I hope that having faith doesn’t depend on how I feel. If it does, I’m in deep trouble. Sometimes I feel like I'm lost at sea: I'm all alone, I don't know how I drifted here (wherever "here" is), and there's no anchor that can hold me down. It feels like God doesn’t really care about me. I know better than this. I know that God is full of steadfast love for me because of Jesus, but sometimes I feel like He is far away and indifferent to my plight. My emotions can cause me to drift away from faith--from drawing near to God with the confidence that He rewards those who seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). My emotions are not always friendly to my faith.
Sometimes I feel deeply sad and I don’t even know why. There is a dark cloud of gloom that hangs over me some days. Sometimes I can pinpoint the root of it, but sometimes it just doesn't make any sense at all. It’s not the sadness itself that’s the problem; I’m learning to appreciate that I can ache about the things that God aches about. The problem is where my deep sadness can sometimes lead me. It can make me feel utterly alone, even in a room full of people I know and love. The emotional pain can be so heavy. My temptation then is to remove myself from God and from the people around me. This feels safer, but it doesn't fix my loneliness. It just makes me sink deeper into my doubt. Again, my emotions can cause me to drift away from faith.
Our emotions are good in and of themselves.
God created us as emotional beings. Our emotions were His idea and His doing in the first place. Also, when God commands us to love Him with all of who we are, this certainly includes our emotions (Mark 12:28-30). We love God by worshiping Him--by appreciating Him for who He is. I’m not sure we can do this if we never have any affection for Him.
Take a look at any of the Psalms in the Old Testament and you see David (or any of the other authors) crying out to God or praising Him with deep emotion. Jesus was also not afraid to express emotion. When His friend Lazarus died, He cried (John 11:32-38). When He encountered money-changers in the temple, He ran them out in His anger because His Father’s house was not being treated as a house of prayer (John 2:13-17). He taught that the kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field that a man joyfully sells everything for (Matthew 13:44). Loving God certainly involves our emotions, even if it involves more than them.
As good as emotions are, sometimes we let them undermine our faith.
We let our emotions dictate whether or not we draw near to God. If I’ve had a stressful week, my emotional pain or fog can cause me to run away from God rather than towards Him. However, sometimes our lack of emotions can be just as problematic. If I don’t experience an emotional high when we sing songs in our worship service, does that mean that God is not present among us? If I don't feel a certain way when I pray, does that mean that God doesn't hear me? Does that mean that prayer is pointless? Or what if I feel fine? If I don't feel needy, does that mean I don't need to draw near to God? Or what if I don't feel much at all? Does my numbness mean that I don't have faith?
If we let our emotions (or lack of them) control our spirituality like this, we're in trouble. Having faith is not the same thing as having certain feelings. Our emotions are too unreliable to sustain our faith. They ebb and flow within any given day. They are fleeting and superficial. While our emotions can be overpowering at times, even in good ways, they are temporary experiences that often fail to change anything about how we actually live. If we want lasting, life-giving, transformative faith then we need something more than an emotional buzz.
We need an anchor--something to keep us from drifting away from faith because of how we feel.
We can't look to our minds to save us. As important as our minds are, we can't just think right thoughts and expect to be transformed. That's why God provides us with real, tangible practices to anchor us. Our rootlessness today in our virtualized, mobile world makes this more crucial than ever. We've never needed God's tangible gifts of grace more than we do today. God uses embodied practices to shape us over time so that we endure in faith, even when our emotions fail us. Here are two important ones:
1. Communion: nourishment for our faith
What if Jesus knew what He was doing when He established the Lord's Supper and commanded His disciples to continue observing it together (Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)? For many of us, Communion doesn't feel special. It just seems so ordinary. There are no emotional fireworks involved. We do it because Jesus tells us to, but we don't see it as having any significance for our real lives. It doesn't seem like something we really need to make it through the stressful week ahead. But is it possible that we're missing something profound about the power of Communion for spiritual life?
When we celebrate Communion, the apostle Paul tells us that we participate in the blood and the body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Those cannot be empty words. We don't believe that the bread and wine (or juice) actually become Jesus' body and blood. We're not cannibals. However, we are still participating in Christ in a real sense. Something profoundly real takes place when we participate in this sacred meal. It's not an empty ritual. Something deeply spiritual is going on. It does not give us new spiritual life (i.e. make us born again or converted), but it does play a pivotal role in our spiritual growth.
Communion nourishes us in our faith. The physical bread and cup reminds us that God became physical for our salvation. As one people, we celebrate together that Jesus became like us to make us like Him. As we celebrate God's grace in this tangible way, we uniquely experience God's personal presence through His Son Jesus Christ. As we participate in this week after week after week, it confirms and strengthens our faith. It sustains us in faith, even when our emotions do not. We're anchored in our faith as we engage in this most intimate of act of Communion with Jesus together as His body.
2. Community: connection to sustain our faith
What if God knew what He was doing when He saved us into a community of faith? When we're united to Jesus, we're united to His body. We may feel like we're all alone, but we're not islands. We're not all alone at sea, even if it feels that way. As members of Christ's body, we're profoundly connected to each other (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). We need each other to fight our unbelief (see Hebrews 3:12-13). God's Spirit transforms us as we live together like this.
This will not be easy. True Christian community is messy. Our faith in Jesus unites those of us who are otherwise very different from each other. This is what makes the church so beautiful. But it also means that our relationships will sometimes be awkward, frustrating, uncomfortable, and inconvenient. These experiences do not mean that we're doing something wrong. If we're never experiencing any of these difficulties, we may be enjoying the benefits of a social club but we're likely not experiencing true Christian community. If our relationships in the church were effortless, there would be no need or opportunity for the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26). This kind of real community is the setting God has chosen to transform us. It is a tangible way in which He sustains us in our faith.
God's grace becomes tangible for me in the presence of another. When I hear others share about their struggles with faith, I'm reminded that I'm not alone. When I tell my brother in Christ that God is full of goodness for him because of Jesus, it strengthens my faith; it stirs me to draw near to God. When someone hears me confess my sin without judgment and tells me that God forgives me because of Jesus, that grace that I already "know" about becomes more real to me. When we learn to treat each other as family should ("brother" and "sister" are not empty words)--when we refuse to give up on each other--something powerful happens. God's Spirit transforms us through our real, authentic connection with each other. Our life together in Christ anchors us in our faith, even when our emotions fail us.