Faith is Not Feeling: An Essay

It was Good Friday, Easter’s gloomy but necessary prequel. The sanctuary was bathed in the dusk of small-town Iowa, with nothing but low rolling hills between the church and the horizon. Listening to the pastor, I stared at the cross and recalled a line from a short story I’d read recently: You know this was a torture device, right?

For the first time in too long, I felt good. I recognized the irony of feeling good while staring at a torture device, and felt even better. It was a virtuous cycle.

My thoughts were no longer dominated by my failures as a friend and student, by my vices, by the memory of all the time I’d wasted. I still knew that things were far from ideal, but my center of consciousness had shifted away from the negative. I felt a respite.

I had been going to church for only a few weeks, and suspected that this feeling, the awe and the bliss, were what I’d been looking for. This must be what draws people to worship, I thought. This must be what faith is all about.

After the service, I left in silence and retreated to my dormitory. The awe and bliss proved short-lived. Without the cross and the sunlight, I was once again defined by brokenness, my own and that of the things I’d broken. I fell back into junk food, pornography, and online punditry. (I spent a lot of time skimming the Huffington Post just so I could feel superior to something.)

I’ve been a Christian, or have been trying to be one, for the better part of a year now, and have yet to relive that feeling I felt on Good Friday. Even during communion or the Lord’s Prayer, my psyche does not reach new realms. When I clear my head of distractions I reach blankness, not bliss.

I worried that this blankness meant I was doing something wrong. Perhaps I wasn’t focusing well enough, I was breathing too hard and fidgeting too much—or, more plausibly, it was all a delusion and my last sane sliver was telling me to stop kidding myself.

I’ve learned that this blankness is absolutely okay, and means little one way or another. It’s just there. It’s what’s left in what my brain when I’m not thinking.

Though strong feelings often accompany faith, Christianity is not built on feeling. Rather, it’s built on the acceptance of an absurd truth and the mission that follows:

There is a benevolent intelligence behind the universe—let’s call it God. In our pride, humans wandered away from God and the universe turned corrupt. God kept trying to reach us, but we rarely listened. His most radical intervention in human history came in the form of an itinerant rabbi who performed miracles, placed love over law, and spoke about the Kingdom of Heaven, a kingdom not of conquest but of God’s love being made a reality on earth again. The rabbi was murdered, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. He’ll be back someday, though, honestly, we were hoping he’d be back by now.

In the meantime, it’s our job as disciples to set the groundwork for this Kingdom. Nobody, of course, can give as God gives or love as God loves. But we can spend a few hours a week at a soup kitchen. We can litigate and rabble-rouse alongside the downtrodden to help them win their rights. And we can set aside our own concerns and listen as our friends and family share their burdens with us.

I suspect that there are many who are in the position I was in on Good Friday. You’re in church and don’t know why. Perhaps you’ve been so defeated that you feel no choice but to stumble toward faith, hoping for its comfort despite your skepticism. Faith, you may imagine, is ecstasy and comfort and certainly, which we could all use. It means feeling good.

But it doesn’t. It’s okay if you don’t feel anything, because belief—as proved through good will and good works—is the core of faith. That’s good news, because doing things in the realm of reality is much more feasible than chasing after an emotional state.

The first disciples, as recorded in the Gospels, didn’t spent much time basking in bliss and awe. Instead, they tried to figure out their rabbi’s parables—What does the seed mean? What about the sheep? They stole a donkey. They questioned their rabbi for talking to women and Samaritans, and got scolded for their arrogance and lack of faith. They ran errands. They doubted. They walked.

They may have felt awe for some brief moments, as recorded in Acts, when they squinted at the sky after Christ’s ascension. But even that didn’t last long.

As they were straining their eyes to see him, two white-robed men suddenly stood there among them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here staring at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. And someday, just as you saw him go, he will return!” (Acts 1:10-11 NLT)

In other words: The heavenly stuff will take care of itself. Don’t you have work to do?

(Scripture such as the Gospels and Acts, written years after the events they describe in an era before modern historical methodology, shouldn’t be read with the same literalism we’d apply to a history textbook or reportage. While acknowledging that they’ve been filtered through centuries of Christian tradition, we can use them to glean broad outlines of history. The resurrection takes a leap of faith to believe. But there’s no denying that Jesus walked and changed the world.)

As I write, we’re inching into January. The thrill of the holidays has faded, replaced by the banality of yet another year. Life is, more often than not, boring. And while our creator loves us, a quick scan of headlines and even a cursory study of earth science tell us that his creation certainly does not.

Under these circumstances, emotional blankness makes more sense than any strong feelings–ecstasy would be inappropriate, and despair would paralyze us. Christians may not have a reason for constant bliss, but we have a savior to keep faith in, and a kingdom to help build.

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3 thoughts on “Faith is Not Feeling: An Essay

  1. timdechene

    Sounds like you’re having a bad time, man. Sorry to hear that. I’d have to argue that the core sustaining emotion of any religion is hope, not faith, but then the two are near indistinguishable.

    Being one of your friends, I’d recommend you come over in person and we can talk this out. You know where to find me starting the (lucky) 13th.

    Reply
  2. Susoyev

    This essay is exquisite. I am crying. I read the essay with “Benedictus” by 2Cellos playing in the background, perfect accompaniment. A few thoughts:

    :: The blankness that the author describes is also the goal of zen meditation and various forms of yoga, the whirling of Sufi dervishes, Gregorian chant, and some forms of Hebrew prayer. We humans have more in common than we usually are able to recognize.
    :: One reason that religion has a bad name among some groups is that some people use religion in the way that the author confesses he has used the Huffington Post–to feel superior to others. He reminds us that the primary message of Christianity is to help others, with compassion.
    :: For this reader, Paul’s assertion that nothing of Christianity matters without the Resurrection is terribly unfortunate. (“And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain … And if Christ be not risen again, your faith is vain, for you are yet in your sins.” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17).) At the time he was writing and preaching, this was sort of Paul’s trump card. But the condition that one can’t be a Christian unless one believes that a humble teacher had supernatural powers is distracting. To be counted as a “good Christian” today, among many groups, one needn’t follow any of the teachings of Christ as long as one espouses this belief.
    :: As I told a Muslim friend a few years ago, when he started lecturing me about “those two cities that God destroyed” (Sodom and Gomorrah), I will never convince a believer that what he believes in is “mythology,” and a believer will never convince me that what he is trying to teach me is “history.” And in that impasse, what I consider to be the important teachings of Christianity slip through the cracks.

    Reply

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