Don't know whether I've been as overt about it as the guy in the picture, but sometimes church leaves me feeling, well ... just blah. Definitely not like I've had a religious experience! I'm guessing a few readers might identify with me ... or perhaps with the sleeping guy in the pew.
We can tend to gauge our worship experience by the number of tingling feelings we've felt during the music. Or the way the words of the sermon stirred us to want to act. Or the number of tissues needed during the hour. Our feelings, our emotions become the barometer for determining whether we've had an authentic worship experience.
I have a similar gauge for my personal, private meditations. When I come away feeling I've met with God, heard Jesus, had my soul stirred, I treasure the experience. But, when my mind wanders (which it often does), and when I feel like I'm sitting there just mumbling like that dull bump on a log, I can consider the time wasted. I'm disappointed. I had given it a shot ... where was God?
But, if we feel this way, maybe we have it all wrong. Rather than simply treasure those special worship and meditation experiences, we expect them to be the default. While our feelings and emotions can make an experience special, perhaps we make too much of them. Should a relationship with God always be some mountain-top joy? Is it OK for the experience to be a bit more pedestrian? Might it be that our expectations are unrealistic?
German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests that it may be unreasonable to expect all these emotional experiences. Regarding the more mundane experiences, Bonhoeffer says we make wrongful demands of God, "as if it were our right to have nothing but edifying and blissful experiences, and as if the discovery of our inner poverty were beneath our dignity." And regarding meditation, "Above all, it is not necessary for us to have any unexpected, extraordinary experiences." (From Life Together. See the full, but brief recap of Bonhoeffer's thoughts in the PDF of Ordinary Meditation in the Resources below.)
Perhaps it is a bit like long-term marriage. There are times when we feel the joy and ecstasy of our relationship. There are times when we do not. But, we stay with it, realizing that an expectation of constant bliss and harmony is unrealistic ... and perhaps a seed of destruction. Is it fair to God ... or to us ... to measure the depth and strength of the relationship by our feelings and emotions? (Seems to me that maybe Woody Allen's quote, "Showing up is 80 percent of life," might be a bit appropriate here.)
"Nobody can always have devout feelings, and even if we could, feelings are not what
God principally cares about."C.S. Lewis,
Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis tries to put "religious feelings" in a rightful perspective. In Mere Christianity he says, "Christian love, either toward God or toward man, is an affair of the will. If we are trying to do his will, ... he will give us feelings of love if he pleases. We cannot create them for ourselves, and we must not demand them as our right." And he concludes this thought with, "But the great thing to remember is that, though our feelings come and go, his love for us does not."
Lewis even goes so far as to suggest that using our feelings as validation of our faith may be the work of Satan. In his satirical novel The Screwtape Letters, senior Demon Screwtape gives advice to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter, in how to turn people away from God. In this passage, he emphasizes the use of feelings:
"(Help them) turn their gaze away from Him (God) towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired, at the moment."The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, 1942, Harper One, pp. 16-17.
None of this means to suggest that our feelings and emotions during worship and meditation are unimportant. Quite the contrary: these can give life to our faith, draw us closer to the God we worship, and, in corporate worship, draw us nearer to those around us. The mistake we often make is to use our feelings and emotions as the chief barometers of our worship experiences. Perhaps the problem with using feelings as the gauge is that the emphasis is on us rather than on God.
Also, the context of these cautions assumes that generally we experience worship and meditation as positive experiences, with a few worrisome "blahs" the exceptions. However, if the cold or blah feeling is the norm, perhaps these feelings are telling us something. Maybe we need to look inward and examine our spiritual self. Or perhaps we need to look around us at the church and structures we look to for nourishment. These constant cool feelings may be a sign that something needs to change.
And, as we consider our feelings about worship, whether positive or negative, it is good to think about what we expect ... what we are looking for in our faith. Maybe we are feeling good about the wrong things. Maybe we feel blah because we have misplaced expectations.
A closing thought: Again C.S. Lewis, this time from God in the Dock:
"I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don't recommend Christianity."