I will never forget my very first life-altering, world-changing, emotion-enhancing, sensory-stimulating Christian experience. I was fifteen years old and it was a Friday night youth event.
I can still taste the bitterness of the stale air, a mixture of an overenthusiastic smoke machine, and the scent of too many teenagers in one room. I can feel the sub-bass speakers causing non-life-threatening heart palpitations. If I close my eyes the darkness is flooded with a spectacular light show.
That was seventeen years ago, and to this day I can tell you how significant those moments were. I learned how to worship in freedom, to raise my hands in surrender and praise, to press in, to really hunger for and chase after God’s presence, and to be united with other people my age who desired to be like Jesus as desperately as I did.
There is something exhilarating, something motivating, about an atmosphere of faith. Being together with other believers and seeing God move in tangible ways stirs our affection for him. But the one thing that people warned me about was the spiritual crash I’d feel after these experiences. It seemed every conference came with a disclaimer: be prepared to face spiritual hardships and struggles when you go back home to your routine. No matter how hard you desire it, this will not be your new norm. I remember how angry my teenage self got at these “bitter old people” for trying to ruin my Jesus-high before I had even gone back home, but they were never wrong. Jesus-highs always ended up in Jesus-blues — with me desperately clinging to that exhilarating moment, expecting it to sustain me until the next one.
Since that first experience all those years ago, I have attended numerous conferences, retreats and seminars. Each of these experiences has continued to play a significant role in my journey, but I realized very quickly that they alone are not enough. They don’t define my relationship with God. In fact, they barely offer a glimpse of the intimacy that can only be built and developed through years of trials, frustrating silences, and so many tears that I’m sure I’ve flooded heaven several times over.
The truth is that trying to build a relationship with Jesus on only amazing experiences is like trying to float in a pool on a piece of cardboard. A real, authentic relationship with Jesus is built on Scripture by allowing God’s truth to build and define our character. This draws us into a deeper and richer knowledge of him as we walk our day-to-day lives in step with his will. Bright lights, trendy speakers, attention-grabbing multimedia — or whatever is generationally relevant at the time — will never produce in us an authentic, persevering love for God.
Each spiritual experience does have a purpose, and that purpose is to stir our affections for Jesus.
If our hope remains only in these experiences, we are headed for disappointment every time. If we believe that intense emotional experiences are meant to be the substance of our relationship with God, we rob ourselves of encountering the depth of the only connection that will ever truly satisfy the deep longing within.
Each spiritual experience does have a purpose, and that purpose is to stir our affections for Jesus. To ignite a hunger for his presence. To motivate us towards discovering more of him. To change us in the process.
But what happens if the experience doesn’t produce anything — no hunger, no passion, no emotion, no spiritual enlightening? Fear, doubt, and uncertainty can creep in as we start to wonder, “Did Jesus really enter my heart if I don’t feel his presence today?”
The answer is absolutely yes! Even the writers of the Psalms had to analyse their emotions. “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me?” (Psalm 42:5) Speaking directly to himself, the Psalmist has to remind his own soul to remember God’s goodness because his heart just isn’t feeling it. He continues in the same verse, “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”
Emotions are part of our human nature. However, they are not always to be trusted and, sometimes, they even need to be scolded! As we submit to God, our emotions can be a beautiful gift, but they are by no means a measuring stick of what is true or real. How we feel is not always an indication of what God is doing. The challenge is to allow experiences to change us and encourage us to go deeper and discover new intimacy with God. However, to do so, we must keep standing firm on a foundation of truth which will never be shaken or altered by feelings or a lack thereof. We must often choose to believe, despite conflicting emotions, as Romans 10:9-10 says:
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”
As we submit to God, our emotions can be a beautiful gift, but they are by no means a measuring stick.
What I love about this verse is that there is no room for misunderstanding. Paul does not ask, “What do you feel?” He gives no indication of the need for internal warm fuzzies, instantaneous change, or any emotional response because they are not requirements for being saved. Feelings aside, Paul asks first, “Have you declared Christ with your mouth?”, and secondly, “Do you believe with your heart that God is who he said he is, that Christ did what he did so you could be in relationship with him?” If the answer is yes, then you can count on the fact that you are saved.
This is why it is so important to base not only your salvation but all aspects of your Christian walk and relationship with Jesus on what Scripture says about you rather than what you feel about yourself. The only one who can speak absolute truth into and over your life is your Heavenly Father. If you’ve made the decision to turn away from your sin and to follow Jesus, then you are his and he is yours. If you spend your whole life jumping from one emotional high to another, believing that it will keep you in tune with God or keep you in relationship with him, know it is not enough. There is so much more waiting for you!
May your feet stand firm on a foundation that will never be shaken — the knowledge of God’s vast love for you, his precious child. Allow each circumstance and feeling to draw you deeper and to create in you a longing to be more like him. Let those experiences provide a glimpse of how much more God has waiting for you as you choose to surrender totally to him, letting him be the one who sustains you and brings you into all the fullness of living a life that glorifies his name as you walk by faith, not by feelings or by sight.