Having faith in God is just that; not having faith in my moods about God.
I’ve seen it all of my life, both in my own introspective reflections and in the spiritual habits of others. There seems to be a common sentiment among the “average” Christian that faith can be judged by the amount of emotional fervor I feel in the moment.
I’ve seen it in two major areas of Christian life: (1) prayer/devotional life and (2) worship. I think the average person (especially the young person) thinks that in order for our prayer to “matter” to God or to us, we need to conjure a certain emotion. We need to grunt. We need to cry. We need to say, “Thank you, Jesus,” every other phrase. We need to hurt on the inside somehow. When we read the Bible, we need to want to read the Bible or feel sincere when we do it. But, this is all wrong.
Of course we should be honest when we pray, read the Bible, and worship. To do otherwise is to be lying or disingenuous, which is a sin. Of course we are emotional creatures. We will feel strong emotions when we come into the presence of the divine. I’m not here, in any way, advocating a form of Stoic removal from emotion.
But I want to really, really encourage you right now: your emotional state, or mood, is not the goal, method, target, or purpose of faith. God is the goal. He is the reward. He is the End, the center.
You see what we do? The millisecond that I attempt to conjure an emotion or mood while I’m praying, reading the Bible, or worshiping, I’ve moved from focusing on God to focusing on myself. And here’s the first problem: I’m not the focus. I’m not the point. And here’s the second problem: my moods change. If my faith is in the least bit placed on my moods about God, then my faith is only as strong as my emotional state. So, when we don’t feel God’s presence, our faith is devoid of a foundation and we will lose it.
C. S. Lewis has helped me here the most. I find myself re-reading his texts over and over again. He has been my pastor and mentor for at least fifteen years. I think some sections from Lewis will help you too.
In an imaginary conversation written by Lewis, we hear an elder demon (Screwtape) correspond with a younger demon (Wormwood). Screwtape gives constant warning and admonition to the young tempter demon. There is such incredible insight to be discovered when we eavesdrop on a conversation between these tempters, even though we know it’s imaginary. For example,
“The Enemy [i.e., God] . . . has this curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His ‘free’ lovers and servants—‘sons’ is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to ‘do it on their own.’ And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.” (23)
Do you see the point Lewis is making? Evil tempts us through our changing moods. If only we make it through the “dry” periods, our need for fuzzy feelings diminishes, and that’s crucial!
But why doesn’t God just sustain in us a constant state of joy and presence? Lewis tells us why in another correspondence between the demons. I hope you’ll read it well.
“Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo. . . . He is prepared to do a little overriding at the beginning. He will set them off with communications of His presence which, though faint, seem great to them, with emotional sweetness, and easy conquest over temptation. But He never allows this state of affairs to last long. Sooner or later He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from their conscious experience, all those supports and incentives. He leaves the creature to stand up on its own legs—to carry out from the will alone duties which have lost all relish. It is during such trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that it is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be. Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. . . . He cannot ‘tempt’ to virtue as we do to vice. He wants them to walk and must therefore take away His hand; and if only the will to walk is really there He is pleased even with their stumbles. . . . Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks around upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.” (41-42).
Oh, thank you Jesus for these insights! God is deliberately trying to form us into the image of His Son: a Son who did the right thing even though He didn’t feel like doing it. Obedience to the reign of God must—I say again, must—be this way. How else would we know that we are growing in the virtues of God if we are never able to demonstrate them in situations that require them?
If God does it all through me, then I’ve not grown at all. In that case, I’d only be a glove, or worse, a puppet. God inspires; He encourages; He grants wisdom, yes! But “walking” in Christ requires—yes, requires—that God take away His hands (= immediate feeling of His presence) from us except in the most severe times of stumbling.
This is why we must keep what we believe constantly in our mind. We must keep God in our focus, not ourselves. We cannot set our faith—our prayer, our devotional life, our worship, our service, our love—on our moods.
Again, Lewis says it perfectly in Mere Christianity (ch. 11). I encourage you to read carefully:
“Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off,’ you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.
The first step is to recognize the fact that your moods change. The next is to make sure that, if you have once accepted Christianity, then some of its main doctrines shall be deliberately held before your mind for some time every day. That is why daily prayers and religious reading and church-going are necessary parts of the Christian life. We have to be continually reminded of what we believe. Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed. And as a matter of fact, if you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”
Yes, they do. Most people just drift away. “Drifting” has nothing to do with Christianity being “false,” just that they don’t find it interesting anymore. Evil tempts us in our troughs, our dry spots. Evil introduces the thoughts: “Shouldn’t you feel like God’s present every second? It’s been a while since you’ve felt warm fuzzies. And look at all the evil in the world. They can’t be feeling God’s presence either. Surely this must mean that God’s not really here after all.” Just typing this gives me chills. It strikes at home with me.
We cannot set our faith—our prayer, our devotional life, our worship, our service, our love—on our moods. So what do we do?
Make up your mind. When you pray, get to praying. Talk to God and then listen to God. Stop trying to muster feelings during prayers. Stop being disappointed that you haven’t felt anything after you’ve prayed. When you read the Bible, get to reading and journaling. Talk to God and then listen to God. Stop being disappointed that you haven’t felt anything after you’ve studied the Bible. When you worship, do the same thing. There is simply no reason to get “riled up” before you worship. Just worship. God deserves to be praised because He’s God and because He’s saved you. We don’t deserve to be alive at all, but we are. Tell Him how thankful you are. Who cares if you can sing the notes? Just saying it out loud makes it real.
This might be very difficult to do. Even monks who have had fifty years of practice still must force their minds into submission. So, give yourself some grace when your mind starts to wonder or if you start focusing on your mood instead of God. But don’t give up. Don’t ever, ever give up. There’s too much at stake.