Question: Sometimes I feel very close to God and at other times I feel that he is a million miles away. When I don’t feel that he is near, does that mean that I have done something that has offended him?
Dr Jim McClure, noted theologian, responds:
This question raises the more fundamental question of how reliable our emotions are in experiencing God’s presence and in sensing his speaking to us.
First of all it has to be said that our capacity to have emotions is a gift from God. When he made us, part of the human package was what we call ‘feelings.’ Some of them make us feel good, such as happiness, love, wonder, and pleasure; other have a negative effect on us – such as, sadness, disappointment, shame, anger and envy. Still others include such feelings as sympathy, compassion and courage. On and on the list goes! It would be hard to imagine life without feelings. Yet…
Feelings can be blunted, misdirected, manipulated and deceived
• Some people may be so emotionally traumatised that they are largely incapable of experiencing and expressing healthy feelings.
• Other people may be in such admiration of some person or some goal that they can be influenced to act wrongly and pursue evil objectives.
• Others can have their feelings manipulated by music, crowds and even preachers who use hype and psychological manipulation to evoke a response from their audiences.
• Sometimes we may even deceive ourselves by misinterpreting our emotions. The song, You light up my life has a line that perfectly expresses this deception: ‘It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.’
In fact it can be wrong! Illness and circumstances can also influence our moods and consequently our feelings. The fact is that feelings are never a good guide in helping us determine right from wrong.
Feelings can lead us into serious mistakes in life
In the Star Wars movie The Revenge of the Sith Obi Wan Kenobi was asked, ‘What do your feelings tell you?’ The implication is that our feelings will always wisely lead us. Similarly it is common today to hear some people give this advice, ‘Follow your heart.’ On the surface that seems to be an encouraging thing to say – but it is so wrong.
In the Bible we read, ‘Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful; it is too sick to be healed’ (Jeremiah 17:9 GNB).
Feelings are never a good test of God’s love for us
Sometimes Christians, when they sin or when circumstances in life appear to be against them, may question if God still loves them. We may dishonour God and displease him and even with our sins build barriers between ourselves and him (Isaiah 59:2) but he will never stop loving us! That is one of the main truths we find in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which may, in fact, be better called the Parable of the Loving Father).
In Jeremiah 31:3 we find God declaring, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness.’ Someone has truly said, ‘God’s love for me is inexhaustible.’ If our feelings ever make us doubt the love of God, all we have to do is to look at the cross and we are reminded that the evidence of God’s love is greater than our feelings.
Feelings can never be trusted to inform us of God’s nearness
In Hebrews 13:5 we read, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ That is God’s promise; He is always near. But sometimes our emotions may be so stirred in a worship service by powerful music or the stirring words of a worship leader or preacher that we may feel that God is near. At other times we may not experience such stirring feelings. However, true worship is not about exciting our feelings but about engaging our spirit. Our worship of God must never be measured by our emotions – although emotions can be stirred.
Jesus clearly said, ‘A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks’ (John 4:23).
Feelings can never provide assurance of the things we may think God is saying to us
When we feel that God is prompting us to do something or saying something to us or giving us a word of knowledge or a word of prophecy, that feeling must not be the measure that determines whether or not it is authentically from God. Feelings can so easily deceive us and false words have often been given to others because those, into whose mind they came, strongly felt that they were from God. But frequently they are not! Paul wisely advises us, ‘Test everything. Hold on to the good’ (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Christian discipleship is grounded on faith and not on feelings. And the depth of faith we see in others (or even perceive in ourselves) is never accurately measured by the emotions that are experienced or displayed.
It is good for us to allow our feelings to serve God but we must recognise their instability and their unreliability and be careful that they do not dominate us or determine what we believe.
Dr Jim McClure is the author of Grace Revisited, Overview of the Old and New Testaments and the Understanding… series, Orders and enquiries: jbmcclure AT gmail.com
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