacency. But without sufficient choler around to shock the rest of us out of our habitual moral laziness, the cause of Righteousness will sink without trace.
The same is true of the other humours, sanguine, melancholic and phlegmatic. Each of them has both its plus and its minus qualities. I leave it to you to ask yourself questions like ‘What is my prevailing humour?; what use would God like me to put it to in His service?; and how could my humour lead me into temptation or evil?.
One thing is certain. We mustn’t allow our feelings to control our lives, as so many people do today.
Every feelings springs ultimately from our prevailing humour. Having God’s grace at our fingertips, – literally, in the shape of the Bible, the Sacraments and our prayers – we have no excuse for not turning that prevailing humour from a liability into being a valuable asset in God’s service.
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