A reader posed an interesting question recently. How do you believe in God’s love in an experiential versus a theological way? In other words, how do you experience the love of God when you don’t feel it?
Theological belief involves an assent of the intellect. Something is presented to us as logical and we choose to believe it in a theoretical sort of way. But what if we haven’t experienced God’s love? Or perhaps more accurately, what if we can’t see the good in the many things we have experienced in our lives? Maybe we’re praying for something for years and that prayer still goes unanswered. Or, a senseless tragedy befalls us that challenges our belief in God’s love for us. Well, that’s where faith comes in.
Remember the classic film Miracle on 34th Street? Little Susan is being raised by a practical mother who refuses to fill her head with fantasies about Santa Claus to shield her from the inevitable disappointment she’ll feel when she learns he’s not real. Enter Fred Gailey, the affable man across the hall who tells her that faith is believing in something when common sense tells you not to.
But is it really common sense that keeps us from believing or something else?
The answer to this question brings us back to the original problem of humanity, or more accurately, the original sin of man. When presented with the notion that God may have been holding out on them and that eating of the tree would not actually cause them to die, man “let his trust in his Creator die in his heart…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, art. 397) All of our problems, and I mean all of them, stem from this original sin.
So, the question posed above is not only a good one, but an imperative one. How do you fight against this tendency we all have not to trust in God’s love for us? How do you feel something you may, in fact, not feel at all? Well, let’s start here: do you want to believe it? Or more accurately, do you want to be happy, to return to paradise, to experience heaven? Of course, you do…so why don’t you?
Like Susan’s mom, you’ve likely been hurt and disappointed. Having perhaps once experienced happiness and hope, things may have come crashing down around you. Abusive or neglectful parents, unfaithful spouses, illnesses, injuries, and losses all speak to us like the serpent, tempting us away from faith in God’s love for us. We may think we have faith in God, but like Dorothy near the end of the Wizard of Oz, we believe there’s nothing in the black bag for us.
In order for us to get from where we are—wanting to believe—to a place of truly believing I would make four suggestions:
1) Make a Decision
Instead of waiting to feel the trust, we need to decide to trust—to act as if, if you will. This step is super important. Our feelings are fickle and can be tossed about by many factors: a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, or even a common cold. As important as feelings are in our lives, if you don’t submit them to reason you’re in for a whole lot of chaos.
How does this decision play out in practice? When something happens that doesn’t please us, we have a choice in how we view it. We can believe God is messing with us, punishing us, or just doesn’t care enough to be involved. Or we can apply our belief that God loves us, even if it’s only intellectual in nature, and look for some good in the situation or some good that may come of it in the future. Believing the opposite causes us naturally to look at and magnify the problem and its negative aspects.
So, decide to believe in God’s love. That’s the first step.
It’s really hard to believe in someone’s love if you don’t cultivate a relationship with them. Prayer opens the conversation. But more than pouring out a list of desires, or even demands, prayer involves listening as well. Sure, ask your questions of God when you’re hurt, when you’re scared, and when you’re disappointed. You may be angry with God—tell him. And as distressing as that may feel, or as disrespectful as it may seem to some, it’s a good sign. It indicates you have a relationship. Strained, perhaps, but a relationship nonetheless. And like any human relationship, in order for it to be healthy, you need to communicate.
Make prayer a priority in your life. Ask God to show you his love and to give you the eyes to see and the ears to hear him. Remember the prayer from scripture “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24). You’re not the first to struggle with faith.
3) Engage in Spiritual Reading
Let’s face it, we live in a post-Christian society that militates against God and faith in so many ways. The news reports on the ugliest side of human nature. Our entertainment glorifies sin. It’s no accident. The prince of this world, as Jesus referred to Satan, wants us to focus on evil and to challenge our faith in God’s goodness. But that myopic view is a lie. Unless we do something to counter that we risk becoming the devil’s chew toy.
Holy Scripture, lives of the saints, and great spiritual writers like Augustine or Aquinas, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton, and more contemporary writers like Fulton Sheen or Scott Hahn are all great choices. Even ten minutes a day can be a powerful inoculation against a culture of disbelief and a great impetus to faith.
4) Back Up
As much as we are locked in the present moment, our lives are unfolding in an eternal plan. The moments we spend on earth pass quickly. Judging your life only on its apparent value in the here and now is a disservice. Reviewing it from heaven will help us to see how all of the pieces fit—the triumphs as well as the sorrows. We will literally re-view it—see it from a different perspective. But why wait until then?
In therapy we often re-view one’s past to understand it better. Christian therapy has the added benefit of helping you to re-view it from a faith perspective as well.
Remember, nothing is wasted in God’s economy, and no suffering or trial is without merit or meaning. St. Therese of Lisieux dreamed of being a missionary but died of tuberculosis at the age of 24, never having left the convent walls. Leaving it there may seem like a failure, but her devotees will tell you otherwise. Her mission only began here and continues to shower blessings on earth.
So back up—get a bigger perspective and experience God’s love in your life.