I came to faith in Jesus as a 14-year-old in a tradition that emphasized truth over feelings. “Feelings lie. Truth, as revealed in Scripture, is the only reliable, constant guide” was the refrain I heard repeatedly. If I felt it and it was objectively spoken against in Scripture then my feelings were wrong.
Feeling God’s love was one of the main subjects of this point’s application. Since our feelings wax and wane based on a myriad of factors, we should hold tightly to the truth that God loves us no matter what. Typically, I think this is great advice. Our feelings are somewhat fickle and we generally need a more consistent guide on which to base our lives. But does that mean that God isn’t concerned with my experience of his love? Does God not care that I sometimes feel distant from him and struggle to feel his love?
God Wants us to Experience His Love
I work as a campus minister. We do all kinds of things to start conversations with students and find creative ways to get to the Gospel.
Last Valentine’s Day we reserved a table outside of our student center with a visual display that attempted to engage students on the subject of love. Loosely based on the 5 Love Languages, our interactive display asked students to choose one of 4 options on the questions: “What action makes you feel loved the most?” and “What actions makes you feel the most unloved?” After students responded, we noted that hearing someone say they love us is nice. But having someone say they love us then do the thing that makes us feel the most loved ramps the experience up a notch. Many of the students we interacted with interjected with affirmations: “Yeah, it’s like the proof of what they say!” one student noted.
Then, we connected this reality to God. We noted that, being in the south, they had likely heard that God loves them many times. We asked, “But have you ever had an experience of that love?”
Stunned silence. Every. Single. Time.
We then read Ephesians 3:14-19 to them particularly emphasizing v. 18: “and may you be able to feel and understand, as all God’s children should, how long, how wide, how deep, and how high his love really is; and to experience this love for yourselves…”
According to Ephesians 3, God wants more for us than to solely have an intellectual understanding of his love for us. He wants us to experience his love.
Our Emotions are Part of the Imago Dei
But what do we do when our knowledge that God loves us doesn’t line up with our experience of his love? Put another way, what happens when we just don’t feel it?
Peter Scazzero has done tremendous work in developing a theology of emotions. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is a must-read, especially for those of us who were taught that our emotions are to be distrusted at all times. Scazzero points out that God created us with emotions and He is sometimes described as having or being motivated by emotions. Our emotions are part of what make us created in the imago dei. They are not a result of the fall and, thus, inherently evil.
Our emotions can lead us into deeper relational intimacy with both other people and God. The healthy thing to do relationally with other people when we feel like someone is expressing love for us but isn’t backing it up with action is to have a conversation with them about it. A supportive, trusting relationship will understand that the other has love for us. That reality isn’t called into question. The problem lies either (1) in my perception of your love or (2) the way the other is communicating love simply isn’t resonating with me.
My wife and I experienced this as newlyweds. She loves words of affirmation and giving/receiving gifts. Personally, I don’t usually care what you say and I have enough stuff. If you want to communicate love to me, take something I don’t like to do off my plate. We went through a growing phase in our relationship where I wasn’t affirming her nearly enough (not to mention being a horrible gift-giver!). I was confounded that she felt unloved because I was doing all these things for her (laundry, cooking, chores she didn’t like, etc.). The problem wasn’t that I didn’t love her. The problem was that I wasn’t communicating love in a way that she needed to receive it.
While (1) is a possibility in our relationship with God, (2) needs a little adjustment. Since God knows us intimately and loves us deeply, the way he communicates love to us is always in a manner that we need. If we are not receiving that, it may be that there is something preventing us from receiving that love in either our lives (unrepentant sin, relational strife), or our emotional lives (unaddressed relational wounds, mental health struggles, etc.).
Our Expectation of God’s Love
Defining what we mean when we use the phrase “experience God’s love” is an important first step. If you’re struggling to sense God’s love, what would it mean for you to have that sense right now? Have you had it before? What happened? What were the circumstances surrounding the experience?
With these questions answered, we can then attempt to replicate the circumstances as best we can. You may emotionally connect with God through a certain kind of worship. Find a quiet spot, put on your favorite worship song, and worship.
Perhaps you connect with God through journaling. Set aside some time this week to go somewhere outside of your normal routine and journal. The change of scenery might help.
Maybe you experience God through nature. Go for a hike! Get outdoors for a bit in a place that provokes a sense of wonder or beauty in your heart.
Oftentimes our issue with not experiencing God’s love is a symptom of not creating space to experience God’s love. We rush about with our mile-long to-do lists, binge Netflix, don’t get enough sleep, and generally live on the edge of burnout. Meanwhile, we wonder why we don’t encounter God.
Perhaps it’s because we’re not creating space to encounter God in the way that He has relationally made us to encounter him.
When We Prevent Experiencing God’s Love
I would be remiss to write this article without addressing the elephant in the room. Sometimes we are the reason we don’t experience God’s love. Sometimes we actively sabotage our relational connection with God then point the finger at him as if he were to blame.
Is there unrepented of sin in your life? Scripture is pretty clear that unrepentance leads to distance from God (see Heb 12:7-11; Is 59:2). Confess your sin and it’s more likely that you will have the experience of God’s love for which you long. God delights in our repentance, is always merciful, and stands ready to embrace us.
Interpersonal relationship strife is another barrier to experiencing God’s love for us. Jesus Himself taught that, prior to worshipping God, we should go be reconciled to another believer who has something against us prior to bringing our gift to God (Matt 5:23-24). Harboring an unforgiving heart in any relational context may also prevent our experience of God’s love (Matt 6:14-15).
A small caveat: forgiveness does not always equate to reconciliation. Forgiveness only requires your participation. Reconciliation requires the participation of the other person in the process. This is a huge reason why Scripture exhorts us that, “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Rom 12:18) You cannot control whether or not the other person is ready to reconcile the relationship. You can only control whether you hold an offense against them.
Mental and Spiritual Health
Mental health struggles may also prevent our experience of God’s love. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and a host of other afflictions bind us to lies about ourselves and God.
If you know you have a mental health struggle, assessing whether your lack of perception of God’s love is a symptom of that struggle is a helpful first step. Then, address the mental health struggle.
Were you on medication and stopped? Maybe you need to reassess with your doctor or counselor.
Are you going through something that’s particularly difficult given your mental health issue? Perhaps seeing a counselor for a short period of time would be helpful if you aren’t currently. If you are, bring up your struggle to your counselor and allow them to guide you.
As the husband of a person with clinical anxiety, I have had a front-row seat to the havoc mental health struggles can have on a person’s sense of emotional and spiritual well-being. If you suspect you may struggle with mental health in any capacity and have no idea where to start to address it, you can call a national mental health hotline completely anonymously at 866-903-3787.
Prefer to have a more faith-based context to address mental health? Better Help will allow you to indicate your preference for a Christian-based therapist. If you feel comfortable, consider asking your pastor or a trusted ministry leader in your area for a local recommendation.
It May Be Difficult
Emotions are important. God created us in his image as emotional beings. Far from desiring us to be content in the intellectual understanding that God loves us, Scripture declares that God wants us to experience his love for ourselves. A variety of reasons may make that difficult for us. But addressing the reasons why we experience this distance from God leads to a deeper, more intimate experience of his love for us on the other side.
It may be hard, but it will be worth it.