When the passion for God passes

Dear John:

What are the best things to do when you feel far from God, besides praying and reading the Bible? I’ve been going to church my whole life, but it was three years ago when I actually asked God to be my personal savior. I used to be on fire for God—but lately, within this past year, I don’t really feel him. For some reason, I’ve sort of started to feel as if what the Bible is saying is confusing me.

I’ve prayed about it, and talked to trusted Christian friends; they say it’s normal for Christians to feel far from God from time to time. It truly amazes me how some people seem to be so passionate for God; I don’t know how they do it. I wish I could feel that way. But instead I feel more spiritually numb.

Is there a difference between believing in something, and just admiring the idea of believing in something? I do love God—but for a bit I have wondered if I actually do love him, or if I just love the idea of loving him.

More than anything, I don’t want to have any doubts about him; I want to become stronger in my faith. I don’t want to just survive—I want to actually live and truly embrace and enjoy the life God has blessed with me. I’m trying to reach out to him; but I still feel like I can’t quite reach him.

By the way, I’ve read your articles on your blog and they all inspire me. I learned some valuable, significant things that I haven’t known before. Keep up the good work!

Thanks for the kind words! I appreciate that.

So here’s the thing. In the whole of the religious experience, emotion certainly has its place—as we see, for instance, in Bernini’s iconic and downright refreshingly ribald masterpiece, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa:

berniniforpost

So there we have Teresa, either experiencing some seriously overpowering emotions, or suffering from a sinus attack. Only Bernini knows for sure.

But the point is that emotions pass. That doesn’t mean emotions aren’t signficant, or anything to be ignored. Just the opposite is true: emotions—and especially powerful and/or persistent emotions—are the most dependable source we have for directing us towards important things in our lives that need our attention. (For a bit more on this, please see my  When Bad Emotions Happen to Good Christians.)

What’s also true about the religious life, though, is that in a very important sense emotions have squat to do with it.

I believe in God. I believe that God is real, and everywhere informing and sustaining our lives in ways we can’t begin to fathom. Well, to me, that’s just a fact. It’s almost boring it’s so … fait accompli. It’s got as much to do with any emotions on my part as does the fact that one year lasts 365 days. That’s just … life. That’s the system we’re in.

So, relative to the relationship between emotions and the belief in God, the question is: Where does God stop, and my personal emotions begin? In other words, where am I responsible for my emotions, and where is God responsible for them? Which are caused by me, and which by God?

Which of my emotions, in other words, are the result of me trying to tell myself something about God, and which are the result of God trying to tell me something about himself?

How do I know if I’m only echoing my own emotions back to myself, or if it really is God trying to tell me something?

What great questions! I’m glad I asked them!

And I think that’s what you’re asking, too. You’re saying, “What happened to my emotions about God? I used to be so on fire about God. Now I’m … barely smoldering!”

My vote is that you’re just confusing your own emotions with facts: you’re confusing how you feel about God, with what you know to be a fact about God. You know that God exists, but that knowledge isn’t engendering in you the kind of emotions you want or expect it to—and that lack of responsive emotions on your part is making you question whether or not God really does, in fact, exist.

Your brain is telling you that maybe your heart has a point: that maybe nobody really is home up there.

What I hear you actually saying, though, is that, three years into it, your relationship with God has matured. A person positively enthralled with passionate over their all-consuming relationship with Jesus Christ is 99.999% guaranteed to be immature—on that issue, anyway. That’s simply an immature response to the divine. It’s wonderful, and real for that person, and nothing in and of itself at all problematic or worthy of disdain or dismissal. But it is immature.

Think of it this way: the passion you feel in a new romance isn’t the same passion you feel after being married for three years. What you feel about a committed relationship you’re in three years down the road isn’t inferior to the passion you felt back when that relationship was new; it’s not a degraded version of the emotions you used to feel. It’s just an entirely different set of emotions. It’s more subtle. It’s more complex, more nuanced. It’s more mature.

It sounds to me like you’re simply maturing in your relationship with God. I don’t think you’ve grown further from God; I think you’ve grown closer. But that means that God now feels more like you to you, and that can be kind of … not as exciting as when God was for you all … new and over there.

Hang in there. I think that if you basically shed your old paradigm about how God is supposed to make you feel all the time—if in that pretty limited sense you stop expecting so much of God—and start instead simply living into the reality that God is now wanting to communicate with you in myriad ways that in the past you’ve been too excited and impassioned to notice or appreciate—you’ll become aware that your relationship with God is everything  you could want it to be. What you’ll come to see is that now it’s simply less about the fireworks, and more about the sky.

About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. Don't forget to sign up for his mucho-awesome newsletter. If you shop at Amazon, help support John by entering the site through this link right here--Amazon will then send John 3-4% of the cost of anything you buy before exiting the site again.

 

  • http://allegro63.com sdparris

    Dear letter writer,

    I too have been attending church for pretty much my whole life. Any ecstatic emotional experience has been fleeting at best, and almost always linked to the emotions of music, as music is a powerful medium to trigger emotional feelings.

    Some of us are hardwired differently, where an emotional response is often overtaken by practicality. For example, we know God exists, we know that there are some basic rules of behavior we should follow and we know there is a lot about life, God and a lot of other thngs we know nothing about. Its the what we do about all that that matters, not so much of an emotional response does it give us.

    Yet the emotional part is still there. We just learn to channel it in action, in discovery in experience. The actions is how we interact with others, and how we introspectively learn about ourselves, reworking our flaws into something better. The discovery lies in finding that our thoughts on things are often shared, but even more often are tempered by viewpoints as others. Then you get into nature, the universe, history and see how we can relate all that to the divine. Experience is what we learn about life in all its complexity. It is through these where we can find the passion may just have been there all along.

    There will be still those “AHHHH” moments, times where wonder and awe just take us unaware and we realize just how close God has been all along. They may not occur with great frequency as we navigate the paths of life and faith, but they are usually memorable, and rather comforting.

    As John said so well, maturity means that we may not need what we once did to move forward. Yes we may miss it at first, but just think of all that is ahead of us, a life filled with portent.

    • Jill

      Also, an alternate suitable title, to serve the other side of the coin: When the Boring Normalcy of Living with God Sets in…

      • http://allegro63.com sdparris

        Nothing at all wrong with boring normalcy. In fact that it is those periods I like best.

        • Jill

          Completely agreed. I *love* being boring. !

  • http://allegro63.com sdparris

    Oh, one thing, because I want to make use of that Art History I took a few years ago. If you notice, the angel in the statue is holding an arrow. Tradition says she had a vision, one of her last, where an angel repeatedly thrust a lance into her causing terrible pain physical and spiritual pain, yet according to the account she didn’t want it to end. She went through a period into self inflicted pain, or “mortification” because well meaning friends said her visions must be demonic not divine. (great friends there). Her concentration in the mystical never left, but she eventually became of a spiritual reformer as well as a practical one.

    I do love history.

  • Rachel

    Wow – this letter said exactly what I have been feeling myself. I am struggling with the same thing. I’ve grown up my whole life in the church – in fact, I’m a Pastor’s daughter…I know I love God and I want to be closer to him, but it is hard sometimes even to just go to Church for the sake of saying “I went to Church today” so that my parents wouldn’t think I’ve become a heathen! It’s just been a lack of passion.

    So, I took this summer to just take that hour I would have spent daydreaming during the sermon to actually start reading the Bible again and praying, while having my coffee on the back porch where it is quiet (until my neighbours kids get up). Now I find I’m excited to have that hour and that passion is coming back…it’s slow, especially because once the week starts I find myself rushing again. But, slow steps are okay.

  • Barbara Rice

    “More than anything, I don’t want to have any doubts about him; I want to become stronger in my faith. I don’t want to just survive—I want to actually live and truly embrace and enjoy the life God has blessed with me. I’m trying to reach out to him; but I still feel like I can’t quite reach him.”

    Churches discourage doubt and questioning. Their pat answer is, “You’re not praying hard enough.” Or if you have a really serious question, “You’re letting Satan in.” A faith that won’t withstand or permit questioning is one to avoid.

    God IS there when you reach out to him, but perhaps you’re expecting palpable results, and God just doesn’t roll that way. Your faith has matured and become more nuanced, as John said, so perhaps just living as you feel God wants you to, without constantly asking for directions, is what’s needed right now. “I want to actually live and truly embrace and enjoy the life God has blessed with me.” – well, then, DO it. I know this probably sounds unduly harsh – but people are so busy looking for God that they miss Him in all the tiny details of life.

    Maybe God is tending to more needy cases first. Maybe (like Anne Lamott said) God is saying, “Oh, you really need to feel My presence and you need help? Well, that’s special. Maybe you should go get that old lady over there a lemonade, then we can talk about your problems.”

  • Ray

    John: Your comments are applicable not only to our relationship with God, but well-nigh any relationship! In my ministry as a psychotherapist, I often deal with couples who have passed the “honeymoon” phase, and have moved directly-do-not-pass-go into the “disillusionment” phase. I explain to them that we change in relationships, as in all else. In fact, studies have shown we are physically different when we first fall in love: our heart rate increases, our skin flushes more readily, there are more hormones in our system. But this is all very exhausting physically, and our bodies can’t keep it up for more than 6 months to a year. Presumably after that time, as you suggest, we will have emotionally/psychologically/spiritually bonded with the other, and we move into a different sort of relationship, less based on passion and excitation. You can see the parallels, I’m sure, so there is no need to spell out the obvious.

    Your comments are rig

    ht on, as always!

  • Jill

    John, that was very nearly my favorite post from you. Swoon! It’s gonna be in my top 5 at least. Whoa. I adore the way you do this kind of thing, O Mighty Wordsmith.

  • http://www.theaspirationalagnostic.com Eva

    It’s like when you get a new bag (or shoes or a car or…cake). It’s all exciting and new and weeeeee!! for a while. Then you get kind of used to it, and maybe it gets a scratch (ok, that doesn’t apply to the cake) and you start to think ‘Maybe this isn’t as great as I thought it was”.

    It’s still fabulous, you’ve just changed your perspective. Not every day can be party day!

    Also, if what the bible is saying is confusing you, that’s Ok. It is confusing, and contradictory. That’s why I dont read it literally.

  • Lymis

    Wonderful, John!

    I love both your point that the new blush of overwhelming passion is a reflection of a young, new, or as you say, immature relationship, and the emphasis that it isn’t better or worse, or any less real, just different.

    When this happened to me, I asked in my prayers to understand it, and became aware of the knowledge that during the passionate phase, in a way, I was being carried by God, and that now, I was learning to walk on my own, beside God, with God.

    When I had no choice but to believe, because I was “on fire” it was wonderful, but in a very real way, it was none of my own, with far less of a contribution or participation from me. When I have to choose to see God, to pay attention to looking for God, and to act as a self-aware child of God even when I’m not feeling it, I’m choosing to be in a relationship with a Person, not just a passive recipient of grace.

    But that was NOT obvious when it first started happening, and I was very afraid that it was some flaw in me. I can certainly relate to the letter writer!

    • Jill

      Not just a passive recipient of grace. That is so perfect to say it that way.

  • Jeff Le

    Dear “spiritually numb, formerly on fire”:

    What an excellent and mature question. And what a great response by John. If I may add my own take, a sort of prescription for spiritual depression: Don’t compare yourself to others or to your past. Instead, follow your Heart, listen only to your Inner Guide, that Teacher Within that knows Truth and knows you and knows what you need in order to grow. Don’t expect the past (or the dogma/bible) to satisfy the hunger of an awakening mind, any longer. It had very limited Truth and was only a stepping stone. Instead, follow the much more readable and inspired writings and revealed teachings of the wholly truthful: John Shore, for one! And/or The Way of Mastery, by Jon Marc Hammer, or A Course of Love from Mari Perron, or Journey Beyond Words by Brent Haskell, or I Am That I Am by Frances Bennett, or The Holy Spirit’s Interpretation of the New Testament by Regina Dawn Akers, or A Course In Miracles from Helen Shucman, or many other beautiful writings that describe the wonders that you seek. Remember that there is no “You” and “God” separately, there is ONLY “You and God”, and your blinders are on, you are hiding yourself from your own light because the ego fears your Spirit Self, the real you, and therefore throws up barriers to awakening. Your unconscious Mind is awaiting your call. Contemplative Meditation allows your Holy Spirit to peel away all untruths, providing clarity to your beautiful questions, until all you have left is Light. Be joyous and peaceful as you release ALL judgment, as you forgive everyone and everything, and are left with ONLY a real awareness of Love. You are not wrong about God nor yourself, just a paradigm needing to shift in order to perceive more clearly. …….with Love, Jeff

  • http://www.enesvy.com Nicole

    This blog post and all the comments below are incredibly encouraging. Lately, God’s felt invisible in my life…not in a bad way, but it’s made me feel like maybe I’ve somehow let him go? But perhaps the reality is that we’re just more comfortable than ever. He infuses everything; he’s always in my thoughts. Thanks, everyone. :)

  • http://fordswords.net David S

    Letter writer –

    John’s advice is spot on.

    IMHO – you gotta have grit to go with the gravy. The deepest faith has endured a period of questioning in the same way those who live with wild abandon often have encountered tragedy.

    When I feel far from God, I explore creation – art or music or science or poetry… God absolutely lives in a major seventh chord and in a Fractal and in a stanza by TS Eliot. Better yet, I create. Made in God’s image, we are all little creators.

    • Elizabeth

      Love you, David.

      • http://Fordswords.net David S.

        Likewise, Ms. F! Hey, does that mean I’ve earned a pass into the pool hall?

  • Soulmentor

    For me, “God” is too abstract to get a grip on and I have serious reservations about assigning a gender to IT. Small wonder there are problems relating to God when God can mean anything to anyone. It’s too nebulous, too amorphous. I’m reminded of the last line of the song from the old musical SOUND OF MUSIC when the nuns were discussing (musically) how to handle Maria and ask the unanswerable question, “How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?” And so, we invent a sentient being we can love and think we can actually talk to, when we’re really just talking to ourselves. When it at last becomes unavoidably obvious that it no longer feels right, we lose the romantic notion and, having confused that with “faith” from the outset, we become disillusioned and think we have LOST faith.

    You are quite correct, John, about the matter of maturity. I believe that thinking of God as a sentient being is a mistake. God is, and may indeed imbue us with a Spirit of Love that exists somehow, perhaps within us all along, but it doesn’t “speak” to us audibly and I don’t believe it ever has. That seeming phenomenon is, as you allude to, our own Spirit of Love within, our conscience if you will, talking back to us. Then Pat Robertson comes along and tells us that God spoke to him and we all begin to wonder what’s wrong with us.

    Nonsense! It’s your own heart talking. It’s you talking to yourself thru the Love that is in you. Too many people take Jeremiah literally and actually believe that both their heart and mind are evil and deceptive and not to be trusted, thus cutting them off from that Spirit within us and setting them off on that wild goose chase of “seeking it (all truth) in Scripture”. Confusion, thy name is Biblical literalness. Sure, we can fail and fall and be selfish and even harmful, but when we think about it, we know we’re doing it and know we can do good also and, in so realizing, know that we can have faith in ourselves even tho we fail at times. THAT is the truth that sets us free.

    I believe Jesus came to show us that Spirit of Love in ways we can relate to and can believe in; that Spirit that lives within our hearts and minds and yes, even collectively. THAT is the “faith” you can never lose precisely because it’s not abstract. It’s something you can FEEL inside you which, you will wondrously discover, is where God is all along.

  • http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod Kristina Skepton

    After reading some of the comments I realize I may be pretty immature – I can’t imagine ever saying, “I love being boring.” And I submit that humbly with all honesty. I love to feel God and experience His Presence and See Him whenever I can. In fact I have started a ministry devoted to that exact thing – SeeingGod. I have lots of ideas for helping people SeeGod more, and those SeeingGod moments always jazz me. Maybe I am God junky; maybe not. Either way – I am glad some folks like being boring and some not :)

    Kristina Skepton

    Founder, SeeingGod Ministries

    http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod

    • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdparris

      Some of us have struggled with the crap that people or life has thrown at us, and with dammed accuracy, so the peaceful boring life is welcome. Some crave adventure, the next discovery, the new thing, so the boring life would simply not work for those of us in that category.

      The cool thing, there is plenty of room for us who are glad for the respite, those itching to get going, and for those in between.

      • http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod Kristina Skepton

        I agree! World would be “too much of” if we were all one way or another :)

        Kristina

        • Jill

          Yes, and to clarify my point about being boring (since you’d have no way to know otherwise about me), I tease a bit when I say it. Most people I know would be shocked to hear me say such a thing seriously. I mean boring as in, my life with God does not require Drama to be beautiful and fulfilling.

          I’ve had way more non-boring, over-dramatic God time in my life then was ever necessary, being raised fundamentalist. I crave the epiphanical revelatory moments as much as the next humble follower, but I have figured out that I don’t really need so much of that to be in a state of wellbeing and harmony. That’s all I mean.

          • http://www.Facebook.com/SeeingGod Kristina Skepton

            I was raised in the polar opposite environment of the catholic church so I had little to no God drama – maybe somewhere in the middle is best :) God bless!

  • Matt

    John is spot-on, as he often is. I’ve found that trust is what defines my more settled, more mature relationship with God, and with my life partner too. In the beginning of both, I adored God and my partner, but there was a certain “Will this work out?” vibe. I was committed, but the promises I made felt sometimes like they were being built on a foundation of not-quite-dry concrete. Would it hold up under some difficult stuff?

    Both of them did, and now I feel safe and stable enough to try new things, like bring up a conflict with my partner that I was afraid to before, or learn about (and admire) the Sikh philosophy of life without feeling like a “heathen.” Maybe that’s why conservative Christians have such closed minds–they don’t really *trust* God to carry them through their fear of new ideas/people, so God has to be shrunken down and put into a box (the size of a collection plate, maybe?)

    At any rate, that certainly doesn’t sound like you, Letter Writer. You’re doing just fine, and asked a really good, thought-provoking question!

  • Drew M

    Hi there,

    An author, who I of course can not remember the name of, said something like this:

    Loving and knowing are tied together. It is not the love that grows, it is the knowledge. (paraphrase) Faith is like standing at the event horizon of a black hole; putting a death grip around the large rock; and saying: “I may still go in…but I will not go alone!” A bit over dramatic, perhaps. However, after many crappy things experienced, it is how I view things. Finally, one last metaphor: the blue sky is not, in essence, diminished; but merely obscured, by the clouds in front of it.

    Just a bunch of semi-random thoughts at the end of a long, difficult day.

    • Jill

      I like your semi-randomness, Drew. Sorry you had such a crap day. :(

  • Tim Northrup

    If I may,

    Letter Writer, every believer/convert to any faith I’ve ever known has gone through that exact same skydive somewhere between 1 and 3 years after the initial high. I think the rest of the commenters are spot on overall, as is John. You aren’t alone, and your relationship has indeed grown.

    May I suggest a few other things, though? If God really is who you think He is–amongst other things a person to a far greater degree than you–then you have to trust that He values the building and maturing of the relationship. So, that leads me to 3 conclusions.

    1) Sometimes distance does make the heart grow fonder–God may not be apparent because your level of maturity and dependability has led Him to believe that his immediate presence isn’t needed or that you’d mature from some time where you have to trust without seeing–see Thomas, Apostle.

    2) There is no relationship without its highs and lows–there are days you’re just getting by when you’re in a relationship, days which are good and fun, and days when you just can’t keep your hands off each other. In my experience, my relationship with God has similar peaks and valleys, and everyone I’ve ever talked to has as well. That passion has changed, but there will be times when it feels like new again.

    3) Our relationship with God is also very multifaceted–he is creator, savior, teacher, friend, father, etc, etc, etc on out to who knows how many jobs/relationships. The first reaction of most Christians is to either the friend, savior, or Father, depending on their own needs and personality. so when he shifts into King or teacher, sometimes it can throw us for a loop.

    I hope that helps. keep on trucking. It never gets easier, but it always stays good.

  • Joe

    I can identify with the letter writer. Our feelings change during a relationship, and I think that’s good — a sign of growth. I think that in-love phase is in many ways self-absorbed. And it’s good that it gives way to more of a focus on the other. We can start to change our passion about the other into a shared passion with the other. We can share God’s passion for love, compassion, sharing, healing, joy, acceptance, caring for the needy, changing the world a little bit each day. We become part of the mystery of grace. And that can inspire us and sustain us and fulfill us each day, if we allow it. I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Peace to all! Joe

  • Elizabeth

    By the way, John and Cat, happy belated.


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