Yesterday at the gym, I started talking with a college student.
“I’m pretty sure you spoke at my school’s chapel, right?” he asked. I said yes, and we fell into some theological dialogue. After a minute or two, I could tell that his pressing question was rising to the surface.
“So, I guess the thing I keep coming back to is, everyone else seems to feel God, whether they’re feeling His presence, or they just have some emotion which I’ve never had.”
He impressed me by quoting Pascal’s Wager, which states that logically, the believer is safer than the atheist, and that was one of the driving forces in his faith. He reminded me of the Bereans in Acts, who were constantly searching the Scriptures to test the things the apostles were teaching them about Jesus.
I told him, “I feel ancient saying this, but you honestly remind me of myself when I was your age.” I told him I was with a mission organization where it seemed that EVERYONE was FEELING God constantly, yet I never seemed to have the same experience.
I even knew one guy who told me he would listen to sad music or watch a sad movie before every worship service he went to ‘in order to soften my heart.’ It seemed an awful lot like a ploy to make him cry and supposedly have a more authentic experience with God…despite the fact that what he was crying about wasn’t necessarily God-related…
The problem for me when I was with this organization was that I never felt any emotion about those things. I never teared up when I thought about the gospel, nor could I recount any specific episodes of ‘feeling the presence of God.’ I feared that something was wrong with me, and I wasn’t really a Christian since I wasn’t having these monumental experiences.
I didn’t cry for over four years.
Then one day at church, I did. And a month or two after that, I did again. And I wouldn’t say I’m quite at the Jude-Law-in-The-Holiday-level yet, but I have found that my emotion toward God expands the more I learn about Him. This post is a piggyback on a previous one on the dumbing down of Christianity, in which I discussed a fear Christians tend to have regarding intellectual theology and learning about God and the Bible. I can’t help but think that we have replaced those things with emotion and awe-inspiring performances at our (larger) churches. Theology often isn’t sexy.
I don’t want to make this comment as a rule, but couldn’t we draw parallels between “emotional-pull churches” and one night stands? We want the emotional high without putting in the time to build up to a real and meaningful relationship; we want a shortcut to ecstasy. The man in the bar who wants sex with a stranger wants the feelings of intimacy without the patience and work.
Theology also takes her time to build up to an emotional crescendo.
Or at least, that’s been my experience. I could have tried to squeeze the tears out all those years ago, and I did try, but they would have been false tears. What I have found is that my emotion has followed truth. The more I learn, the more I feel in regard to Jesus and His relevance in my life.
Even this morning, the pastor preached a sermon on the importance of good theology. He said, “Years ago, I only knew that much about God and therefore, I could only worship that much of Him. But over years of study, my knowledge of Him has grown to this much and I can now worship this much more of Him!” Just as in a dating relationship, the more you learn about the other person, the more you are able to fully love and experience them as they are. You wouldn’t want to remain ignorant and superficial in a marriage, but why would you in your relationship with Christ?
So what I told the kid at the gym was just that: Let your heart follow your head. You’re in a good place, and the emotion will come when the time is right. Don’t force it and don’t think you’re broken if you don’t feel the way everyone else does. In fact, I would argue that there is danger in being led spiritually by your emotions.
Of course, a good balance is necessary, but like I said in the Dumbing Down article, I see most Americans swinging far toward emotion and experience more than knowledge and truth. The whole notion of having a magnificent emotional rollercoaster of a worship service is very new to the Christian faith, emerging in the past couple hundred years. Does that mean that for the first 1,700 years of her existence, the Church was doing it wrong? Or maybe it’s we who are a little off-track.
Do you not feel God? You’re not alone. Many heroes of the faith felt very distant from God most of their lives, including the author of most of the Psalms, King David. He wrote, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words which would be repeated by Jesus as He withered on the cross.
The best advice I can give is to keep learning about God. Keep reading the Word and filling your mind with Him. The act of these disciplines will eventually reorient your desires toward Him, and even though they are not glamorous or even fun, your emotions will follow.
The things you fill your head with will eventually trickle down into your heart; your emotions will be affected by what you put in your mind. There’s no way they can’t be! So don’t try to rush it. I would argue that wisdom doesn’t attempt to conjure up a false emotional experience, but simply remains faithful and lets the emotion come when the time is right.
I have reached a place now where I use words like ‘kerygma’ and ‘ontology’ and get a little misty-eyed. I sit in theology classes and feel stones rise up in my throat because I’m engaging with the material at a much deeper place than I could have seven years ago.
Most of you are the opposite. I recognize that I’m an outlier here. Different views of our beautiful God will choke you up and tug on your heart, but one thing is true across the board: You won’t reach these deep places with Him if you’re not filling your mind with His words and orienting your life toward Him.
It will come in time.
So may we be people who pursue God, not an emotional high. May we be people who see God working in all areas of our lives, especially many of the mundane and unglamorous nooks. May we be comforted by knowing that He is not simply an emotion to be conjured up at will, but He is a person; a Father who wants to walk the journey of our lives with us. And that means that there will be a lot of long stretches of road without emotion or hype, just many, many trudging footsteps.