What do you do when your faith has no feelings? That's what this one friend asked...
I struggle immensely with the emotional/heart part of faith. I get really irritated when I hear the description “personal relationship with Jesus.” Even for strong believers, I'm guessing that most of them don't feel anything very similar to a human relationship...in which spending time together, communication, touching, etc. provide the means through which a connection is formed and maintained. Spiritual disciplines are the best parallel I can think of for forming or maintaining a “relationship” with God/Jesus. I have tried those things, too... gratitude/prayer journals, prayer time... but I’ve never felt anything as a result of those efforts. I don't think the “head” part, with which I still do somewhat struggle, can be enough. It seems fundamental to feel loved by God...and I don't because of what I've tried to describe here. —BJ
BJ, I love your question.
I can see how it would irk you when you hear people say they have a personal relationship with Jesus. I mean what does that mean anyway?! I think when people say those words they are most often saying that instead of Christianity just being a religious habit, it is something that is more heartfelt. Nonetheless, I've wondered myself just what Christians are saying when they speak of a personal relationship, since as you point out it's not like other personal relationships we might have.
I have to wonder if our relationship with God/Jesus is markedly different than our human relationships, even if there are some similarities. I know some people who seem to have a "relationship" with their car. They name it, talk to it, and feel sad when they have to give it up. That kind of relationship, however, is different than the relationship they might have with their dog, or with their childhood friend, or with a spouse. All this is to say, I wonder if the relationship we have with God might look a little different than those relationships as well, especially since he is an all-powerful, all-loving being, who doesn’t generally make himself visible.
When Jesus was on earth, we might have been able to have a normal humanly kind of relationship with him, but now that he has returned to his place with the Father, we are in a position of having a relationship with an all-powerful, all-loving, non-physically present being. That certainly sounds like it's going to call for a different kind of relationship. Maybe that's why Jesus gives a special blessing to those who believe without seeing him personally (John 21:29).
I know many people who look to specific times when they've distinctly felt the presence of God, and see those times as a real anchor for their faith. I’m glad for them, but that has not really been the case for me. Not that I don't see him as integral to all that is happening about me, but I don’t have a palpable feeling like he is in the room.
That said, even though I don't experience lots of feelings from God, I have become increasingly confident in him and find myself calling out to him more and more. It's as if life just makes more sense with him than without him. What I mean by that is that when I seek his way of forgiveness, when I pursue the things he calls good, when I love my wife sacrificially, when I hurt at the brokenness that sin causes in the world, when I try to make sense of love and purpose and reason and free will, I keep finding God is the answer to the questions and longings I have. The result is that if Christ were to show up physically before me now, I think I'd fall to my knees weeping in joy like those videos of children being surprised when their military father/mother comes home.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.