Feelings, Facts, and Faith

I don’t always “feel” spiritual.

Whatever that means.

Not only that, sometimes I feel positively unspiritual.

Again, whatever that means.

But maybe you can relate. You pray, but it feels like you’re talking to yourself. You read Scripture, but nothing springs out of the text as a joyful surprise or as a source of conviction. You go to church week after week, but wonder, “Is this it?” Your faith and church just doesn’t seem to be working for you like it once did.

I think if we’re honest, we all experience this sort of thing as Christians. Though possibly in different degrees. For some, the experience feels spiritually debilitating. Others have a short season of the spiritual blues.

There’s a word for this: Blah. Or maybe malaise. At more serious times, melancholy. It feels like God is absent. Theologically, it’s called by some “a dark night of the soul.”

I think of Psalm 42:5:

“Why, my soul, are you so dejected?
Why are you in such turmoil?

Feeling this way doesn’t mean we should give up on talking to God, let our Bibles gather dust on a bookcase, or stop attending our church. Even when we don’t experience meaning in our usual spiritual practices, we shouldn’t conclude they are meaningless in themselves. Much less should we give up on the Christian faith.

Trust me, I know what it’s like to be spiritually weary, to wonder if God is still doing something in my life and through my ministry. I understand what it means to feel an inward sigh when thinking about all the stuff related to church.

So I suppose the real question is what do we do when we go through this sort of thing?

Start with this. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

Put another way, our feelings don’t always tell us the truth about reality.

I recall Timothy Keller once saying “Doubt your doubts.” You have permission to doubt what your feelings are telling you about God, prayer, church, Jesus, the gospel, and the Christian faith. Feeling like God is absent doesn’t mean he is. Feeling like church is pointless doesn’t mean it is.

I heard a sermon today in which the pastor encouraged us to remember Jesus’ resurrection whenever we find ourselves experiencing a long night. We all need to hear this because we will all experience a long night of one kind or another.

So the first thing is this. Jesus’ resurrection is fact. He who was dead and buried was raised from the grave and is now alive. Whatever I am feeling, I can cling to this. I can cling to him. Because his resurrection means hope. It means eternal life. It means peace and assurance and comfort in the face of life’s difficult times. It means my feelings aren’t always right.

Even so, our feelings are sometimes an indication that there is something which needs attention in our life. So I’m not saying ignore your feelings. But be careful not to let them have their way with you.

It could be there are unsettled spiritual or theological questions rummaging around in your mind. It’s wise to address these questions carefully and prayerfully.

There’s the possibility that some unconfessed sin has created a barrier between yourself and God. Not always, but be aware this might be so. Be willing to fess up; but if you pray and wrack your brain and can’t think of an unconfessed sin, don’t make this into an extra unnecessary burden.

It’s also possible that no matter how hard you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be any clear reason for why you feel like you do.

Here are a few suggestions about how to respond to such an experience in no particular order:

  1. Talk to a close Christian friend or your pastor. Speaking your struggles normalizes them and often is a relief. Just having someone listen–really listen–and respond with understanding and grace will help you realize that you’re not alone and that what you’re going through isn’t as weird or unusual as you might think. Maybe find a prayer partner who would be willing to meet with you a few times a month.
  2. Tell God how you’re feeling. You don’t need to clean yourself up or hide your feelings when you pray. Not. At. All. There’s a whole category in the Book of Psalms called psalms of lament, where the psalmists cry out to God with their feelings of abandonment and hopelessness. Pray them as your prayers. Here are a few examples: Psalms 42, 74, 79, 85, and 88.
  3. Mix things up a little. In other words, try doing your devotions differently. Start a prayer journal. Draw on resources like the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer. Find good, theologically sound books that talk about the spiritual life and what it means to have an intimate relationship with God. Go for a prayer walk. Let God speak to you through his beautiful creation. In other words, change your spiritual routine. If all you’ve been using for 20 years is the Our Daily Bread devotionals, maybe it’s time to try something else.
  4. Keep on praying, reading Scripture, and being connected to a worshipping Christian community. These are the basics of the Christian life. Everything else we do connects to these things in some way. Scripture tells us who God is. Prayer is asking God to be who he is in your life. And community reminds us that we don’t do any of this alone. Consider that you might not be the only person in your church feeling the same way. Maybe if you ask, God will lead you to that someone and you can bear one another’s burdens.

I think the most important thing in all of this is to remember that God is with you no matter how you feel. Your emotions don’t determine how God looks at you or feels about you. Countless saints and believers down through the ages have gone through what you’re going through. Some are going through it right now.

Here’s the thing: if you’re going through something like this, it could be an indication that God is inviting you into a deeper experience of his presence. Perhaps he is trying to grow your faith, to help you mature. Actually, I think he’s always trying to do this with us. Finding yourself in a spiritual wilderness might be God prompting you to walk more closely with him. He seeks to discipline us and to remove from us all the other stuff we can find ourselves relying on except him. Moment of truth: sometimes that’s painful for us.

I know there’s a great deal more that could be said by others who are smarter and wiser than me. Still, I hope some of this helps someone in some way and touches upon genuine truth here and there. In the meantime, here’s a Collect for the Spirit of Prayer:

“O Almighty God, you pour out on all who desire it the spirit of grace and supplication: Deliver us, when we draw near to you, from coldness of heart and wanderings of mind, that with steadfast thoughts and kindled affections we may worship you in spirit and in truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 3: How the Psalms Teach Us to Be Ourselves in the Presence of God

How open are you about expressing your emotions? Do you typically hide your feelings from others? Or do you find it difficult to put how you are feeling into words? Maybe you’re not someone who is, as they say, in touch with their feelings. Perhaps you find the outward expression of emotions–be it anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or fear–awkward and uncomfortable, even around those closest to you. It’s possible your upbringing trained you to see letting your feelings show as inappropriate. Our specific culture and family of origin play a profound role in this sort of thing.

What about in the context of your relationship with God? When you pray, are you the sort of person who wears your heart on your sleeve or do you couch your prayers in especially reverent language? Not that these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive, but you get my point. That is, as we enter God’s presence intentionally with our prayers, what role, if any, do our emotions play? Put another way: is it somehow irreverent or inappropriate to come before God with feelings of anger or sadness, weariness or worry? Do we need to compose ourselves first, so to speak?

To get some answers to these questions, there is no better way than to turn to the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayer book and hymnal of the Bible. Even a cursory reading of a handful of psalms demonstrates that the psalmists did not hide their emotions from God in their prayers. Well-known pastor John Piper says that “One of the reasons the Psalms are deeply loved by so many Christians is that they give expression to an amazing array of emotions.” He’s exactly right. And because of this the Psalms give us permission to do likewise.

So let’s look at some examples. First, in Psalm 25:16 we read this: Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am alone and afflicted. Here the psalmist, David, is honest about his loneliness. I am alone, he prays. While our lives are much different than his, each of us knows loneliness. But for some, loneliness is an especially profound struggle. Whatever David’s reasons for loneliness are, he feels wholly free to bring what he’s feeling to God. He genuinely believes God cares about how he feels and can do something about it. Turn to me and be gracious to me, David asks.

This example alone reveals how we are free to come to God and tell him how we feel. We don’t do so in order to provide God with information about our lives; no, we do so to draw on the comfort of his presence, to seek grace from him.

Grief is another example. David helps us there too:

I am weary from my groaning;
with my tears I dampen my bed
and drench my couch every night.
My eyes are swollen from grief;
they grow old because of all my enemies.

Psalm 6:6-7

Again, for our purposes here the circumstances of David’s grief are not our chief concern. Instead, take note of how vulnerable he allows himself to be in the presence of God. There is no gap between how he feels and what he prays.

Let’s not forget who David is, either. David was a king and therefore a military and political leader. He knew how to handle himself on the field of battle. He took down Goliath as a young man, when the entire Israelite army cowered in fear.

At the same time, David was a poet, and a man after God’s own heart. He is the author of the majority of the Psalms. He was incredibly self-aware of what was going on in his heart. He was willing to dance before God with abandon, unconcerned with what others thought about such devotion. He had no problem coming before God with honesty, with being real or authentic, as we might say.

So David wept, and he brought his tears to God in prayer. So can we. I love what Gandalf says at the end of The Return of the King: “I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

Here’s the thing. When as people of faith we experience the more difficult emotions, what do we do with them? What do we do about them? Do we pretend they’re not real? And what if we experience a difficult emotion about God himself? Consider this prayer from David:

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:1

Here we see disappointment, confusion, uncertainty, doubt. A prayer in the form of questions. I wonder how many Christians find themselves experiencing a feeling like this, but at the same time feel as though they cannot express this to God. And all because doing so is not truly reverent or proper.

I think that when we have such feelings of disappointment or uncertainty about God, and do not allow those feelings into our prayers, it negatively affects our faith and our relationship with God. Think of hiding something you feel deeply towards a loved one from that loved one. If a husband or wife, for instance, hides their feelings of disappointment in their spouse from their spouse, how might this impact their intimacy, their trust in one another? At the very least, the feeling doesn’t simply disappear because we keep it to ourselves. It will continue to eat at us. At worst, it results in an unhealthy emotional distance. In such a situation it’s worth asking ourselves: “Why am I avoiding sharing how I feel? Don’t I trust that my relationship–my spouse–can handle it? What does it say about our relationship if I don’t think they can?”

Let me be bold and say that the same holds for our relationship with God. If I avoid bringing my feelings to God in prayer, including feelings of disappointment with him, what does this reveal about how I feel regarding God’s trustworthiness? Am I afraid of being that honest in his presence? If so, why? What about doing so makes me uncomfortable?

The difficult emotions don’t end there, of course. Psalm 137 expresses profound grief over the exile of Israel to Babylon. Through exile Israel lost her identity as a nation. She found herself in utter ruin and despair. For this reason this Psalm includes some of the most difficult words in all of Scripture.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion.

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who pays you back
what you have done to us.
Happy is he who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:1, 8-9

These words are in the Bible. We can’t avoid them. Psalm 137 is perhaps the most angry and hopeless psalm of lament in the entire psalter. The words are violent and vengeful. And not without reason, considering what Israel had been through. The question is what do we do with a psalm like this?

Psalm 137 isn’t alone. One of my favourite passages in all of Scripture is Psalm 139, but there are some verses in this psalm that seem almost out of place. They go like this:

God, if only you would kill the wicked—
you bloodthirsty men, stay away from me—
who invoke you deceitfully.
Your enemies swear by you falsely.
Lord, don’t I hate those who hate you,
and detest those who rebel against you?
I hate them with extreme hatred;
I consider them my enemies.

Psalm 139:19-22

I’m not going to pretend I have easy answers for how to apply such words to our lives as we seek to follow Jesus. I do not. I’m not altogether sure how to square such poetry with the biblical admonitions to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us.

But I think there is something we can say.

Take note that while the psalmists in 137 and in 139 are expressing a profound anger, they bring this anger to God. In other words, these psalms are not teaching us to act out on our anger. We’re not being instructed to take vengeance on our enemies or those who have done us harm. No, we are being shown that the best place to bring such angry and vengeful emotions is to God in prayer.

In fact, praying such words of angry lament are an act of deep trust that God is a God of justice and righteousness. By asking God to kill the wicked the psalmist is effectively leaving the matter in God’s hands. Such prayers become, therefore, a safe place to vent our most troubling thoughts and emotions, a prayerful space where we can process our feelings that justice has been violated and something needs to be done–something only God himself can do.

Now, if we find ourselves wondering why we would ever be in a position to pray like this, might I suggest this is because we live in an especially privileged position? For those, however, who personally know the realities of injustice, such prayers may indeed be an important part of addressing their circumstances. Consider that approximately 70% of the Psalms include words of lament–what Bono of U2 once refered to as the blues music of the Bible:

That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues. Man shouting at God— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me?”

Bono

There are other difficult emotions, of course. Fear would be another. But in every case, the Psalms show us that we are free to come before God with the whole of our humanity. In doing so, our intimacy with God grows and deepens, and becomes more honest, grounded, and resilient.

The late Eugene Peterson says this about the Psalms:

Praying isn’t being nice before God. The Psalms aren’t pretty. They’re not nice. Faith often isn’t smooth, nice, or pretty, but it’s honest, and I think we’re trying for honesty in our faith, which is very hard in our culture.

Eugene Peterson

I think he’s absolutely right, both about the honesty of the Psalms but also about how difficult it is for us to be honest in our prayers.

Now, after all of this, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the Psalms only give voice to difficult emotions. Not at all. There is also joy and celebration, thanksgiving and praise, all through the Psalms.

You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and new wine abound.

Psalm 4:7

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, Most High,
to declare your faithful love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night,
with a ten-stringed harp
and the music of a lyre.

Psalm 92:1-3

That’s the other thing. When it comes to prayer, our neglect is of an equal opportunity sort. We’re also not so open to being effusive in our joy and thanks. Often even our praise to God is muted. And it shouldn’t be!

I know that when it comes to my church experience over the years, emotions have been less expressed than not. I have been a Baptist pastor for nearly 20 years, after all. Like I said at the start, this in part is because of our culture. Travel to churches in other parts of the world (or to other churches!) and you won’t necessarily see believers holding in their emotions during prayer and worship.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be about what we see but what God sees. Because what we’re talking about is being honest–completely vulnerable–before God. In other words, we’re talking about being ourselves in the presence of God, in all of our messiness and brokenness, including when we pray. Actually, especially when we pray. Because if the Psalms teach us anything about prayer, it is this.

Good Grief

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Probably few things hit us as hard as the death of a loved one. The painful absence of someone whose presence added joy and richness to our lives leaves a void no one and nothing else can fill. And while they say time heals all wounds, grief leaves us with scars that never seem to go away entirely. Next to breathing, losing someone we care about is probably the most common human experience. That commonality of shared suffering doesn’t always make it easier, however. While there is some comfort in knowing you’re not alone in what you’re going through, the pain can still be acute.

In our culture, death and dying are especially complicated realities to deal with because we are often so much farther removed from death than people in generations past. Life-expectancy is much higher thanks to improvements in medicine and health care. Each of us can anticipate a much longer life than our more recent ancestors. But this also means we all potentially experience a greater number of health issues. Indeed, the line between someone who is genuinely alive and someone who is not has become a thorny ethical conundrum that is only going to grow thornier in the future.

And thanks to our culture’s obsession with youth and the desire to escape the trappings of age, we have the tendency to cordon off those who remind us of our own mortality. Nursing homes and hospitals are filled with people who may not be terminally ill but who are elderly enough to need round the clock care immediate family is either unable or unwilling to provide. Seeing once vibrant family members and friends succumb to diseases and conditions that rob us of who these people once were frightens us. Such experiences become a mirror into which we dare not gaze. Seeing them, we see ourselves. We see our future. We’d rather not look.

For those of who are Christians, handling issues surrounding death and dying, the suffering and loss of loved ones, isn’t necessarily any easier. Even believing that Jesus is the resurrection and the life doesn’t exempt us from grief. Indeed, when Jesus went to the tomb of his friend Lazarus, John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). And Jesus wept even while knowing he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. So when we lose someone to cancer or to aging or even to a seemingly meaningless accident, we also weep. We grieve. And when we’re brought face to face with the possibility of our own death, fear can become a storm that threatens to capsize the boat of faith.

Yet Scripture reminds us that even though we grieve, we do so as people of hope. The apostle Paul says as much to believers in the city of Thessalonica: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

Our grief shares much with the grief others feel. Yet, there remains this tinge of hope, of knowing that new life emerges from the tomb for those who know Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Like Jesus tells Lazarus’ sister Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25—25). Then Jesus asks Martha, “Do you believe?”

But in the meantime, we comfort one another. We encourage one another. We weep with those who weep. But we weep as people who know the grave cannot hold us, who know that, thanks to Jesus, the last enemy—death—has been defeated. And this is no small thing; in fact, this is everything.

Trying to think about this in a practical way, as a pastor I struggle with how to counsel and help believers whose grief is so great that it keeps them from living life. For instance, imagine trying to worship with hope in the same place where the funeral for your son or mother or wife was held. There’s no way this would be easy. It’s like returning to the scene of a traumatic experience. Associations abound. Everything is a reminder of who you’ve lost. No longer a safe refuge, it is instead a symbol of what we’re seeking refuge from.

What’s difficult is that it’s possible to reach a point where what we once did as a means of dealing with our loss becomes an obstacle to healthy grieving. In other words, we might be avoiding the very thing that may help us on the road to healing. Not to say that wounds of loss ever heal completely; scars will always be there. There is a kind of healing to be found, however. The mourning can turn to rejoicing once again. But it might mean having to disinfect the wound of loss, and this process can also be painful.

Sometimes we cling to our grief as means of honouring the one we’ve lost. We desperately want there to be meaning in the face of such suffering. If nothing else, our ongoing grieving shows that this person meant something to someone. Relaxing our grip on grief feels like we’re doing the deceased a disservice.

Sometimes we’re afraid of forgetting the pain because it seems to mean losing why someone meant so much to us. When pain over loss is an indicator of the depth of our love for the person in question, letting go is unimaginable. Moving on because “life must go on” seems to trivialize our pain and our love.

Maybe this is what provides content to the notion of grieving with hope. If we refuse to face the possibility of healing, if we allow our pain and grief to continue to define us, then hope is simply a future reality, not one that has any real power in the present. Hope is only about eternal life, not about how we live now even when facing loss. We take comfort in the notion that the person we love is with God and that one day we will see them again, but the shelter we hide in now is not God himself and the hope he provides but our grief.

What concerns me, therefore, is when our grief overshadows our hope. And certainly there are a myriad of interconnected things to consider in dealing with loss even from a Christian perspective. But even believers who have suffered loss are still called to worship God, follow Jesus, and allow the Holy Spirit to shape them and use them. If our faith cannot survive such pain, our hope is insubstantial.

One of the things churches perhaps fail to do is to allow people genuine space for grieving. Mourning used to be something of a public reality. Widows would wear black for a period of time. But like death, we want grief to be hidden. We’re largely uncomfortable with pain, death, and grief. Such realities disturb how we want our lives to be. There is the sense that when coming to church we all have to be happy and put smiles on. We even offer theological rationales for such attitudes. We’re called to express the joy of the Lord. We’re called to offer praises and thanksgiving. Church is only an hour a week, after all, and we don’t want it to be a downer.

You see, the truth is God can take our anger, our pain, our cries, and our incomprehension. Church worship ought to be—at least in part—a safe place to express and deal with our pain: the pain of loss, of suffering, of grief. The Psalms are filled with lament over pain and struggle, over loss and confusion, over God’s apparent absence to those who are in “the valley of the shadow of death.” If our hymns and gospel songs and church experiences don’t give us opportunity to work through our pain in a way that genuinely reflects the good news of Jesus, we may end up with a lot of people who feel as though God has nothing to say to people in such circumstances. There will be this dissonance in their experience between what the gospel says and what they’re going through. Dissonance will lead to disconnection and a distancing from the church—and the people in question may not even consciously understand why.

I’ve noticed a trend in recent years. There seems to be a decrease in the number of funerals. I say this with only anecdotal evidence, but more and more it seems that fewer and fewer families are having funerals for loved ones. There might be a brief memorial service. And even that might be a family-only affair. Or there might be nothing at all. To the extent that this is so, it strikes me as potentially unhealthy. Grief is an experience that we have to process. And we need community support to do so.

Certainly the church ought to be a place where people can find help and support during this process. The freedom to continue praising God, even if through tears of sorrow, may be the healing balm many hurting people need but are unable to find elsewhere. Real hope, steadfast hope, hope that Jesus is the resurrection and the life can and should be a real experience even for those whose grief is deep and profound. After all, if even Jesus—who is himself the resurrection and the life—wept at the loss of a loved one, surely we should be able to do so in his presence. I have no doubt that is the place where our hope comes alive.

[Note: This will likely be the last post until late August or early September. That’s why I’ve posted a couple of reflections today. One of today’s posts has been recycled from an older article in a local paper; the other is one I’ve been working on for a few days. This second one (on grief) is longer than others are and I wasn’t even sure I would post it. But it seemed to come together well enough. As always, feel free to comment on any of the posts. Feedback, particularly thoughtful feedback, is  welcome.]