I want to feel God. I don’t need a mystical experience or a burning bush, but I want to feel God. I need to feel God.
I was taught not to depend on my feelings for God. I spent my college years as an active member of Campus Crusade for Christ. It was a wonderful experience where I made close friends and grew in my relationship with God. As an evangelical organization, we were taught how to teach various tracts. One of them was “The Four Spiritual Laws.” At the end of the tract is a little diagram that gives images for the relationship among faith, fact and feeling that C. S. Lewis describes in his book, Mere Christianity. Lewis puts it this way:
“Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes.”
The tract explains that for Christians, the words of God are the authority for faith. Protestants often embody this in the authority of the Bible. This is “fact”:
“The Christian lives by faith in the trustworthiness of God and God’s words.”
Feelings are the results of an individual’s faith and obedience. Using the metaphor of the train, this teaching deemphasizes the role of feelings:
“The train will run with or without the caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, we as Christians do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of God’s words.”
Knowing the ways that mood and feeling waver – especially for the traditional college-age student who is the target of much of Crusade’s work – this illustration is helpful in trying to ground faith in the reality of God, rather than how one might feel from one day to the next.
As a theologian, I can go on for days about the elevation of rational thought and Western logic over experiential or emotional piety. These are long standing tensions within Christianity and between various cultural ways of understanding religious experience. Dismissing religious feelings has a price.
But this teaching has been particularly helpful for me as one who lives with a depressive condition. I can’t always trust my feelings. Many days, weeks even, all events are seen through the opposite of rose-colored glasses. Everything seems dismal, even it is not. I can convince myself I have no friends. I am sure that I am completely unlovable. Nothing seems to go my way. This is not based in evidence. In fact, evidence to the contrary can usually be found without much effort. But I don’t feel loved. I don’t feel secure. I don’t feel successful. I feel alone.
So I don’t depend on feelings in those seasons. I try to express them without being assured of their validity. This is especially true when it comes to God. I simply have to trust and believe that God is there. Even when . . . especially when . . . I can’t feel God.
But sometimes I want to feel God. I need to feel God. I need to feel deep down in my bones that God is still here and that God loves me. In depressions, I can’t even tell you what the feeling feels like. I’m that far from it. Does it feel like a warm tingling? Like tears during a moving gospel song? Like the warm biscuits my Nana made while singing “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross” as she ambled around the kitchen? Does it feel like the wood at the altar of St. Paul AME Church in Cambridge where I once knew God so powerfully? I don’t remember. I don’t know. I can’t get to it.
My desire to feel God does not even invoke it. Wanting to feel God to not lead to me actually feeling God. Desire is simply desire. My want is only met with greater emptiness.
It becomes tiring: to write and teach and preach about God without feeling God. To pray and sing and worship without feeling God. While depression probably makes this more acute for me (since I can’t feel anything good in these times), I understand that this is also part of the spiritual life. There will be winters – where the only evidence of life is deep below ground. (Renita Weems writes beautifully about this in her book, Listening for God. Perhaps a re-read is in order.)
And maybe this is what I like so much about Holy Week. This is where we see Jesus’ most desperate humanity. This is where we see Jesus thirst and feel forsaken. We also see Jesus surrender.
It amazes me that Jesus can continue to minister while in such pain and emptiness. It amazes me when I can.