Even though we live in a culture that says that it prizes logic and reason, it is striking how often we appeal to our feelings as the ground for certainty about the important things in life. This is especially true in the realm of what we might call the “personal” – our choices in relationships, our decisions about where to live and even our voting preferences are based on what feels right more than on the basis of what is the most rational decision. We may even use reason to justify something that feels right to us, but it is the area of feeling that is where the decision is made.
Advertisers know this, which is why they only very rarely put a logical argument in front of consumers. It is far more important to them to appeal to (for example) nostalgia, or loyalty, or envy, or anxiety, or nationalism. These feelings can exert a powerful influence on us, if we are to be honest. We do not usually choose our life partners on the basis of a calculation of advantage to us, or to our families. That is not the way in we do things in Western culture, because for us authenticity arises from free decisions, and certainty comes from within us. How do I know that she is the one? I know it in my heart.
Or do I? The problem is when the feelings that gave the initial assurance of love fade. If they do not turn into a bond of deep affection drawn from shared experience, the relationship has lost the very thing that appeared to make it real. The trump card is feeling: if I’ve “fallen out of love”, or if I’ve developed true feelings for someone else, then I must follow the call of my feelings. Feelings are almost sacred.
For some people, becoming a Christian is a lot like falling in love. It can be associated with a powerful, even overwhelming sense of the presence and reality of God. The feeling of being intimately known – and deeply loved – is at once joyful and liberating, and inspires an extraordinary hope. The truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, even though they describe events that happened before I was born, are profoundly personal. You might call them “existential”.
And that’s why the best Christian hymns engage us, not simply in rational reflection, but in personal appropriation of the gospel. “Amazing grace – How sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me” is a declaration of a truth that the singer knows from deep within herself to be true.
My experience was something like this. Growing up in a Christian household I knew what Christian faith was. But it wasn’t until I was 16 that I realised it was true for me. And that realisation was then a matter for great joy and confidence. It changed everything to know, not just that Jesus Christ died on the cross, but that he died there for me and for my sins. But what about when the feelings disappear?
I have spoken recently with a woman (let’s call her Laura) for whom Christian faith came as a dramatic personal experience in her youth. This kind of experience was celebrated at the church she attended at the time. Laura could remember vividly the feelings of exultant joy and deep gratitude: the impression of at once being in the presence of a holy God – holy to the point of being terrifying – but of knowing too that she had been forgiven everything. To feel this was to feel deeply and personally loved. She would pray without having to think about it. She felt conscious of God at every step.
That feeling had long ago disappeared as youth had given way to adulthood: to work, marriage, parenthood, with all the attendant joys and hardships. Laura juggles the daily routine on half a night’s sleep. Church is still part of her life, but that overwhelming feeling, and the certainty and the joy that came with it, seem to have faded. Sometimes, she wonders whether she really believes in God anymore; and prayer isn’t something that comes to mind that much.
I think Laura’s experience is familiar to a lot of Christians in mid-life. I’ve known people to give up the faith because that feeling of inner certainty has faded, or because some other inner certainty has appeared and taken over.
One response to this would be to say, “Well, Laura’s faith is only subjective. If she’d known about Christ more objectively – if she’d known more of the truth – then she wouldn’t have trusted so much in her own inner experience.”
That is one very common response to a very experiential Christianity. But it is inadequate. The Christian faith does hit us, if we really believe it, not simply in the head but in the heart. Surely the epistles of the New Testament tell us this! Churches which overemphasise experience may be in error, but at least they see people truly converted. The church which denies the experiential aspect of the gospel may produce apologists, but it won’t produce Christians. What we ought to see is churches that cultivate the affections of people like Laura while also seeking to deepen her understanding of her faith. The initial overwhelming moment of being loved by God ought to mature into a love of God experienced in all the avenues of life – whether in the changing of a baby’s nappy or in the morning commute to work on a wet Tuesday.
How to do this? Of course, we pray for a powerful work of God’s Holy Spirit, so that Laura and others like her feel increasingly assured and joyful in their faith in Christ. But humanly speaking, this is where the rhythms and habits of regular Christian worship can help us in that long journey from flourishing youthful faith into the emotional deserts of middle age.
Our culture despises repetition as inauthentic and hollow; but the repetition of the words of a liturgy can be the opposite. Repetition allows words, and the acts that they perform, to become part of us. As we confess, or give thanks, or praise, or recite the ancient creeds, we are practising these Godward acts so that they become second nature to us. We develop the habit and the language of living together with God.
Laura also ought to become aware that though the Christian faith includes her sublime experience, it is also much bigger. Her experience was anchored in a reality that is outside of her. The Christian faith involves not simply the personal story of Laura and God, but it marvellously includes Laura’s story in the story of God and his people.
That means that a church meeting ought to draw us to those who are around us, and those who have gone before us. We are drawn together to meet with God as people of God – the communion of saints, not the saint. The experience of being a Christian over the long term is to become aware of the love that God shows us through other people, and of the opportunities he gives us to share his love.
The analogy of marriage is hard to resist here. Falling in love lasts, they say, barely two years. But in a successful marriage, these feelings give way to deeper and more complex feelings. A good marriage is rich in trust, affection, and laughter; there is space for tears as well as for silence. Much of it is boring and forgettable, but that’s where marriage is to be experienced – on the plains of the everyday as well as in the mountains of the momentous. It is possible to think that those heady days of being in love were the real thing and to regret the passing of that whirlwind of feelings. But to do that is to forget that you have actually something far more real and substantial, and possibly to fail to take possession of a deeper experience that is on offer.
So it is, we may say, with our relationship with God. It is not that we shouldn’t seek, or speak about, our experiences of God. But to be known by, and to know, the God of Jesus Christ is to know a God who is near to us and loves us not only in our joys, and in our griefs, but bizarrely, even in our numbness.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s church in Darling Point, Sydney and the author of several books.
Image credit: Denkrahm via FlickrMore