by Alicia Britt Chole
“Mom, I don’t think I know God,” my eldest offered after attending a dynamic youth event. “Tell me more, my love,” I replied.
Jonathan sat beside me, cast his eyes to the ground, and then said, “A lot of people got saved tonight, and that’s great, but I’m not sure I am. They were worshiping and shouting and even crying. They said they felt God and that they know God. But Mom, I don’t feel God. Does that mean that I don’t know Him?”
His voice, like his heart, was seasoned with sadness. Is something wrong with me? Does God not want me? Why can’t I feel what I believe?
My son was asking a painful question forged by one of the fiery errors of our age: that emotion is the evidence of true devotion.
“Can you feel Him in this place?” we ask from the stage.
Well, what if we can’t?
Are our feelings the proof of His presence?
Do we measure devotion (both God’s and ours) by our emotions?
Perhaps we answer “no” and live “yes.”
Perhaps we assume God is closer when we feel great and farther when we feel nothing (or nothing positive).
God, however, is not sourced in our senses. He simply and profoundly is. Whether you feel overwhelmed as you see into the heavens or feel utterly undone as you sink into sadness, it changes Him not.
So, if you feel nothing, that’s okay. Faith was never a feeling. It’s more like a muscle, and muscles don’t always feel good.
It’s a subtle but dangerous error to think that we have to “feel” something in order for it to be real. This error spiritualizes emotions—their presence and absence, their height and depth—and uses feelings to both grade our relationship with God and shape our God-concepts and self-concepts. Are we happy? God must be near. Are we depressed? We must have done something wrong.
Errors are natural. Growth identifies and then learns from them. But spiritually, when an unrecognized error is elevated to the status of doctrine, it gains the power to undermine the faith of generations.
To regularly be taught that you can (and should) “feel the presence of God”—without also being taught about the many saints who walked faithfully in the dark without sensing God’s nearness—creates unsustainable expectations of what it means to walk with God.
The correction to this error is not the villainization of emotions. Emotions have never been the enemy. The challenge is in how we steward them.
We tend toward extremes generationally—in one arc we think too much of emotions and in the next we think too little of them. Both deification and denial can be equally disastrous. Somewhere toward the center is the freedom to be honest about what we feel and the wisdom to not mistake what we feel for truth’s vocal twin.
The event my son had attended was crafted to cultivate good feelings about God. Spiritually, it was a sensory wonderland that featured “the best of” everything.
From start to finish, the event was exciting.
The problem is, though, that Jesus never called us to be excited.
He called us to follow, which is a matter of the will. We choose to follow Him, with or without permission from our feelings, in each day and through each night.
When this error goes unidentified, we start looking to our emotions and our successes to tell us if we’re right with God instead of saturating ourselves with God’s Word (which “judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart”) and trusting God’s Holy Spirit (whose job it is to convict us of sin and righteousness). (See Hebrews 4:12 and John 16:8.)
So, for the sake of ours and the next generation, may God help us to position ourselves afresh as Jesus’ followers and—with or without complementary emotions—follow our Leader all the way Home.
Dr. Alicia Britt Chole is a speaker, award-winning author, and mentor whose raw faith and love for God’s Word holds the attention of saints and skeptics alike. Alicia’s new book is The Night Is Normal. Other works Alicia has written include Anonymous, 40 Days of Decrease, and The Sacred Slow.