Expectations, Faith, and Why Our Experience Of God Isn’t What We’d Like It To Be

Expectations are a part of every relationship whether we are aware of them or not. I heard a story once of a pastor giving some premarital counseling to a couple. And when he asked the husband to be what his expectations were of his fiancé, his list of expectations took his spouse to be by complete surprise. An initially calm session of premarital counseling turned ugly fast. The pastor joked about having to step in between them.

For people of faith, expectations are also a part of a relationship with God. The shape of such expectations can vary with one’s Christian tradition, initial faith experiences, theological perspective, and interpretation of Scripture. Pentecostals have very different expectations of what to experience in their relationship with God than, say, Lutherans. Those in the Pentecostal tradition may very well expect a more emotional experience during worship, whereas Lutherans may not expect to have a deeply powerful emotional experience. Yet, faith, and God, can be very real for them both.

Coming as I do from a Roman Catholic upbringing, converting later to a broadly evangelical, specifically Baptist perspective, my expectations of my experience within my relationship with God probably falls somewhere in between the Pentecostal and Lutheran. My current tradition speaks often of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” While not necessarily unbiblical, this specific phrase does not appear in Scripture. What this phrase means no doubt varies depending on who you ask. However, before unpacking the meaning of this phrase it already gives an impression as to what one can expect. Language creates expectations.

To say that I have a “personal relationship with Jesus” suggests, rightly or wrongly, therefore, a relationship of intimacy, a connection that is closer rather than distant, immediate rather than abstract, one that includes rather than excludes my emotions. In other words, it is analogous to having an intimate connection with another human being. Put another way, it’s like saying that I have a very conversational relationship with Jesus. People sometimes say, “The Lord said to me this morning . . .” Critics may say that this makes Jesus out to be far too “buddy-buddy.”

I say all of this because whatever our expectations are in our relationship with God, sometimes our experience of this relationship changes. The passage of time, changing circumstances, and other factors can affect how I perceive my relationship with God. Whereas once I had, say, an immediate connection that “felt” close and personal, now God seems more distant. And the significance of this, at least for the purposes of this reflection, is the fact that unless I am aware of the factors that impact my experience I can potentially draw the wrong conclusion from my experience.

In other words, I may conclude that I don’t feel as close to God in the present time because something is wrong with my relationship. As they say, “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?” Something is amiss, therefore, in my heart. In evangelical terms, the usual means of diagnosing this issue is to say that my sin—especially unconfessed sin—is creating a barrier between myself and God. If you no longer feel close to God, it means you’ve done something wrong. “You’re living outside of God’s will,” some will say. “You gotta get right with Jesus,” others will advise. Hearing such admonitions, we can be left feeling guilty and anxious.

Let me say that this might actually be true. There are times when we wander, when we stray, when our wrongdoing and hard-heartedness keeps us from fellowship with God. Sin erects a wall, separating us from our heavenly Father. But if we are followers of Jesus, we won’t necessarily need others to make us feel guilty. The Spirit of God will already be at work in our conscience. It will be a sense of contrition, Lord willing, that draws us back to Jesus.

At its worst, though, believers in this situation will end up trying to avoid anything that might result in a deeper sense of conviction. They might avoid church. They will neglect prayer. Their Bibles will gather dust. Like Adam and Eve, they will do their best to hide from the presence of God, from anything that reminds them of both their sin and of God’s will for their lives. Evangelicals typically call this backsliding.

However, believers who experience a distance from God, but for reasons other than unconfessed sin, are not trying to avoid God. Instead, they may feel as though God is the one creating the distance. They want to pray, but the words do not come as easily as they once did. Rather than a dialogue, it feels more like a monologue. As hard as they may knock on heaven’s door, so to speak, no answer seems forthcoming. No one comes to the door, much less opens it. This change of experience runs against the grain of our expectations of God and how he relates to us.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Or so James 4:8 tells us. And I do believe this is true. In fact, I believe it is true even if it is not true in our experience. In other words, even if we draw near to God to spend time in prayer and we have not, in our estimation, felt his presence or experienced a special assurance, he is still there, present, real, loving, and faithful.

This is why the difference between faith and feelings is so important. If I make my faith in God, my relationship with him, dependent on the feelings I expect to experience in relation to him, then I will often be disappointed. I will likely end up in a state of unbelief, because our feelings are so come and go. Faith is the assurance of things not seen, and maybe, we can add, of things not felt. Feelings can follow faith, but not always. And any faith that follows feelings risks being as ephemeral as our changing moods.

At a deeper level, there are times when our experience of our relationship with God shifts or changes because God is up to something, pushing and pulling us toward a greater maturity, of trusting in him and his word. In my experience, this sort of shift can be difficult to assess precisely because of our expectations.

Speaking more personally, over the last few years things have changed for me spiritually. I am still in the midst of this. I know that life circumstances have made drawing nearer to God a greater challenge – in terms of both the time and energy I generally have to spend on prayer and reading Scripture.

In addition, I find that it is hard to focus long when I pray. I can’t remember the last time I felt moved or touched during congregational worship. Even my experience of preaching has changed over the last while. Whether in my preparation or my delivery, preaching is not what it once was. If someone were to ask me to express it more clearly, I am not even sure I could. At least not in 20 words or less.

As a pastor I have experienced what I call “the professionalization of my faith.” Being in a vocation that includes activities that would be a part of my life even if I were not a pastor, activities that pertain to the practice of faith, has meant that over time my “personal relationship with God” has been swallowed by responsibilities of pastoring. In other words, being a pastor has made it harder to be a Christian.

For some of you my saying this might sound alarming or disquieting. People usually expect pastors to be pillars of faith, men and women who are examples of Christians who have an especially close relationship with God—otherwise, where would all those sermons, Bible studies, and pastoral insights and counsel come from? If we can’t trust that our pastors are in this position, who can we trust?

To such a concern, I can only say that I am, after all, human. And, yes, that means I am a sinful human being. But it also means that I am subject to the same weaknesses and limitations that any other person of faith may have. And as it happens, I am experiencing these weaknesses and limitations in a more pronounced fashion these days. I can also say that this is about my experience, not that of other pastors. While others sharing my vocation may also share my struggles, I do not mean for anyone to generalize from my personal experiences.

What about being a pastor has made this more difficult (or even more likely)? Hard to say, exactly, but I can give examples. For instance, since I spend a lot of time in Scripture during the week preparing for sermons, I have found it hard to read the Bible without seeing potential sermon outlines or ideas. Because of this I have found that I am less motivated to read the Bible. I have found it more difficult to hear what the text might be saying to me.

Though this is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the “professionalization of my faith,” I feel that it’s much deeper. It’s as though having to be in the role of pastor, which has often meant, for better or worse, setting aside my own spiritual needs, also means having to stifle aspects of myself and my own faith journey for the sake of those around me. Partly because of my own personality, I made a conscious choice to maintain a degree of professional distance from the people in my church. I did this to some extent out of fear, fear that if they knew the real me they would never want me as their pastor. On one level, there is a wisdom in this; on another, it was a mistake.

Add to this several years of ministry that have seemed less than fruitful, and no wonder my own relationship with God has taken a beating. What I mean is that—and I know that this is wrong, by the way—I have allowed myself to think at times that God values me (or not) depending on how I perform as a pastor. Like I said, I know that this is unbiblical theology. Still, knowing something is wrong doesn’t mean you won’t feel it is true. And this, by the way, adds to the difficulty. There is often a dissonance, a lack of continuity, between what I am going through internally and what I know to be true in Scripture and what I try and portray in public. There have been days when I was screaming on the inside and smiling on the outside.

So what do I expect of and from God in all of this? Or in my experience of God? Part of me wants to say, “I don’t know.” That’s probably accurate enough. Like a Hebrew wandering in the Sinai wilderness or like a lump of clay on the Potter’s wheel, what I hope and pray for is that God in his sovereign purpose will make clear sooner than later what he is up to in all of this. Either that, or that he will bring me out of this into something fresh and new, a wide-open space, a place where he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

2 thoughts on “Expectations, Faith, and Why Our Experience Of God Isn’t What We’d Like It To Be

  1. The Sunday morning worship service is when the pastor is perhaps most “on duty”. They have to be vigilant to so many technical and logisitic details that I can hardly imagine them getting any spiritual nourishment for themselves during that time.

    I’ve sometimes felt the absence of God’s presence (if that makes any sense) during times that I’m most engaged in Bible study, serving in various ministries, etc. Perhaps I become less aware of God’s presence in those times for the same reason that a fish is unaware of the water, which I find comforting. (At least until I ask myself whether that’s mere wishful thinking.)

    -Zirbert

    1. First of all, Zirbert, thanks for your thoughtful response. And I think you’re right in an important sense. As a pastor, it is true that I have a lot on my mind and that can make it more difficult to experience the presence of God in worship — my attention is, depending on the service, focused on a number of other things. Admittedly, I have fewer “logistics” than other pastors do who have larger churches and more logistically complicated services. But part of what I am getting at with respect to congregational worship is that sense that the service is more than the sum of its parts. Not that I get all touchy-feely. To be honest, I can’t completely explain that sense other than to say that there are times during worship one can feel moved by a song, a prayer, a special moment. It’s even happened when I’ve been preaching, when something comes across more emotionally. I am also aware of course that there is a distinction between what I might experience emotionally and whether this actually the direct result of God acting to move me or provide me with a specific experience of his presence. Although at its best and most profound I am also aware that I am not alone in experiencing whatever is going on.

      Part of what I was trying to say is that in general I feel more and more discouraged than encouraged by experience or lack of experience. When this happens in the context of ministry, you can be left feeling sort of wondering why you’re expending the energy you are.

      Of course, like I said, there’s also the issue of what we can and should actually expect in our experience of God. Whatever my expectations are, they may not be biblical or at least realistic given the circumstances. And truthfully, recent circumstances have not been particularly conducive to having serene moments of prayer. I also know that I am called to be faithful regardless of my experiences, faithful and trusting still. I have to be careful about what conclusions I draw from my experience or lack of it.

      More personally, the last few years since Mom’s illness and death have really taken their toll on me. Honestly, it feels like life hasn’t let up. It feels like one thing after another. It’s also taken its toll on ministry here. I often feel like I have nothing left to give. I fill weary and empty. There’s more to my experience than simply this, but this has been the bulk of what it’s been like for the last few years.

      Anyway, all this does is say that I am normal, and that I am no more exempt from hardship and its consequences than anyone else. All I do pray is that God will perhaps lead me and my family into a season at some point that is perhaps more encouraging and fruitful.

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