A fellow bereaved parent and blogger, Melanie, recently sent me the following question in regards to “Uncovering Unknown Issues of the Heart”, which I posted several months ago, “Janet, do you still have this struggle between needing to “feel” God and intellectually accepting truth about Him?”
It might help if you read the article first, but it’s certainly not necessary.
I think this is one of those seriously painful issues every Christian entertains when the bottom of their world drops out. And I am a painfully average Christian! My answer to Melanie’s question follows; although I’ve edited it, pluralized it, corrected misspelled words, etc., and as any true writer is prone to do, added to and reworded parts of it:
Yes, I still struggle with feeling God’s love for me as opposed to just believing He loves me. I am no longer desperate to feel His love – some of that is due to pharmaceutical help and some of it’s due to the inability to maintain that kind of emotional energy over an extended period of time. But, yes, I still struggle to feel God’s love. However, my perspective has changed a bit in the last few months.
Just as I love my husband and daughter, I realize that I don’t always feel a rush of love for them every time I see them. And as you no doubt have experienced yourself with your own families, sometimes how I do feel is less than loving. Life happens. Petty frustrations and unmet expectations result in less than loving feelings, but when their safety is threatened, or someone harms them emotionally, my response is clearly indicative of intense and passionate love for them.
There are times you tell your children “no” and they just can’t understand why. Somehow, this child that you labored over, nursed and nourished, clothed and nurtured, still doubts that you have their best interest at heart. Instead they think you don’t trust them or don’t want them to have fun. Their minds are so clouded by what they want that they can’t comprehend a reasonable and logical argument explaining the reasoning behind your response. In most instances, the conversation deteriorates from that point on as anger and attitude surface. I, then, find myself frustrated and sometimes resentful for being perceived as the bad guy. Parenting is hard.
As embarrassing as this is to admit, I think I respond the exact same way my children do when God says no or closes a door — not that His response to my reaction is frustration and resentment. But honestly, just like my children, I want what I want when I want it, how I want it, and I don’t want anyone telling me that what I want isn’t best for me.
Just the other day I asked myself exactly what I expect God to do to make me “feel” His love?
I can’t make my husband feel happy or sad or loved at will. I can try but some days, for whatever reason, the things that normally make him laugh or feel loved just don’t result in the usual emotional response. Emotions are a response to some stimuli. It’s pretty unreasonable of me to demand that God provide that stimuli on demand, but isn’t that what I’ve been trying to do? Even if He did, some days it just wouldn’t work. I’d be too distracted, afraid, or whatever for that stimuli to generate the hoped for response. C.S. Lewis said in A Grief Observed, “The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just that time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.” Could it be that in my desperation to “feel” God’s love, I can’t quiet myself enough to hear His still small voice?
I think I’m starting to understand that the only thing I can do is ask God to help me recognize and experience His love for me. I can ask God to help me not only accept His love, like a gift wrapped package, and to receive it by opening the gift, but also to open my heart so I value the gift as it was intended. And that last point is critical. Have you ever received a gift and been disappointed because it wasn’t what you hoped for or maybe you wondered, “What am I supposed to do with this?” In order to grasp God’s love and care I need to be able to comprehend and fully appreciate the value of the gift given. Sometimes it’s only in retrospect that we understand and appreciate a gift.
If I can’t learn to recognize God’s loving overtures or become increasingly confident His love for me regardless of how I feel, I can imagine only two possible ways God might satisfy my demand to make me feel His love. One, I can surrender myself to become a robot in His hand, which He never wanted, hence the gift/curse of free will, or two, I can require God to answer to me (which is absurd but bear with me a minute). This is how that idea might play out: Janet needs to feel love, therefore God needs to give Janet ‘xyz’ or ‘abc’ to stimulate the feeling of love she “needs” to feel. In this way, I, Janet, the creation am dictating to my creator, God, how to satisfy me. It’s not only presumptuous but you can fast forward to the logical conclusion that all God would succeed in doing is creating a spoiled, entitled and demanding child who felt no love for Him in return because a demand/fulfillment or demand/resentment cycle would have quickly been established. An entirely unsatisfying relationship, I dare say, based solely upon manipulation.
There’s a dynamic in a relationship with an unseen God that simply doesn’t exist in any other relationship I’ve ever been part of. That dynamic is, of course, the fact that I can’t see or touch God Almighty. My relationship with Him requires far more faith and trust than any earthly relationship I will ever have. To put that in perspective allow me to use a human relationship to make a point.
I’ve been married to my husband, David, for twenty-eight years. I see, touch and speak to him every day. I love my husband and I know he loves me. Even so, relationships ebb and flow. There are periods of time in which we are emotionally closer than others. In the twenty-eight years we’ve been married have I ever doubted my husbands love for me? Yes; more than once in fact. If I can see, touch and speak to this man every day and still manage to suffer through periods of time where I can’t feel his love for me, in spite of the fact that he is a good man with a servant’s heart, why should I be surprised that I can’t always feel God’s love for me? Why should I expect to feel God’s love for me all the time?
I guess I’m concluding that I need to humble myself and ask Him to help me experience the love I know, without a doubt, He has for me. I also need His help receiving His love because there is no earthly relationship that truly offers completely unconditional love and acceptance. I have experienced my parents and husband’s attempts to love me unconditionally, however, their example, will always fall short. We’re human, we all have expectations and unfortunately those expectations color our interaction with others either through spoken word or subtle body language, attitudes and actions. Only God offers unconditional love.
I need to realize that all my earthly experience with love has been flawed. I don’t have a pure worldly example of what true unconditional love looks like. So how can I possibly compare the way I perceive God’s love for me and decide if it measures up? Personal experience has taught me that at some point, in some way, love will let me down. Unfortunately, I think life has taught me to expect that God will let me down too, and sometimes my circumstances seem to scream that He has. It’s not true but people see what they expect to see, myself included. And perception and reality are often two very different things. The problem is that we can’t always recognize the difference.
Christians encounter so many different situations but regardless of the specific stressor many of the same emotional responses are generated and our response to those emotions is complicated by our faith and trying to lean on and trust God while simultaneously dealing with feelings of abandonment and betrayal or as if in the grand scheme of things His plans supersede our individual value to Him. It often feels as if we are but pawns in the pursuit of the lost, and that the wounds we suffer along the way are somehow acceptable, unintended consequences. I think we feel that way because that’s what we actually see played out before our eyes in the world around us – it’s how humans act, but not how God acts. I swear the hardest part of grieving is trying to reconcile my real world experience with God because He is holy and we have no visible representation of what holy really looks like when played out on the world’s stage.
This I do know because the Bible says it’s true, we are not expendable or deemed more or less valuable than any other Saint or sinner in God’s eyes. He does not operate on the philosophy that the ends justify the means. The Bible clearly states that God is love – everything about who He is and how He works is the living embodiment of love.
1 Corinthians 13 tells us exactly what that looks like. You can substitute “God” or a personal pronoun for love in those verses and it reads something like this: God is patient and kind. He is not proud, rude or self-serving. He is not easily angered. He does not delight in evil [as the wicked do]. God always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. God never fails.
Since we only see glimpses of God’s innate character (displayed through lives being transformed (sanctified) by the Holy Spirit in fellow believers) and never see a fully sanctified believer we are tempted to believe that God behaves like humans do. It is a struggle to see Him filtered through the words on the pages of our Bibles. But even as Satan whispers his lies, your fear-filled heart is wrestling to cling to your faith in spite of, and also because of your circumstances, and you, like everyone else, become all too aware of your brokenness, exhaustion and most of all your absolute ineptitude. It’s frustrating, horrifying, discouraging and frightening and we all end up doubting and questioning because God made us insufficient in our own power. All those feeling are magnified by the knowledge that His ways are not our ways and that sometimes He allows the absolute unacceptable in our lives and we are terrified of that possibility — especially if we’ve experienced it in the past.
Ultimately, it’s clear that my desperate desire to feel God’s love on demand was in fact an unrealistic expectation. God’s plan is best. I don’t want to be a robot and He doesn’t want to control me. He wants me to choose to love Him just as He choose to love me. I want a mature love relationship with Him not the relationship of a temperamental toddler and an adult. In moments of desperation, I need to quiet myself, or in the event that I can’t manage that in my own efforts, allow God to quiet me, so that I can actually hear His voice speaking to me, reassuring me of not only His presence, but of His unfailing love as well. I also need to remind myself that just as my human emotions for others ebb and flow, my ability to feel God’s love will do the same. It’s not reasonable to expect to feel that heady kind of infatuation for or from God every moment of every day.
Furthermore, I must remember that because I have no plainly visible example of pure unconditional love, only God’s Word and the Holy Spirit can help me recognize and comprehend the reality of His unfailing love. God does not love me like anyone else loves me. He loves me better than anyone else has ever loved me and ever will love me. And yes, because I can’t see and touch God here on earth, I have to discipline myself to trust that what His word says is true, that He does love me with an everlasting love. Love is commitment and love is also an emotional response to stimuli. When I can’t feel that emotional response I have to have faith that God’s commitment to love me will not fail me.