If we do not feel the presence of God, does that mean that He really isn’t there? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Often times when it comes to the silence of God, one thing that we ask is why don’t we feel our faith? Why does it seem that the love of God is just absent from us? These are questions worth answering, but one of the most important lessons we can learn is to question our questions. Perhaps we are starting off on the wrong foot? Do we not with the question imply that if there is no feeling of our faith, then there is something wrong with our faith? What if instead this is a way of thinking that really isn’t what the Bible is talking about?
Now as I say this there is of course a caveat. I tend to be a very logically oriented person. Feeling what I believe is not common. In fact, I’d say it’s the exception. I happen to be married to a quite emotion centered person who does go strongly by feelings. In this case, we help to balance each other out as my being logic-oriented rubs off on her and her being emotion-oriented does rub off of me. We’ve both experience blessings from this kind of relationship, although it can also be difficult at times seeing as we have to learn how to think in whole new ways and how to respond.
What we have to learn is that things aren’t always what we feel they are just as much as they aren’t always what we think they are. Our culture has become very feeling-oriented. We have done this so much that we treat the words “think” and “feel” like they are synonyms. They are not. This is something I always stress. If someone presents to me a piece of information and says “What do you feel about that?” I could say “Happy” or “sad” or “confused.” Then I generally follow it up with “I think you mean to ask what I ‘think’ about that.” (There was a time some Jehovah’s Witnesses were visiting me and after awhile they started to catch themselves because I always caught them when they said this.)
This can often be the case with the wife who says to her husband “You don’t love me any more!” Why? Because she’s not feeling love. Now it could of course be that the husband has ceased to love his wife, but it is not a necessity at this point. Her feelings alone cannot tell her this. This does not mean her feelings don’t matter. They can tell her something about herself and they should be something that she discusses with her husband, but they are not the determiners of truth.
In fact, we can know a truth when our feelings are the exact opposite. For instance, just last month, I had come down with the flu again. My wife decided to place me in a temporary quarantine in the bedroom while she slept on the couch to prevent the spread. Unfortunately, this led to my having to ask her for practically everything and I do not handle the pain of being sick well at all. Allie has indeed said that she felt like introducing me to a pillow many many times, yet still she was someone waiting on me and making sure I was cared for because even though her main feelings were feelings of annoyance, the reality was she still loved her husband. (And still loves him today!)
In our modern culture, we have raised feelings up to a level of being a truth detector. I am thinking right now of visiting friends yesterday and the wife told me about an atheist co-worker who came to her and said something like “You know about Angelina Jolie? Imagine a man who says he’s married to her. He says he has a wonderful relationship with her. He says that she brings him such joy and happiness whenever he thinks about her. Unfortunately, Angelina Jolie has no idea who this man is. She’s instead married to Brad Pitt, despite how wonderful this man feels thinking he’s married to her. What do you think we can learn from this story?”
I was thinking we can learn that atheists are very good at making up straw man arguments that show they don’t understand what real Christian thinkers are saying a bit.
Sadly, this would have a powerful effect on many Christians who think the only reason they can know Jesus is alive is that they feel Him in their hearts. One can also think about our tendency to rely on our personal testimonies. When we do this, we’re more often doing an evangelism technique that might have worked in the world 50 years ago, but it just is not as effective now and we can’t turn back the clock just by wanting to turn it back. While Christianity does not change, the world has indeed changed. We don’t have to accept the new belief system of the world, and we shouldn’t, but we should accept the way the world is as frankly the reality and try to change it.
In this case, the person who is feeling-oriented needs to learn from the one who is logic-oriented. (Yes. There are times this is reversed, but we’re talking about this one time now.) What matters first is “What is the truth of the matter?” If you want to know if your husband loves you, for instance, you don’t look to your feelings. You talk to him and see what his friends and family say and you look at his actions. Then you make the best judgment that you can based on the available data. So what do you do if you want to know if God is there and if God loves you?
As a Christian, or at least someone who wants to be a Christian if you’re in doubt, you look to the knowledge of God. For one thing, you can look simply at metaphysical and philosophical arguments that show that God has all the omni-attributes that we apply to Him. Now there is a sense that unless you’re someone who loves this kind of argumentation, it will leave you a bit cold. If you do look at it and enjoy it, you can realize many truths. One that comes to mind is that you know that God is omnipresent and therefore, you realize He is always there. As I type this I know the presence of God is all around me. That does not leave me with intense joy and that could be something I need to work on in myself.
You can also learn that God is all-good. When you realize this, you know that everything He does is right. This can be a source of comfort, but it could also be a source of distress. After all, that implies that God allowing this event to happen to you is something that is good in some sense. It is not saying the event itself is good, but God sees a good that can come from it. C.S. Lewis would compare it to being in the chair of a dentist. Most of us do not consider that a pleasant experience, but we know that it is a necessary evil.
Many of us will instead go to the Bible, and if we do go there, and we should, we will find many passages relating to this and we’ll look at some in future posts. We will find that the Psalms especially are a gold mine of information as we can find most any emotion that we want in there and any situation. The Psalmist himself often felt abandoned by God. Psalm 88 is quite likely the saddest Psalm in the whole book. Psalms 42 and 43 together are an excellent resource to go when we long for God and it feels like God is distant.
Also from the Bible, we learn about Jesus and this is something many of us who are very metaphysically inclined have to learn. The best revelation we have of God does not come from reading Aristotle, but rather it comes from learning about Jesus. Jesus is the one who best reveals God to us. We can ask ourselves about the historical Jesus. Do we truly think that if we were seeking God, that the historical Jesus would abandon us? Would He leave us alone? Is He the kind of person that we can trust? This is one reason that I agree with Michael Bird and N.T. Wright that study of the historical Jesus should be essential for discipleship.
And what do we do when we have done all of this and we still feel empty or maybe even the contrary feeling?
Again, going back to my flu story, I know I would have been in a lot of trouble if Allie acted on our feelings. Most of us would be terrible spouses, friends, and parents, if we acted on our feelings consistently. Let’s not even consider how we would be when we’re driving if we acted consistently on our feelings. If for one day everyone just acted in accordance with their feelings without paying attention to what they were thinking, this world would have a nightmare day. A good fiction writer could probably write a fascinating horror story about such an event happening.
When we act, it could be that our feelings will follow. This can often happen, but it is no necessity. If they follow, great. If not, then we have done the right thing any way. Remember, there is never a justification to not do the right thing and it will not work in any court to say “I didn’t feel like it.”
We’ll continue along these lines in a future post.