You’re at church on a Sunday morning. People around you raise their hands as they sing from their hearts. You see expressions of heartfelt joy on their faces. And you long to experience these feelings with them. But it’s just not there.
You talk with a Christian friend, updating each other on your lives. A smile of joy breaks out on her face as she recounts an answer to prayer, a blessing discovered in the midst of struggle, or simply an appreciation of God’s goodness. So, you nod your head and smile, maybe even respond with an “Amen.” But you’re not really feeling it.
A pastor shares a huge announcement on social media. Everyone comments with “Praise God!” or a relevant Scripture passage. The post fills with thumbs-up, smiley faces, and hearts. You want to reply too, to join in the joyful revelry. But you don’t want to fake it either. Because the truth is your heart isn’t in it. And you wonder if some of the likers and commenters aren’t secretly like you.
A focus on feelings
Modern church culture emphasizes emotion. “How’s everyone feeling this morning?” are often the first words we hear from the stage or altar. The thread continues with the first worship song – upbeat, pulsing, high-energy.
Sermon series and study materials focus on our feelings, or at least use them as connecting themes. We tend to see our daily troubles as obstacles to overcome or avoid so we can return to the state of happiness we assume is the default.
Popular psychology may play a role in this feelings-focused situation. But we must also look to our own human desire for comfort above and before all as, ironically, the frequent source of our discomfort.
Feelings vs. faith
Now, let’s be perfectly clear: Christianity is fundamentally about joy! Do a quick word search on your favorite Bible app or tool. Both the Old and New Testaments speak plentifully of joy. The Bible tells us God provides joy, Jesus engenders it, and the Holy Spirit multiplies it. We have so many reasons to experience joy that it’s easy to feel guilty when we don’t.
In Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, Thomas Brooks writes Satan uses our joylessness to accuse us that we are not really saved. “Our estate is not good,” he says, “because [we] have lost the comfort and joy” we once felt.
Our enemy tells us that if we really ever belonged to God, our joy would have remained. In this subtle way he discourages us from continuing in faithful service to the Lord. If I don’t feel the love for God I once did, maybe I never really had it.
Well, here’s a reason to be joyful again: God in his Word never requires us to feel anything as a condition of salvation. He heartily encourages joy, to be certain, but he does not base our relationship with him on it. He bases our relationship with him on our faith in what Jesus has done for us. And our feelings cannot undo our faith.
Brooks lists five other things we should remember when we “don’t feel saved any more.” Let his words lead you to the Living Word as the source of your assurance, and not your fleeting. unreliable emotions.
1: Grace and comfort aren’t a matched set
This is very hard for our Western Christian minds to understand, perhaps even to accept. Brooks writes comfort is a “separable adjunct from grace.” It’s something added to grace, not permanently attached to it. You may have all the grace God has to give, yet feel no comfort in the moment.
You don’t need me to convince you of your imperfection, do you? Then why would you think your feelings are a reliable measure of your spiritual state? Much better to rely on God’s unchanging promises that withstand the ups and downs of our joys and sorrows.
This leads to the second reminder.
2: Faith is better than feelings
Brooks quotes a man named Faninus to make his point. Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Vol. II lists Faninus as a man born in Italy in the early 16th century, when Martin Luther’s Protestant revival swept Europe. He was a very bold and passionate teacher “of the true gospel.” This practice led to the magistrates – the civic leaders under the Roman Catholic church’s authority – arresting him and delivering him to persecution under Pope Julius III.
Condemned to die, Faninus answered a person who wondered how he could be so much at peace facing execution:
“Christ sustained in his body all the sorrows, and conflicts with hell and death, due unto us; by whose suffering we are delivered from sorrow and fear of them all.”John Fox, Fox’s Book of Martyrs: The Acts and Monuments of the Church, Vol. II, p. 181. London: George Virtue, 1851.
Replying to the question about his spiritual state, Faninus pointed to what Christ had done for him, not the emotions he felt. It’s likely this man felt a range of things facing his death. But his faith remained his unwavering anchor while the storm of persecution and judgment raged around him.
One verse, Psalm 43:5, summarizes this point perfectly:
“Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”
3: Join the club
So, you’ve lost that loving feeling? You’re in good company. Review the Scripture passages Brooks lists at the end of this point. They recount the feelings of joylessness and mourning of the saints of old through the ages.
No less than the apostle Paul, recounting to the church at Corinth his missionary experiences, said his affliction was so great at one point that he and his companions “despaired of life itself.“
Read through the Psalms of David and you’ll find a man tormented with the agonies of his own sinfulness, King Saul’s murderous rage, deaths of loved ones, and a mutinous son. Yet in almost every psalm, there is a “nevertheless.” David found the assurance of God’s steadfast love his stabilizing stronghold in any and every circumstance.
The “great cloud of witnesses” that have gone before testify not only to God’s faithfulness but to their own stark humanity. Don’t elevate your heroes of the faith above the reality of their emotions. Instead, look to them as examples of perseverance despite sorrow, grief, and loss.
4: Feelings change
Joy is conditional and circumstantial, not constant. This is true in so many other areas of daily life. Why would it not be regarding your emotions?
Hunger wavers many times a day as you eat and feel sated, only to feel empty again. Strength ebbs and flows with the rising and setting sun as you slowly tire following a peak of energy. Satisfaction with people and circumstances rises and falls as they either disappoint or encourage you. Very little constancy exists in even a single day of your life. Expect your emotions to reflect this.
Brooks lists two sources of our joy and comfort in Christ:
- The newness of our salvation and faith
- The change of conditions in our favor
The thrill of new love does not last. It’s common to feel guilty when this it fades, even in God’s love. And as the Lord allows both triumphs and failures in our lives, he tests us, as he did Paul, to “rely not on ourselves but on God.” Our emotional state isn’t the result God measures, but our resolve, our faith in him.
Sanctification is the goal. Feelings are the by-product.
5: Joy may return
King David wrote these words in the aftermath of his worst sins:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,Psalm 51:10-12, ESV
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.
David needed forgiveness more than anything. But he longed for his joy to return as a result. Even in the mire of abject failure, this man had his priorities straight.
As Christians we can look forward to another day when joy may return: “Weeping may stay for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5b, ESV). And we can look further to the day when our mourning will cease forever and give way to eternal joy:
“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;v. 11
you have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!”