I often encounter Christians who feel guilty because they seem to lack a certain fire or zeal in their pursuit of what they know to be true. Many sermons can be preached on why you must continue to do your duty even when the feelings fade, and certainly we must obey Christ because he is our Lord and not because we feel especially fuzzy today about loving our enemies. Nevertheless, we are commanded also to have zeal and we see in the saints throughout history an admirable shining heart of love. Here I do not mean love in the ordinary Christian sense, since Christians are right to point out quickly that love in the New Testament is not a feeling, and what I want to talk about is a feeling. The shining heart we see in the saints comes from a yearning, longing, delighting gaze upon God, and we can best describe it with the Greek word ἔρως, which is usually translated simply as “desire.”
Many people think that this psychological state comes upon you like the concussion of a thunderclap, and hence simply wait for it to come through years, perhaps, of dryness. They have this impression because, like most emotions, we cannot simply will to experience ἔρως directly the same way that we can will to raise our arm or will to think about a cat. But just because something is not under our direct control does not mean that we cannot control it at all. Emotions are actually quite responsive to our imagination, which is something we can control. For example, thinking abstractly about the concept of a person in need does not stir our psychology very much, but actually picturing to oneself, especially for any length of time, the Samaritan on the roadside, covered in bruises and wounds, will begin to quicken those pangs of compassion natural to the human heart.
If we look closely at the psychology of ἔρως—but don’t look too closely because this will interrupt the experience itself—we see an intrinsic link between ἔρως and beauty. When we look at something beautiful and find it beautiful ourselves, we begin at once to experience delight and longing as the proper response to finding it beautiful. While this is true of physical sight, it is especially true of the inner sight of imagination. And we can identify a time element as well: as we go over and over in our minds the contours of this beautiful thing we have found, as we begin to dwell upon it, we cultivate within ourselves ἔρως for it.
This offers a hopeful remedy for those Christians anxious to come to their bible study with more zeal and less glum duty. You can choose to turn your imagination toward the beauty of the God. Identify some scene from the gospels that you have found particularly beautiful and represent that scene to yourself in as much detail as you can imaginatively muster for a solid ten minutes. Identify episodes in your own life where God’s beauty has broken in upon you and recall these to thankful memory. I believe David means something like this when he says, “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8). While this practice may not be an insta-cure for depression, it will begin slowly to kindle within you that certain fire that frustratingly eludes so many.