Pathetic Ministry


What does emotionally intelligent ministry look like? ‘Pathetic’ now means something like ‘feeble, weak, useless’. In the eighteenth century it meant something like ‘related to the passions’. we get pathos from a similar root. Pathetic ministry, then, is ministry that takes account of the right place of the passions or emotions in the Christian life.

Isaac Watts has some helpful things to say about this in his Discourses o the Love of God. The passions can greatly help us in the Christian life. For instance a truth that is felt is much more likely to stick; and holiness becomes easier when our passions are engaged because, after all, we want to know holiness. And where passions are brought under the rule of Christ, a great ‘engine of mischief’ (p. 669) is taken from the hands of satan, and deployed to the greater glory of God.

Pathetic ministry therefore needs to cultivate an emotional literacy so that we worship with our heart as well as with our minds when we worship together. This is not manipulation if we aim to cultivate passions for God, under the rule of Christ. It may mean consciously making time for reflection and response; it will mean that when we sing, we can celebrate, or lament, or praise.

There are implications for preaching too.

  • The language of Scripture is emotive. When we preach those passages, do we allow the passion to be displayed and evoked? I remember one minister describing how one service during a sermon series on Job had no songs – they seemed inappropriate for the subject matter. Of course, there are other notes in the emotional register!
  • There are emotional applications: how should I feel about this? What do I do with commands to ‘rejoice’?
  • And if feeling a truth helps it to stick, what is a right way to evoke emotion in order to plant the word deep into the hearers’ hearts?
I readily admit to finding this all challenging. But the alternative is even less palatable: a ministry that denies there can ever be a right place for emotions in the Christian life. And that would surely be a denial of the way we are made by God.
PS anyone who wants to know more might be interested in John Owen Centre’s Conference ‘Reaching the Huamn Heart’ where Graham Beynon has a paper on ‘the central place of love in the Christian life’. It runs 12-13 September 2011.

Heartfelt Christianity


Isaac Watts (1674-1748) is best known as a hymn writer. He’s not to be confused with Isaac Newton (1643-1727) author of  foundational physics text Principia Mathematica. Nor with Isaac Walton (1593-1683) author of foundational fishing text The Compleat Angler. Isaac Watts was also a theological writer of note, at a time when England’s Christianity was in the main dry and dull.

I recently had occasion to read, with others, Watts’ Discourses on the Love of God and it’s [sic] influence on all the Passions. It is a treatise on the place of the emotions, or Passions as he calls them, in the Christian life. And their place is surprisingly positive. Of course he is aware that passions can be unruly, but his solution is neither to repress them, nor to deny them. The passions can be governed by making the love of God our supreme passion. By ith the others are brought to serve a supreme and affectionate love of God. This is the emotional dimension of the Lordship of Christ.

What difference will emotional discipleship make? Discourse II lists a number of areas: we learn to wonder at anything we learn about God; we grow in holy desire; our delight is in human pleasures (music, art,…) which centre on God; God’s word, and his people, and his church become the objects of our desire; and anything that is separate from God becomes mere vanity; zeal is awakened, and sin is hated; and we become anxious about the possibility that we might be separated from God. (there is more!). Surely this list makes it attarcive to love God with one’s heart as well as soul, mind and strength.

The passions can also be abused (Discourse V). I have to say that some of this, leaving aside the idioms, could have been written today. What if the wrong passions rule our Christian life? If love trumps God’s justice (read Rob Bell), or fear his forgiveness, or zeal the need for knowledge, and grace the need for holiness? Or what if we take godly passions but press them beyond their godly limits? For instance zeal is pressed to wrath and fury, or the hatred of sin spills into a hatred of sinners? The passions have their place; and they have their limits too.

Heartfelt Christianity is heartwarming Christianity: If we love God with all the heart, we shall keep keaven always in our eye (Disc II, p. 556)

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini


As the covers suggest, the Inheritance Cycle is a fantasy tale of dragons, men, dwarves, elves, magic and more set in the land of Alagaesia (not analgesia). It is aimed at readers of young teenage and above, and we await the fourth and (apparently final) volume. Thus far it is an epic tale by a young author (still a teenager when the first volume was published) who keeps several threads on the go at the same time. Surprises abound as well.


That is a fair question ask as the series is generally aimed at teenage readers. Here are some reasons for reading this:

  • Our children are interested in reading it. No. 1 son expressed an interest and having received the go ahead, has read the three books. I did not read the books before he did, but have read them now to confirm the reviews and advice we found online. It is wise in general to keep an eye on what our children are reading and watching, so that we are able to talk with them about what they read and how they respond to it. Our children are confident readers, and are therefore likely to pick up a book that they are able to read, but maybe not able to digest. So I read these to keep track of what No 1 son is reading, and to see whether there are any issues to pick up.
  • Because I read for a combination of pleasure and for work, I can sometimes get bogged down in some rather difficult ‘work’ books and get stuck. I find that fiction generally gets me out of the mud and going again. I read these books because I wanted to, and I must say that I have enjoyed being drawn into a story. At times I wished it was not so long, and that I did not have to wait for another volume!
  • There are some folk at church who are also familiar with the fantasy genre, and this helps me to engage with them and to see what is in them.


I enjoyed the story. It’s an adventure story majoring on battle, and very little by way of romance. Phew!

Some Christians are wary of the fantasy genre as a whole. I think it is unfair to write off a whole category: some are wholesome and some undoubtedly are not. As I have said before, the issue not whether something unedifying is mentioned, but whether it is promoted. Most fiction turns on a plot involving murder, adultery or deceit. Without the presence of sin, there would be no drama! It is a different matter to ask whether the workthe sin, or whether it warns against it by the portrayal.

There is magic in these books; there are good magicians and evil ones; to my mind the portrayal of magic is overshadowed and redeemed by the clear sense of good and evil. There are also regular reflections on the necessity of war (one main character is plagued by nightmares from the men he has had to kill); there are different views on religion (dwarves are religious, elves are not); and there is loyalty, responsibility, heroism and inspiration.

We were right to ask our son to wait a year before reading the books: and right also to allow him to read them at all.

Something to watch is that the official website speaks highly of Pullman’s books, which are of course also in the fantasy genre. But in my view much less wholesome. But that is for another day.

In the meantime, we await volume four

The Betrayal by Douglas Bond


You may get a chance to read over the summer break. Here is an idea for summer reading.

I do not often read historical novels, but this one was pointed out by Adrian Reynolds a while back.

The novel is about John Calvin, and follows his story from beginnings to the bitter end. It is told from the point of view of his manservant. Douglas Bond is clearly sympathetic to Calvin, which enhanced the enjoyment from my point of view as it meant we could get on with the story without having to stop and take pot-shots at the central character. But neither were the soliloquies or grand sermons. This is a story, if at times a little worthy.

It is hard to come away feeling that one got under the skin of the main character as Calvin is such a dry figure, and yet I came away with some impression of Geneva, and of fiery Farel, and of the struggle that the Reformation involved. I was also encouraged in my faith to go back and rediscover these roots. This is a book I would recommend, with only the proviso that it would appeal more to someone with knowledge of and love for the Reformation.

Incidentally the only other church-historical novel I read was by Bruce Longenecker, and set in NT times, called The Lost Letters of Pergamum. As long as you remember it’s a novel, this brings the NT background to life. Enjoy!