God Does Not Make Me Happy (or Three Things I Learned About My Relationship with God)

Last weekend, I went on a one-night retreat with my church’s vestry. (In an Episcopal church, the vestry is akin to a board of directors. We advise and collaborate with the clergy on big-picture questions around the church’s mission, and approve the annual budget. I am in my third year of a three-year vestry term.) To prepare for the retreat, we were given a timeline onto which we were to draw two separate lines illustrating our life’s journey thus far. One line was for specific events and relationships, indicating times when things were going well and not so well. The other line was for our relationship with God; the line was supposed to go up when we felt close to God, down when we felt alienated from God. By drawing both lines on one timeline, we could examine how our relationship with God changed as life circumstances changed. I learned three important things about my faith journey by doing this simple exercise.

1. Mine is not an emotional faith.

At first, I was stymied by drawing the second (relationship with God) line. When have I felt close to God? Well, never. I read the question as being about my emotions, as asking me to note times when I felt a palpable sense of joy and intimacy because of my relationship with God. And I couldn’t think of any such times. I just don’t experience my faith as an emotional thing, in terms of how I feel about God. I sometimes feel joy, gratitude, or sadness when I’m singing a hymn or reading a scripture. But while I am emotionally engaged with certain means of living out my faith—with worship, reading, or praying with others—I’ve never had the experience of feeling close to God. So how was I supposed to figure out when in my life I have felt particularly close to God, if I’ve never felt particularly close to God?

2. I am close to God when I am responding to God’s call.

I realized that, even if I can’t pinpoint times when I was overwhelmed with love for God or joy in God’s presence, I could remember times when I felt engaged with and by God, when I felt that my life was in harmony with God in some way. These times have come, by and large, when I’ve been doing something in response to a call from God. When I had each of my three babies, for example, and when I was writing my book, and any time that I get into a good writing “groove”—at those times, I have felt confident that 1) God called me to motherhood and to writing, and 2) I’m doing the best I can to respond to that call. While I haven’t necessarily felt flooded with joy or gratitude or peace in those moments (particularly when, say, my epidural didn’t work completely during my third child’s c-section birth, or when finding the right words to say what I want to say feels impossible—excruciating experiences, both, though in different ways), I have felt confident that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. So even if I’m not feeling “close to God” in an emotional sense, I am feeling “close to God” in the sense of being “in cooperation with” God.

3. Struggles bring me closer to God.

The other interesting pattern I noticed on my timeline was that, during my hardest struggles in my adult life, I have not felt distant from God. Instead, just as with those moments when I’ve been sure that I’m responding to God’s call, I have felt especially engaged with God during times of struggle. This sense of deeper engagement during crisis does not come because I am comforted by God’s care for me. Rather, a sense of deeper engagement comes because my prayers in those times are desperate things, even angry things. I think of the moments just after I learned that Leah (six weeks old at the time) inherited my bone disorder. I clutched her fiercely, giving God an ultimatum—”You had damn well better take care of her.” I think of the summer that she was sidelined by multiple fractures after a scooter accident, when I was too sad and exhausted to pray anything more than, “Hold us up, God. Get us through.” Back in December, as I rode in an ambulance with a few broken ribs and partially collapsed lung, I had the Jesus prayer (Jesus Christ son of God, have mercy on me a sinner…) running through my head.

Sometimes I have wondered if my faith is good enough, because I don’t feel the sense of well-being and joy that some people claim to feel in their relationship with God. But reflecting on these three things I’ve learned, I seem some precedents in scripture. What did Jesus say when he called the first disciples? He didn’t say, “Love me,” or “Take comfort in me,” or “Be joyful when you are with me.” Jesus said, “Follow me.” I feel closest to God when I am most sure that I am following God’s lead, responding to God’s call. And the psalms are not prettied-up prayers but heartfelt, in-the-moment expressions of the psalmist’s reactions to what is happening, good and bad, in his life. Praise and joy inhabit many psalms, but so do rage and desperation. My angry, clutching prayers in the face of my daughter’s pain would be right at home with the psalms.

I know Christians who experience God in an intimate, emotional way. I don’t, but I can still look back at my life and name moments that I felt particularly close to God—close because my intentions reflected God’s intentions for me (as far as I can tell), or close because I was stripped bare of pretension by life’s pain and therefore capable of absolute honesty with God.

For the rest of the time—most of the time—when I’m not propelled by a sure sense of vocation or stirred up by pain, I am grateful for liturgy and sacrament and ancient prayers, such as the psalms and the Book of Common Prayer. These fundamental tools equip me with words and actions to engage with God when I don’t know how to engage—or even if I want to.

Do you experience an emotional faith? When in your life have you felt close to God, and what do those moments reveal about your relationship with God?


About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at http://ellenpainterdollar.com for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Jeannie

    Hi Ellen, perhaps your comments in point 3 suggest that you actually do have an emotional faith — but that that word just has a much broader meaning than the “inright-outright-upright-downright-happy-all-the-time” image that we tend to associate with emotion. Surely your angry prayers were as emotional as joyful exclamations or a serene all’s well would have been. So I think the problem is more with that second line you were asked to draw, and the assumption that up=close and down=far. It’s so much more complex than that. I really appreciate what you’ve written here.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      You’re right of course that I do have an emotional faith. I’m still trying to articulate the nuances here. What I don’t have, which other Christians seem to have (some of them) is that experience of feeling happiness, gratitude, and joy simply because of who God is. I’ve never responded emotionally to God in that way–where the simple FACT of God is enough to make me feel something. But I definitely respond to my life and communicate with God in an emotional way–certainly more emotional than intellectual, in that I don’t feel a huge need to parse heavy theological proofs of whether God exists and what God is or is not.

      • Y. A. Warren

        In some people emotion is more like a glowing ember made from hardwood; it remains alive to kindle fire in others for a long time. In others, feelings are more like kindling made of pine. They flare very quickly and very hot for a very short time. Both are necessary to the eternal flame of life. It sounds like you are more like the ember manifestation of The Sacred Spirit.

        • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

          It’s interesting that you use the “ember” metaphor. Years ago, I went on a weekend silent retreat with some church folk. At the wrap-up on Sunday, one friend went through the room, sharing observations she had made of each of us–images that she associated with each of us. She saw me as an “ember.” I think it was an apt metaphor, then and now.

          • Y. A. Warren

            I’ve always been kindling. At the age of 62, I’m working on becoming an ember. I’m not sure that is a possibility, but it is worth a try, as I’ve set off quite a few forest fires with my brand of faith.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    That distinction of being engaged with God is interesting, Ellen. It brings to mind a choice of being active in God’s kingdom, rather than being occupied with things that are not of God.

    On closeness, I remember a talk that Darrell Johnson gave on what it means to be “in Christ”, and how people sometimes pray to get closer to God. Darrell said it’s a prayer that doesn’t make theological sense because you can’t get closer than “in”. Everyone who is in God’s family is as close as they can be to him. I think that’s why I like your use of the word “engaged”.


  • Marcie

    16 years ago, my husband retired at age 55 then 6 weeks later had a heart attack. They had to “reboot” him 3 times to get him back then airlift him to another hospital for his angioplasty. He’s been fine since then.

    After he was home (after 48 hours in the hospital!) one of his former colleagues, who professes Christianity, came to visit him, he wasn’t home yet from his cardiac rehab class. The colleague asked me if I felt closer to God since Bill had lived. I said no, would I feel farther away from God if Bill had died? My Christianity doesn’t go back and forth because of events. God is God and it has nothing to do with my faith if matters are good or bad. I’ve said heartfelt “thank yous” and earnestly cursed him. But God is God and my “emotions” have nothing to do with how I feel about God or how he feels about me. I figure we’re allowed to have a temper tantrum on occasion.

  • pastordt

    Oh, Ellen. I love this. And I resonate with a lot of it. I don’t think there is a ‘right’ way to experience faith/God/joy. We are all wired differently, we each face our own unique sets of trials and blessings and then we surround ourselves with different kinds of communities. It’s going to look different, don’t you think? I love the conclusions you’ve drawn – and I’m with Jeannie – I think you do have an ‘emotional’ faith, one that is true to who you are and what your life, your own particular life, has brought you. Thanks for writing this out for us.