The church lights dim, the band files onto the stage, and as the pastor finishes praying, they begin to play the song, “How Great Is Our God.” All around me, people rise to their feet, close their eyes, and lift their hands into the air as they sing along. The atmosphere is one of a profound emotional experience, but I stand there alone, hands at my sides, observing the people around me, unable to join in or truly comprehend the scene I’m witnessing. I’ve never felt this emotional outpouring, and I wonder, as I have many times before, Am I missing something in my relationship with God?
Is There Something Wrong with My Faith?
Modern Protestant spirituality tends to lean very heavily on feeling a personal, intimate, and emotional connection to God, whether in worship services or in the Christian daily life experience. Contemporary praise music, with its vivid metaphors and emphasis on repetition of key phrases, is often accompanied by a pounding bass line, what my roommate calls “holy piano” (spiritual background music that makes anything seem relevant and emotionally driven), and an encouragement to rise and experience the act of worship.
In sermons, small groups, discipleship meetings, and even conversation between friends, phrases are often thrown around that emphasize that emotion in one’s faith:
“How has God spoken to you lately?”
“Have you felt the Spirit leading you in this direction?”
“I feel so on fire for the Lord!”
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this kind of worship. Far from it! King David danced in joy and worship before God (2 Samuel 6:14), and Paul encourages believers to “always be full of joy in the Lord” (Philippians 4:4). Emotion definitely has its place in the body of Christ.
But I’ve never experienced that kind of emotional relationship with God. While I’ve watched as others ecstatically close their eyes in fervent worship, I’ve never “heard” God speak to me, and I most certainly have never felt connected to God with the kind of demonstrative feeling that the majority of my friends and fellow church members consistently talk about.
Perhaps what confuses me the most is when I hear people talk about their relationship to God as being child-to-father, something I still can’t understand. The way the majority of my fellow Christians worship and relate to God does not make sense to me, and never has.
It turns out, I’m hardly alone in feeling like an outsider in this way. Brant Hansen described in an opinion piece for CNN that those kinds of charismatic experiences always eluded him, and he frequently felt like a “cold observer” in church. Although I’ve never been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as Hansen has, I can understand his plight. Like him, I’ve felt alienated from the church for years, wondering if God was hiding his face from me because I couldn’t feel the working of the Holy Spirit in my life, and I never experienced the connection that drove my friends with such passion.
When I spoke to those in spiritual leadership at my church to help me understand what was going on, the results were quite discouraging. No one seemed to believe that I could love God and truly believe in him if I didn’t feel his presence and hear him speaking. Responses ranged from “Try taking time to meditate. Quiet your mind so that you can hear him clearly” (often in the context of centering prayer) to “Is there unconfessed sin in your life?” My personal favorite was, “When God feels far away, who moved?”
Loving God with All My Mind
A close friend recently told me that she has had similar experiences and that the last time she told someone about the lack of connection, the other person’s response was, “How awful!” Hansen’s friends told him the same thing—that if he didn’t have that emotional response, he must have turned his back on God.
The problem with this response is that it negates a person’s relationship with God. It says if there are no feelings associated with that relationship, there is no relationship. We don’t believe love expresses itself only through emotion in human relationships. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told by a pastor or a counselor that when I get married I may not feel anything toward my spouse, but that it doesn’t mean I don’t love him! So why do we have a double standard when it comes to a relationship with God?
Love isn’t just a feeling. It goes deeper than that. It is important to remember that part of Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 22:37 is to love the Lord with “all your mind”—not just the heart and soul. And for some people, love comes more through the mind than it does the heart.
That’s not to say that I (and those others who have a similar relationship to God) don’t love him with my heart too. I definitely do—I don’t think love can be contained solely by the mind. I know in my heart that he is my God, that he is my Savior, and that I love him and live to serve him. The difference here is that while I know these things with my heart, I don’t necessarily feel them. But this doesn’t make my relationship with him any less valid or true. I just understand him and serve him differently.
For my analytic and questioning self, I don’t relate to God as a father figure I run to like a small child. To me, he is my King. I worship and show my love for him through serving meals at the homeless shelter on Wednesday nights more than through singing in a church service. When I pray, I thank him for what I have observed him do throughout the day, and I bring my requests to him as if presenting a petition. Then I go about my routine and let him place or remove obstacles in my path, showing me which direction to go. There is no profound emotional experience; I ask for directions and observe the path that opens. And somehow, despite the fact that I have never danced in a worship service or felt “a fire down in my soul,” my relationship with God is still thriving.
A life-changing emotional experience is not a requirement for an active faith in God. It’s taken me years to come to terms with this truth, but I finally have peace. God hasn’t abandoned me, and I haven’t walked away from him, even though I don’t tangibly feel his presence. I love my God with all my heart, soul, and mind—and no amount of feelings, or lack thereof, can ever take that away from me.
Sabrina Hardy is a writer, educator, and perpetual academic. She holds an MA in English from Liberty University and currently lives in Tucson, Arizona, with her family and two rambunctious cats.