While we hope you are enjoying time giving thanks with your families this week, we wanted to offer you some great content from our archives.
Have you ever had a student ask you the question, “Does it mean I’m doing something wrong if I don’t feel God?” Or maybe, “If I don’t feel God’s presence, does it mean that I don’t believe?”
Sometimes these questions follow week-long camps or retreats, and sometimes they come in particular seasons of life where something has changed or is changing.
For many of us, faith has come to be associated with emotion, with the sensational experience of something mysterious and evocative. And there is nothing inherently wrong with the connection between faith and emotion. However, a scriptural picture of faith is so much more robust than a mere emotional experience.
Throughout the Bible, we see people of faith relate to God in a number of ways, from dancing in praise (David) to listening/being present (Mary), from preparing the way (John) to preaching about him (Paul). God encounters his people in ordinary ways (through story-telling, meals, storms) more often than the extraordinary. And doubters (Peter), murderers (again, Paul), prostitutes (the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume), and children are all welcome, says Jesus. Belief and faith in him are not dependent on the means or the person, but on the promises of God (Eph. 2:8-9). He is the giver of faith, the maintainer of the covenant, the pursuer of our hearts. And he knows that our hearts are fickle and our emotions are unreliable. He doesn’t set up faith in Christ as simply an idea, a feeling, or a behavior, but instead he introduces an invitation to trust that encompasses all three in mysterious, intertwined, God-dependent combination.
When I think about these questions, three doctrines come into mind that guide my responses:
1) Imago Dei, which reminds us that each of us is made in God’s image, meaning we not only reflect him individually in unique ways, but we connect to him in relationship in unique ways. Think of the many forms prayer and worship take in the Bible: laments, dancing, music, sacrifices, and meals are all examples of engaging by, through, and with God. I have friends whose primary means of relating to Christ is their questioning and wondering, their intellect. And I have friends whose emotional experiences of Jesus are profound and moving. I also have friends who actions and service unto the kingdom reflect their heart for Jesus in truly inspiring ways. There is no “one way” it looks; there is only an infinitely creative God who delights in the many ways his people connect with him, worship him, and seek to be obedient.
2) Original Sin, which expresses the reality that no part of us operates perfectly this side of the Jordan. If we understand people as consisting of hearts (emotions), minds (cognitions), and bodies (behaviors), we must also recognize that each of these has been twisted by sin in a manner particular to each of us. For some, this means they aren’t able to identify and acknowledge emotions. For others, their cognitive abilities are so extraordinary that they have a hard time offering their trust to anything else. And bodies are broken as well, with disease, twisted desires, and the inheritance of genetic proclivities to addiction.
3) The Incarnation, which serves as a constant reminder that God is Immanuel, God with us, the God who has met (and meets) us right where we are. He does not call us to fix ourselves up (get ourselves emotionally regulated, become more or less intelligent, or “get clean”) before offering us the invitation of full life in himself (Romans 5:8). In fact, it is the exact opposite. It is especially in our broken places that God meets us, forgives us, and uses us for his redemptive purposes.
So, when I hear the question, “Does God love me any less because I don’t feel him like I used to,” I immediately want to ask about the heart beneath that question. Is there fear that they have been abandoned? Is there a story of how they used to feel him that they’re willing to share with me? Is there an event after which they stopped “feeling” him? What does their family understand that faith is? What do they understand that faith is?
They have developed expectations of what faith looks and feels like from somewhere, so explore that with them. All of these questions allow us to enter in to these hard, hard questions with our students and to offer them Christ in us, their true hope. We do not have to provide them with a specific answer, which might actually deter from the beautiful longing God is creating within them for himself. We want to offer them encouragement in their seeking, hope through scripture’s picture of faith, and love through our willingness to share honestly from our own stories.
Your own response to those questions will yield a particular and valuable gift to offer your students in their journey. Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ that our faith is not dependent solely on us- on our emotions, our cognitions or our behaviors. Blessings for your wading into these tough questions with your students. May the Holy Spirit meet you right in the midst of the ordinariness of your conversation with them and provide.