My experience of faith, my spiritual emotions if you will, have changed over the years.
I’ve never a person who experienced extremes of emotion, but over time my experience of God was growing quieter. My life of faith was less exciting.
For a long time I worried that this meant I was losing my faith. I was afraid that when I met Jesus face to face, he would spit me out for being lukewarm. (Revelation 3.16)
Whether it was intended or not, the message I received from many of the churches I attended, many of the youth conferences I enjoyed, was that if I didn’t feel moved during worship, something was wrong. Wrong with me. Wrong with my worship. Wrong with my relationship with God.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes that “where worship is relatively spontaneous, … people powered by religious emotion simply do run out of steam.” By “spontaneous,” she is referring to worship that doesn’t come from centuries of liturgy. Not that modern evangelical churches are all shallow institutions, but that liturgies have the advantage of being a steadily flowing river you can slip into and allow the prayers and Scriptures to shape you rather than attempting to rely on yourself to dredge up the necessary emotions.
What I discovered after much time in prayer and reading is that rather than cooling off, my relationship with God had simply changed. It moved deeper. Silence and attentiveness are now greatly necessary to me. My faith has moved deep inside, “glowing there like a little oil lamp.”
Many of our Church Mothers and Fathers have written about why it is good to move beyond the emotions of experiencing God.
St. John of the Cross speaks of sensory benefits as the least of God’s gifts to us, a gift that he often withdraws in order to convince us to turn our eyes of faith on the Father rather than on what he is giving to us. St. John calls the desire to feel something in our time with God a “negative judgement” on God. It is a lack of trust in God doing in us what he promised to do.
In much more modern times, Richard Foster writes that “The Bible shows us that God works through long periods of our lives in which — apparently — nothing much seems to happen.”
Mathewes-Green describes this deepening of faith, this moving away from the passions and emotions into the realm of silence and attentiveness, as something that is natural and necessary in our relationship with God, just as it does between two people who are in love. I think I will end with this quote from her:
At the beginning, the heart pounds just to see the beloved’s handwriting on an envelope; at the end, two sit side by side before a fire and don’t need to speak at all. When (churches) urge their (congregations) not to let the joy fade, they may be calling them to fight a fruitless battle against moving to the next stage of spiritual communion, the one where God moves deep inside. When years shape us to be like him, his presence is less electric and strange; yet as we draw nearer, deeper faith yields deeper awe.
May God continue to shape you to be more like him, leading you into deeper faith and deeper awe as you sit in silence with him.