In my last year of seminary, almost everything went wrong. I was about to graduate with no job prospects. I was in debt. My wife had just miscarried, and finals were about to begin. My wife wanted me to finish; she wanted us to move out of that stage of life. I didn’t want to let her down, but I felt guilty for studying. As Sunday approached, I didn’t want to go to church; I didn’t feel like a Christian. My faith felt weak.
I had the right answers. I knew the theology. I had received a good education, but I had such a hard time praying. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe God was there, or that I believed God didn’t care, or that God was not good because he had allowed evil to come my way. It was much more complicated. I just didn’t feel well; I knew God wasn’t to blame.
I blamed myself. That semester was stressful. In the rush to study and finish strong while trying to secure a job and complete my internship responsibilities at my local church, I was constantly frustrated, exhausted, and irritable. I brought these feelings home to my wife. I caused her a lot of stress as she worried about our future, a future for which I had failed to adequately prepare. This is what I told myself; I couldn’t help it. I remember that as we sat together in the hospital, all feelings of hope dissipated.
As Sunday approached, I didn’t feel like a Christian, but I went to church anyway. My plan was simple. I was going to keep trying to be a Christian. I was going to keep trying to pray, but I wasn’t going to pretend that everything was okay when it wasn’t.
It was hard to go to church. It was hard to attend a worship service where I was supposed to feel a certain way. It was hard to be around people; I worried that I was a downer because I didn’t get over “it” quickly. I fell into a depression that lasted months. I know this sounds strange. I know I’m not supposed to get so depressed; at least, this is what I was told by well-meaning church folk. But continuing to go to church as I was—hurt, worried, and sorrowful—was the best decision I made.
In The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World, Michael Horton makes an often-misunderstood point:
Faith is not a feeling, even though it is often accompanied by profound experience. It does not well up within us. Rather, it is provoked in us—created in us—by the external announcement of the gospel. When the Spirit opens our hearts to the gospel’s beauty, we simply find ourselves believing the report. (Michael Horton The Gospel-Driven Life: Being Good News People in a Bad News World, 123)
Often this is understood as saying “Your feelings don’t matter. Suck it up and keep going.” This is not what he is saying at all. The advice is simple.
1. Keep going to church.
The advice here is to trust that God works through the church to help your faith. The body of Christ, the gathering of Christians to worship God and serve one another is a gift from God to help us. God has equipped pastors to pray for us, to preach to us, and even to listen to our complaints and worries, an example of how God himself listens and cares.
2. Distinguish faith from feelings.
Too often, we reduce faith to a feeling—a pleasant, happy, or exuberant feeling. This leaves no place for sorrow, lament, or sadness. Distinguishing faith from feeling means that you begin to acknowledge that real Christians can feel a variety of ways. One can have a strong faith and yet mourn; one can have weak faith and yet be filled with happy emotions. Your faith and your emotional state are two different things. The Psalms prove this on every page.
Your feelings don’t qualify or disqualify you from being a Christian. In fact, feeling sorrowful may be the most Christian thing you can do given your circumstances. Even Jesus wept at the death of a friend (John 11:35).
This is what I learned through my last semester in seminary: Christianity is not a happy, pretend-like-everything-is-okay-faith. I knew that in theory, but I learned to feel it. The Psalms, which are dominated by themes of lament and mourning, began to make sense. I learned how to feel like a Christian without denying my sorrow.