It’s confession time; I don’t feel like God loves me. And with that click-bait-y opening line, allow me to explain how I don’t actually mean that the way you’re probably thinking.
I’ve heard from many other people that they have been able to experience God in a way that fills a social void for them; that allows them to feel less alone when they’re lonely. They achieve this through prayer and the knowledge that God loves them, and they feel it (apparently) in much the same way that they feel the love of a friend or loved one. For them, they feel the impact of Christ’s death for them as if he is a friend they personally knew, and I believe most of them when they express this feeling. I’ve seen videos of people being brought to tears and a spiritual awakening while being introduced to the Gospel through the Jesus film. It brings me to tears too while I’m watching it, or while I’m listening to certain songs about it. In my experience as a worship leader, there are a few songs I knew I couldn’t sing because I knew I would choke up, but for me that was an emotional reaction that didn’t extend all the way to internalizing the fact of what Jesus did for me on the cross. It felt more like an involuntary reaction the way speaking publicly about anything remotely sensitive can be hard for even the most stalwart speakers to get through. It’s not necessarily always un-spiritual, but I’ve seen people in college and high school speech classes do the same thing with topics that aren’t sensitive at all.
I’ve heard of people being alone and feeling the presence of God in a very real and personal way such that they retained a very personal knowledge of God throughout the rest of their lives and I don’t doubt them. Some, like one of my favorite evangelists Sundar Singh had lives radically changed because of that experience. For me however, I just don’t experience God’s love in a direct person-to-person way.
If you’re familiar with love languages, it’s worth asking, what if someone’s love language is physical touch? How would Christ who is bodily at the right hand of the Father express his love to me two thousand years after he ascended through his immaterial spirit whom He sent to be with us? The whole premise of love languages is that you can love someone with all your heart but it will be difficult to make them feel that love without communicating it in a way they’re wired to understand. I feel that way toward God and I know many others do too. I have a head-knowledge of God’s love, and I’ve seen plenty of evidence that God knows me, knows where I am and wants to bless me, but as I remember telling my mother when I was a young teenager, “I can’t hug God”. Her response was that God usually sends us someone to hug, and that’s stuck with me.
At the loneliest times in my life, I remember wanting desperately someone to sit with me and know my pain, but I didn’t want to bother anyone with it since I couldn’t seem to shake it and that wasn’t their problem, and I didn’t feel like God was sitting there with me. There were a few brief moments where God gave me a glimpse of His perspective and that He cared for me, and they were good to remember, but for the most part I still felt alone. What helped was when people in my life actually did just reach out to me and offer to spend time with me and keep me from being alone for too long, wallowing in self-pity. That spoke my love language and it actually helped. I had friends and family who were patient with me and just kept loving me by being that person God sent for me to hug, and I’m immensely grateful to them and God for that. If I feel that God loves me at all, it’s through the love of God’s people. Anecdotally, I’d also like to point out that not all of those people were self-professing Christians. Some of them were among the fringes of religion or openly atheist, but they had tenderness and compassion in their hearts. I believe God put it there, regardless of how they themselves understand reality, but that’s another story.
I’ll admit, my inability to perceive God’s love directly is a shortcoming of my own psychology, but that only describes the problem, it doesn’t really fix it. Even people who are conscious of their own love languages seek the expression of love in that language. Knowledge of your own subconscious allows you to work with it, it doesn’t necessarily change it.
Similarly, I feel like I don’t get out of prayer what a lot of other people get out of it. It seems like a lot of people get encouragement to get through the day and a feeling of God’s presence through prayer every day, and for me I’ve again never really gotten that from prayer. For me its effect is more to center myself around God and to meditate and self-reflect in the context of a holy God, but the only time I’ve really felt like God spoke to me through it was through a charismatic preacher at a church I was visiting who was exercising his gift of prophecy, and let me know that God saw me and knew where I was and cared for me. Sitting there in a chair with my head bowed and his hand on my shoulder, I actually felt it. I think that’s the value of baptism too; a spiritual truth can be known but translating it to something tangible allows us to actually perceive it on a subconscious level so we “feel” it and internalize it. For me, I sometimes feel like what other people get out of prayer is like the “runner’s high” that I’ve heard people talk about and never experienced for myself. I’ve run until I was about to vomit, and maybe it’s just because of how I’m built or maybe it’s there and I just don’t notice it but I’ve never experienced that endorphin rush or anything that makes me want to go back and do it more to get that feeling again. I don’t think other people are lying or over-stating their feeling; my wife feels it too and has expressed it to me. I just feel like I don’t get what other people get out of it. For me, it’s strictly a disciplinary action that I’ll do because I know it’s healthy. I’ve compared prayer to brushing my teeth before; I brush my teeth every day because I’m addressing an immediate need and there’s a cue when my mouth feels gross in the morning, but I haven’t found that cue that tells me “you need to pray”. I do it because I know I should, but that’s not a great way to make a habit stick and I admittedly don’t pray nearly as much as I should. It’s entirely possible that with prayer and with running I’m just not doing it right, and I remain open to that, but the more I try the more I think it might just be because I lack something.
I initially started thinking about how I know God loves me because I was trying to figure out how best to communicate to others that God loves them. I realized that for me to say “God loves you” and expect it to change anything felt disingenuous because if someone said it to me I wouldn’t feel it and it’d just be empty words. I don’t “feel” God’s love so I don’t really expect other people to and the people I’m thinking of are similar to me in that way.
I think expecting God to fill a social void when there are people around who could do that is like breaking your arm and expecting God to heal it miraculously. Miracles by Craig Keener is a great book if you want to read a compendium of miraculous claims with a rational examination of each, and it’s books like that that make me believe God definitely still does miracles, but one interesting trend is that the best attested cases generally don’t happen when there are people around who could see to that need themselves. In fact the majority of the miraculous things I’ve seen have consisted of someone being prompted by the Spirit to write someone a check for a very specific amount that they had no idea the significance of, or to give someone a call at a critical time unprompted. I think God would much rather use His people to take care of each other and be Christ to their neighbors and the world whenever possible. I think we shouldn’t expect someone to know God’s love personally by telling them, we should be God loving them. One of the most poignant expressions of God’s love in the modern age was Fred Rogers, who understood that Christ loved him the way he was and that allowed him to love others just as they were, on and off screen. As a result he had an incredibly effective ministry just telling people across a TV set not that “God loves you” but “I love you, just the way you are”.