Faith and Feeling, When Everything Falls Apart

A Wonderful Realization

When I watch the news, it seems like there are so many things I should add to my to-do list to help keep my family safe during this pandemic. The most helpful advice I've read has lifted that weight, graciously giving me permission to let certain things go.  

I have been mercifully unburdened from unrealistic expectations, such as making my daughters’ distance learning experience equivalent to what happens in their classrooms, keeping the small apartment where we spend 24 hours a day uncluttered or maintaining peak physical fitness (or whatever trajectory toward “peak” I imagined I was on).

More importantly, I am learning to accept that I cannot protect my family from all risk of infection, serve my neighbors and church community without ever falling short, or perfectly support the heroic health care workers on the front lines and other essential employees that hold our society together. I can do my best, but my best will not be perfect.

Adding to all these expectations is the nagging sense I should somehow feel different — more optimistic, more hopeful, more confident — than I actually do.

This crisis has revealed I have confused faith with a certain set of feelings. And I imagine I am not alone in this regard. So I want to join my voice to the chorus of voices that have encouraged me and add one more important item to our list of things we do not have to do. We do not have to feel any particular way in order to move forward in faith during this pandemic.

We do not have to feel any particular way in order to move forward in faith during this pandemic.

Something that helps me understand the relationship between faith and feeling is the relationship between worship and emotion. Worshipping God certainly involves our emotions, our hearts, our attitudes.

But Scripture consistently describes worship not as merely an internal state but an embodied way of being before God, with one another and in the world. To worship is to fall prostrate, to kneel, to lift hands, to sing and to act out of love for our neighbors in response to God. 

Outward form does not, of course, always correspond to what’s in our hearts. But even when discussing this incongruence, the Bible’s inspired authors talk about insincere worship by pointing to actions, especially unjust treatment of others, that reveal the state of our hearts (see Isaiah 1). 

Biblical worship, it seems, is something we do, in response to God and by grace, and not a way we necessarily feel. Congruence between faith and feeling is good, but thankfully it’s not a requirement for worship. Sometimes I don’t feel like worshipping God, but that does not remove the value of humbly bowing before my Creator and serving my neighbors in the liturgy of life.

Faith similarly does not require me to feel a certain way for it to be efficacious. First, faith is not something we need to create inside ourselves so we will be saved. Paul argues, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8, NIV). And second, this time of incredible uncertainty is teaching me something essential about what that gift of faith looks like, along with its counterparts, hope and love.

I am married to a doctor who gets up every morning and walks toward COVID-19 in one of this pandemic’s global epicenters. She does not walk out the door because of a certain feeling. She has fears and doubts like the rest of us. But she has faith in her team, hope that her actions will make a difference and a love for those she serves and serves alongside that persists through any emotion. 

“Courage is not the absence of fear but fear walking.”

As Susan David says, “Courage is not the absence of fear but fear walking.” Faith is similarly not the absence of doubt, hope is not the absence of uncertainty, and love is not the absence of all the feelings that can paralyze us and lead us to despair. 

My encouragement to you today is that you don’t have to have all the answers to offer someone a word of assurance. You don’t have to be certain to live like what you hope for is possible. You don’t have to feel any particular way at all to hug your kids, call a friend or church member to check in, bring food to someone who can’t shop, donate personal protective equipment to health care workers or do anything else to share the divine love God has shown us with your families and neighbors. 

Perhaps our worship today will take the form of lament, an implicit act of faith in a God we believe should be showing up more clearly right now. But we will also worship in gratitude that we can be in communion with God and community with others exactly as we are, emotionally, physically and otherwise. 

It turns out that when everything falls apart, we do too — at least a little. And that’s OK. We worship a God who remains busy working to put all things, including us, back together. And by grace we can participate in that healing work, as we put one foot in front of the other, living and loving with “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1, NRSV), knowing that, no matter how we feel today, love will never fail.

Reprinted by permission. Best Practices for Worship, North American Division Ministerial Association.