About a year ago, Rachel Held Evans wrote “The scandal of the evangelical heart.” She talked about how the tight theological arguments that exalt the genocide and violence of the Bible almost “scared her out of the Church.”
Richard Beck calls this “orthodox alexithymia”. We completely uncouple our emotions from our theology. We expect ourselves to be robots, perfectly programmed to have rigorous, rational explanations for God, without falling prey to our flawed emotions.
I find this reasoning in the church all the time. In Cru, I was taught that the faith train doesn’t need the feelings caboose to chug chug chug along. In Anne Graham Lotz’s Magnificent Obsession, she says God is teaching her “to live by faith, not by my feelings.”
I think this disorder reaches its tentacles not just into theology but into our spiritual practices.
We compare spiritual practices to exercise or dieting*, and assume that more discipline will equal more connection to Jesus.
In Rick Warren’s Bible Study methods, he lists “laziness” as one of the top three reasons why people don’t read the Bible.
And Frank Viola, whose writing has been transformative to me, sent out a newsletter recently that explains that we need to trust the Lord, and make a conscious decision to swim against the tide of culture. “When we move against the current, we spend time with the Lord and His Word, we make healthy eating choices, we take time to exercise…”
It’s right there that I get all anxious, ashamed and jittery.
Because I am great at the disciplines of eating right, exercising, and applying myself. I am fantastic at those things.
It’s when I use that discipline to “spend time with the Lord and his Word” that things go haywire.
My great self-discipline has nearly killed my faith, a couple times over.
Look, I am sure that some people do need more discipline when it comes to spiritual practices or seeking out Christ. My objection is that Christians seem to think that’s the answer for everyone.
For some of us, more discipline is the worst idea ever.
Our problem is not that we are lazy, or that we need to get motivated. The problem is that we are broken. We are abused. We are mourning. We are afraid.
Without acknowledging our deep hurt, we will always struggle to connect to God. More discipline will only increase our shame and anxiety.
We do injury to ourselves when we gloss over those dark feelings. Jesus came to heal us, not to anesthetize us.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism says we are called to enjoy God forever. His glory is “the human person fully alive,” as St. Irenaus said.
Enjoyment doesn’t happen if we are numb. We are not fully alive if we do not acknowledge our feelings.
And numbness is rampant in our culture. It is positively epidemic in the church.
I just can’t bear hearing connection to God compared to doing pushups any more. Working harder at faith does not help me find God, and I have a suspicion that’s true for a lot of other people, too.
Way too many people I know have been in churches that were rigid, legalistic or even spiritually abusive. Sexual abuse in church happens over and over. More often then not, it is addressed poorly, if it is addressed at all.
There are a lot of walking wounded Christians out there.
Look, I get it: we’re afraid what will happen if we all start neglecting God. There is beauty in showing up, over and over, even when you aren’t feeling on fire. There is room for perseverance and faithfulness in meeting God.
Just like discipline has nearly killed my faith, faithful spiritual practices have saved it.
But if you’ve tried and tried, and failed and failed, stop. Rest in your failure, and try something different.
Listen to your heart. Pay attention. Notice what you’re feeling. And imagine how you would meet with God if you were hungry, if you were fully alive, if He promised to let you enjoy Him, forever.
Image credit: Susana Fernandez
*Honestly, I don’t think this approach does us any favors with a health, body image, and eating, either.