Jonathan Edwards once wrote, “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.”
The basic point is that what sets a Christian apart from a demon who sees the glory of God and shudders is that he sees and loves what he sees, even praises it. It’s not merely having the knowledge of God, but delighting in it as a treasure of supreme value. It’s not just knowing biblical facts but having eyes to value the infinite beauty of the God revealed to you in the pages of Scripture.
Yet there are seasons when joy seems impossible. There are the times in life when the darkness nearly drowns out any positive affection we may have for God (or others). There are seasons of lukewarmness and straying and grief, too. But there is still a way to honor God in this period.
Where all genuine worship starts, and where it often returns for a dark season—is the barrenness of soul that scarcely feels any longing, and yet is still granted the grace of repentant sorrow for having so little love: “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.” (Psalm 73:21-22).
[God] is also glorified by the spark of anticipated gladness that gives rise to the sorrow we feel when our hearts are lukewarm. Even in the miserable guilt we feel over our beastlike insensitivity, the glory of God shines. If God were not gloriously desirable, why would we feel sorrowful for not feasting fully on his beauty? (Desiring God, 97).
There are times when it feels like a chore to pray, read the Bible, or lead the family in worship. Sometimes we go about those things with little or no joy, but even doing them can be an act of faith that God will work joy out of our sorrow. We’re sowing seeds of joy for tomorrow with today’s tears in our eyes (Ps 124:5-6).
Even when there’s little affection in my life, I can still honor God with the honest confession of that reality while clinging to the promise that he satisfies the hungry with bread (Matthew 5:6). There is that simple, barren prayer that honors God with a genuine confession:
“I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land” (Psalm 143:6).