“Feel Good” Religion

Within each of us is a longing to know and experience God. A longing which if unrequited can often paradoxically push people farther away from the very thing which they desire, namely a relationship with God Himself. Many atheists and agnostics began their journeys as earnest seekers of divine truth, only to find themselves stranded on the rocky shores of unbelief when their hopes of finding God went unmet.

And I often wonder if it’s not our fault as Christians.

— 2 —

We live in a day and age of profound distrust when it comes to the function of the mind and the exercise of the human will. We have been told that we cannot trust our intellect, and that the ability to apprehend both truth and the nature of reality lie beyond us. We have been told that we should never force ourselves to do that which is distasteful to us. We have been told that the only viable way to determine the validity of a proposition is by asking ourselves how we feel about it.

How do you feel about a particular politician or political party? How do you feel about capitalism and big business? How do you feel about vaccines? How do you feel about America’s foreign policies? How do you feel about a woman’s right to choose? How do you feel about the right of every person to marry the one that they love regardless of all other considerations?

— 3 —

Everything is filtered through the screen of our emotions. The facts of a particular situation rarely come into play; rather we choose to focus almost exclusively on our emotions, feeling that they are far more trustworthy than our intellect in helping us to make decisions.

We evaluate politicians based on their warmth and charisma and whether they fill us with hope. We wonder whether big business is uncaring and selfish, and ask ourselves why they don’t provide for the little man? We fear that drug companies and food producers don’t care enough about our children, and struggle with whether Americans are perceived as arrogant and brash by the rest of the world.

We feel that the rights of the individual override any other considerations (even the rights of other individuals), and we speak of things like personal choice, sex, and marriage as God given rights for all; because after all – wouldn’t God want us to be happy?

We feel that it is intolerant and judgmental for us to disagree with anyone on matters of philosophy, religious belief, or moral actions, because ultimately we feel that we have no way of determining objective truth – rather we must rely on what makes us feel good to guide our actions and beliefs, and trust that others will do the same.  Consider the following quote from Tom Robbins:

Quotation-Tom-Robbins-faith-religion-good-hell-Meetville-Quotes-226870

— 4 —

And this has become the new Christian ideal. We read the bible and then ask each other, “What do you feel like that is saying to you?” We take for granted that our feelings, and what Scripture is saying “to us”, is inestimably more important that what the authors of Scripture were intending to convey to their audience.

Surely God wants for me to have a happy marriage at all cost. If I’m unhappy, then I should obviously divorce and remarry someone else who can make me happy. If I’m attracted to someone of the same sex, God couldn’t possibly expect me to be chaste! That would be difficult. That wouldn’t feel good to me. I would feel like I was denying my very truest self. Christ wouldn’t want me to deny my truest self would He? He certainly would never say anything like, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”1 I don’t think that would make me feel good at all…

— 5 —

To return to my earlier assertion, we have told people that a relationship with God is something that you should feel. We have told people that if they don’t feel God is real it is because of a lack of faith on their part. That experiencing God is all about our feelings and “sensing His presence.” 

We have said things like, “You have to know, that you know, that you know that God exists.” What does that even mean?! We have blithely asserted that, “You should feel closer to Jesus than you do to your closest friend.” even though Christ Himself told His friends, “A little while and you will see me no more;”2 He knew that they would feel lost and alone with Him, but also that it wouldn’t be a permanent state of affairs. “So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”3

And then when people don’t experience God emotionally; when they can’t seem to feel His presence in their life; when they don’t hear His voice; when they struggle with faith; when they seek Him and can’t find Him in the emotional experiences that we assure them are necessary – they will frequently move farther away from the very thing which they desire most, namely a relationship with God. Many atheists and agnostics began their journeys as earnest seekers of divine truth, only to find themselves stranded on the rocky shores of unbelief when their hopes of finding God went unmet.

And I often wonder if it’s not our fault as Christians.

 

— 6 —

They [novices in worship] think prayer is all about finding pleasure and sensual devotion. Through great effort, they struggle to acquire that sweetness, exhausting their energy and confounding their heads. When they cannot find what they hunger for they become discouraged, convinced they have accomplished nothing. In light of this yearning, they lose true devotion and spirituality, which lie in humble and patient perseverance, in self-doubt, in the desire only to serve God.

Such souls give everything over to the pursuit of spiritual gratification and consolation. Beginners like these never get tired of reading sacred literature. They dedicate themselves to one meditation and then another, in constant search of some pleasure of the things of God. Justly and with loving care, God denies them this kind of satisfaction. If indulged, their spiritual gluttony and attachment to that sweetness would lead them into countless troubles. Those who are inclined toward gratification are generally lazy and reluctant to tread the rough road to union. A soul in search of sensory sweetness will naturally turn her face away from the bitterness of self-denial. ~ St. John of the Cross4

— 7 —

Perhaps it is time that we learned to deny ourselves and our ever-clamoring emotions. Perhaps we should repent of our need to gorge ourselves spiritually, and instead turn our worship away from our own gratification and back towards God. Perhaps it is time that we quit being lazy, self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and oh so sensitive, and instead became the men and women that God has called us to be.

We must disregard our feelings, for that which can only be found in the way of self-denial and perseverance. [Tweet This]

 

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  1. Matthew 16:24b 

  2. John 16:16a 

  3. John 16:22 

  4. Dark Night of the Soul, trans. by Mirabai Starr, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002, p. 54. 

  7 comments for ““Feel Good” Religion

  1. jeanpergande
    May 14, 2015 at 10:28 AM

    How many times have we heard the phrase…”if it feels good, do it”? This has been for a very long time a Feel Good generation. Feelings are not going to get me to heaven and I have to remind myself of that daily. Thanks for the great post. Will share.

  2. Jean Kuhn
    May 14, 2015 at 1:47 PM

    This is a wonderful post and I wish more people would see this and read it. This is a “feel good” world and sadly, it’s becoming even more so like that. Thanks for posting.

  3. May 20, 2015 at 8:15 AM

    Hmm. I completely agree in one sense with what you are saying. The reduction of religion (and truth) to feelings and preference is a real cultural problem that needs correction.

    And yet I think there are also those who err on the other side, who ignore the heart completely and suggest that Christian life is primarily (or only) a matter of intellect and will. This is also dangerous, and sometimes more so, as it is flaw found in otherwise “good and faithful” Catholics who try to be holy but who are not whole.

    We were made for love not for laws, for relationship, not rules. (Laws and rules do exist, but for the service of love). Unfortunately, love has been caricatured into something fluffy and sentimental, which tempts us to dismiss it altogether, along with all emotions. But we need the emotions as well (all of them). We need to experience the love of God as a reality, not just an abstraction. To receive it in a way that is profoundly personal.

    Obviously balance and perhaps spiritual direction is key here. There does come a point when we must move past seeking consolation for its own sake. But just as we cannot make a god of emotion, we should not make a demon of it either*.

    [*And FWIW, I am not accusing you of doing so—merely noting that this is a very real problem in some Christian circles, one that causes very serious damage. I’ve worked with many in the church (and who have left) who need to heal from this alternate extreme. I am afraid it is hard to explain what I mean concisely in a comment box! 🙂 ]

    • Adam N. Crawford
      May 26, 2015 at 11:08 AM

      Grace, thanks so much for your comment! I’ve been meaning to respond, but I’ve been way too busy! As someone who tends to be far more intellectual than emotional, I can attest all too well to the dangers that a severe intellectualism can pose, especially when divorced from love! I also agree that we have turned love into something fluffy and sentimental rather than viewing it in the way that C.S. Lewis would define it, “Love is unselfishly choosing for another’s highest good.” Of course, under that definition love becomes very much an exercise of the will 😉

      I guess my problem is this. Love of God and love of our fellow man is required of us, regardless of how we may “feel” at any particular time. I believe that true love is fundamentally an act of the will – not merely “fluffy sentimentalism” as you so appropriately pointed out! I believe that our emotions are given to us by God and are for our good, but that they must be properly submitted (for lack of a better phrase) to our will and our intellect. There must be a natural hierarchy in which our emotions are subservient to our intellect and will. When our emotions correspond with reality and we feel the presence of God and His love for us – Hallelujah! But when our emotions don’t conform to this reality, it doesn’t make God and His love for us any less real!

      What a blessing to find within Catholicism the greatest theologians and philosophers that the world has ever seen side by side with the monks and mystics! For every Aquinas and Augustine, you have a St Therese of Lisieux or St John of the Cross – and many of them were both theologian and mystic! I ended the post with the quote from St. John of the Cross precisely because he was a mystic, and yet still warned against the dangers of thinking that, “prayer is all about finding pleasure and sensual devotion…In light of this yearning, they lose true devotion and spirituality, which lie in humble and patient perseverance, in self-doubt, and in the desire to only serve God.”

      I agree with you that balance is key, and I apologize if I came off as unduly one sided in my post! I do feel rather strongly, however, that our emotions and feelings must be subservient to our intellect and will, and should be carefully evaluated to determine whether or not they are “valid” in a particular situation, or whether we are merely using them to excuse our actions or beliefs. (“Valid” in the sense of whether or not they accurately conform to reality and the situation. We can’t necessarily change how we feel at a particular time or in a particular situation, but we can decide whether or not to let those feelings influence our actions and beliefs) You hit the nail on the head – we shouldn’t “demonize” our feelings and emotions, but I was writing the article in response to a culture and society (and sometimes religion) which has divinized them 🙂

      Thanks again for the comment and great insights! Thanks for keeping the conversation going!

I want to hear your thoughts! Go ahead and keep the conversation going, but please keep it at least PG and respectful.

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