Affections and emotions: Are they the same?

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Sam Storms:

The word “affection” may be unfamiliar to many, except when used of romantic feelings that pass between a man and a woman. This is not the sense in which I use it here. Jonathan Edwards defined the affections as “the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.”

So, are our “affections” the same as our “emotions” or “passions”? I don’t think so.

Certainly, there is what may rightly be called an emotional dimension to affections. Affections, after all, are sensible and intense longings or aversions of the will. Perhaps it would be best to say that whereas affections are not less than emotions, they are surely more. Emotions can often be no more than physiologically heightened states of either euphoria or fear that are unrelated to what the mind perceives as true.

Affections, on the other hand, are always the fruit or effect of what the mind understands and knows. The will or inclination is moved either toward or away from something that is perceived by the mind. An emotion or mere feeling, on the other hand, can rise or fall independently of and unrelated to anything in the mind.

One can experience an emotion or feeling without it properly being an affection, but one can rarely if ever experience an affection without it being emotional and involving intense feelings that awaken and move and stir the body.

True spirituality, or true religion, therefore, consists to a large extent in “vigorous and lively actings of the inclination and will of the soul, or the fervent exercises of the heart” (Edwards), which is to say, in the affections.

This is nowhere better seen than in 1 Peter 1:8. There the apostle tells us about the nature of true faith, Grade-A faith, faith in its purest and most godly form this side of being glorified in the new heaven and new earth. This is the experience of the believer after he/she has been refined by the fire of suffering or what Peter calls “various trials” (v. 6).

And what then is left when the dross of hypocrisy and insincerity and selfishness and pretense is burned away? To put it simply: love for Jesus, trust in Jesus, and joy “that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (v. 8).

These are among the preeminent affections of the heart that embody the essence of true Christianity. Don’t ever think that Christianity is merely about thinking the right thoughts or choosing the right things. Those are certainly involved. But at the heart and soul of our relationship with Jesus is love, which is to say, unashamed extravagant affection for him, and trust, which is to say that we treasure and prize him above all else, entrusting our souls to his care and comfort, and joy, a joy that transcends the capacity of the human tongue to articulate, a joy that is riddled or shot through with the very glory of God himself.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.