I’ve been talking with a young man whose spiritual life is an emotional yo-yo. One day he feels God’s love and the next day he feels nobody’s love. In the upbeat moments he is energized but in the negative seasons he is bedridden, without the benefit of sleep.
He wants a spiritual ecstasy.
This young man claims he only wants assurance of God’s love; but he means that he will only be satisfied by an emotional downpour of that love. Scripture’s answer for my friend’s demand is closer to Dr. David Burns’ analysis.
In 1980, Dr. David Burns wrote the acclaimed book Feeling Good to combat the failed Freudian attempts to address depression. He claimed that a century of Freud’s psychoanalysis proved its inability to tackle deep dejection. Feeling Good is the single most endorsed book by mental health specialists for patients dealing with depression.
Burns originally wanted to title it Thinking Right, but the publisher said no one would buy it.
The publisher claimed the modern world doesn’t care about thinking because the modern world values feeling over thinking. So, to pander the largest possible audience, the publisher titled his book Feeling Good, and it sold millions of copies.
However, his book is entirely about thinking. In it he claims that good feelings follow good thinking just like the village children followed the Pied Piper.
Scripture gives us similar instructions: if we want assurance of his love, God tells us to think:
Whoever is wise, let them meditate on these things; let them consider the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps. 107:43)
Is Feeling Knowing?
When Scrooge meets the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge addresses the key philosophical question of the ages: “How can we know that we know?” He says,
You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy about you than of the grave!
It is hard to KNOW. When I have the flu, the world around me looks darker. But when I write an article that I really like, the world looks brighter. But reality hasn’t changed. Real life is never as dark as it feels when I’m sick, nor is the future as bright as it seems after a small success.
Those bright and dark moments are more of gravy than the grave.
I told my fiancé (now my wife) that I would climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest ocean, or fetch the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West, simply to show my love for her. All lovers talk like that. We promise loyalty and commitment for both the best and worst of times. In sickness and health, in riches and poverty.
After all, who wants a lover whose love depends on our bank balance or youthful appearance?
God knows what we need better than we do (just as we know what our infants need better than they do) and God chooses not to sprinkle us with fairy-dust filled with ecstatic feelings of His love. Instead he chooses to give us his “committed love” or hesed.
Hesed means both “love” and “commitment.” His “commitment” is a faithful promise, and it is the part that we fail to appreciate. That is why Scripture connects faithfulness and forever with committed love hundreds of times, almost whenever hesed is used:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast (committed) love lasts forever.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast (committed) love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
God’s hesed says, “Not only did I promise to swim the deepest ocean, and in sickness or health; my greatest proof is I climbed the tallest tree. So you can know. Even when you don’t feel.” God is calling me to think: to think on his costly and committed, promised and proven love.
Why do we think these promises are less impactful than a rush of endorphins? We are five-year-old’s, telling God we need a Snickers bar more than cauliflower, rapture over action. In the desert, the children of Israel had proof after proof, but they rejected Him because they wanted a god they could see. We reject Him because we want a god we can feel.
Hi Sam, I appreciated this article, thank you! signed up for the course and paid, but when paypal directed me to the site it said that the page could not be found and I see no mention of the course. Any suggestions as to what to do? thanks.
Yikes! Thanks for letting me know. I think we’ve got it working now.
I love your work, Sam, but I think this article displays a fundamental misunderstanding of how our brains work, which is pervasive in evangelicalism. We can intellectually know that God loves us, but when we are triggered emotionally, we don’t have access to that intellectual knowledge. We must experientially know that God loves us, which does involve feelings. We certainly can’t be a slave to our feelings. However, when triggered, if we don’t believe beyond what we think we think, we will not have access to our belief in God’s love for us. Certainly, this love should be able to go beyond and survive in the absence of feelings, but love without feelings is not love.
Thanks for pushing back! I agree that evangelicals (well, many of them) incorrectly oppose experiential knowledge of God. The Hebrew language wants an experiential knowledge, that is why the Hebrew word for “know” is also used to express the marital embrace (we don’t just know our spouses intellectually).
However, we can “experience” God a multitude of ways, and too many people restrict God to their own preferred method. God tells us to “Remember!” more than any other commandment in Scripture. He wants us to remember his Word, promises, and deeds. Over and over he calls us to meditate on them (which is different that Eastern Emptying the mind); it is a spiritual filling the mind with his words, deeds, and promises.
And as we do that, our hearts ARE filled; but filled they way he asks us to.
Sure, sometimes we get a moment of an anointing, and it’s great. But it isn’t our ever day meal. Our every day meal is to meditate as God calls.
Thanks for responding.
This is a subject that has been covered ad nauseum but the simplest way I know about God’s love for me is from the verse in the children’s song.
“Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so.”
If we seek feelings over God’s word, we will always be let down. Like your fiancé, Sam, she knew she was loved by you telling her you did. If she did not believe your words, she would not feel your love.
Yeah, the topic IS covered over and over and over; but many of us still long for a magical, ecstatic outpouring.
And sometimes we get it.
But God more often asks us to seek him in Scriptural meditation.
I liked your blog today with the discussion of the nuances of what we can seek and get from God. About the young man, there must be more to the story, but it sounds like he’s experiencing some version of bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder, and he might benefit from a screening to see if that’s the case.
We often misinterpret our psychological states and drives with the urgings of the Holy Spirit, so that we think we need more of God when what we need is, e.g., more rest or more carbs or lithium or the need to learn strategies to rule over our wandering eyes. This is even though God the Holy Spirit has often used people with odd psychological states to accomplish his purposes–e.g., every prophet I’ve ever read about and most of the church fathers.
Yes, he and I have talked about his getting professional help, but he refuses. (He was brought up in a “do it yourself” home that rejected any kind of therapy. Alas.)
However, he reads psychological books and tries to self-diagnose. From what I can tell from his history, he has gone to a long strin of individuals for help, but then turns his back on them when they don’t offer the advice he tells them to give.
And his biggest complaint is that God doesn’t serve him the way he thinks God should.
Amen, Sam! From my 43 yrs of ministry experience, it seems to me (I feel!!) that the church’s biggest challenge is getting the difference straight tween feelings and objective truth. “Jesus loves me” is not about my feelings. It is the shocking reality that He paid the price for my horrendous sin and thus invites me to come into the Father’s presence without shame. Cuz of this Good News I can dance and shout hallelujah!
Wonderful post, as usual Sam. My only caveat is that our future is never LESS bright than we imagine. The most wonderful experience on this earth can never compare to the glory and joy we can look forward to with Christ, and the wonderful thoughts AND feelings eternity with him will engender.
Great response. YES! Absolutely, the future is brighter than I can imagine.
But not for the reasons I usually rest on.