Lack of Trust in My God in a Box
May 8, 2008 6:30 AM   Subscribe

I would like to sense God in my life. I go to church regularly, pray, and read the Bible to understand Him better but I still have such deep bouts of depression where I either don't trust or sense his presence. There is a wide gap between what I believe with my heart and what I understand in my head. For example, I understand and believe in the sovereignty in God but when hard times come or extremely difficult emotions (despair) arise, that is the first thing I question. I am not looking for an easy life or a perfect life, just one that is able to trust God more. Any opinions on how to do this? I feel a great tension between trying harder, and just letting go but my letting go resembles more closely giving up than "letting God" if you know what i mean. To summarize, I want a stronger faith. Any ideas? Thanks so much for input.
posted by snap_dragon to Religion & Philosophy (58 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Why do you want a stronger faith? Why is it necessary?
posted by dance at 6:40 AM on May 8, 2008

wow cincinnatus c, that was the religious equivalent to "get a mac", horribly dismissive of what the person is asking about.

I think religion and spirituality has to be really individual. You can't worship the way other people worship. So if you see people who seem to be "happier" than you, or more content, you can't aim to be like them, much as it would be nice. you have to figure out your own understanding of what God means to you and be content with that. it might not be opent rapture, but it might be a feeling of calm in rough moments.

Maybe you're measuring faith in the wrong way? so instead of a "stronger" faith, could you have a stronger understanding of what God means to you, rather than a more emotional experience?
posted by galactain at 6:44 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first question to answer is whether you actually believe in God, or just feel that you ought to believe in God.
posted by unSane at 6:46 AM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

This is not the ideal forum for asking this question, owing to the very high level of (fellow) devout atheists.

That said, if you need to convince yourself of the existence of God, start with your preacher / pastor / priest / etc. They have thousands of years of experience in convincing people that God exists and causing them to believe in the unknowable; and they have a tremendous, even alarming success record. Godspeed.
posted by felix at 6:46 AM on May 8, 2008

It's hard for me, a non-church-goer, to see how God could be better sensed and/or apprehended in this life than by the study of such things as biology, astronomy, cosmology, particle physics, etc. What we are presented with in these disciplines is a vast array of knowledge about how mind-bogglingly huge, beautiful and complex the universe really is. I never read of new advancements or discoveries without a renewed sense of gratitude for how much of a smorgasbord of experience has been set out for us to feast upon. I am deeply grateful to whatever motivating factor -- God, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever -- has set this up for us and allowed us to be here.

I don't know how it was done. Doubtless all will become clear in time. I have no religious faith whatsoever -- the whole idea of jamming my mind into the strait-jacket of "organized religion" doesn't appeal to me. I think religion as such is entirely superflurous to true spiritual advancement.

God is not to be found in man-made constructs such as church or the Bible. The universe is God experiencing itself.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:47 AM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

You have a choice -- resign yourself to a desperate struggle to achieve completely blind faith, or give yourself permission to feel doubt and curiosity. If God exists, he gave you the ability to question things for a reason, and NOT just to trick you into abandoning your faith so he can punish you.

Maybe you should give yourself permission to step back and think about the way you imagine God, and realize that what you've been taught your entire life is just the word of other people -- people who felt it was the best way to control the masses because there was little incentive to be "good" outside of unfounded promises of Heaven and threats of Hell. Maybe God exists, maybe it doesn't, but if it does, it gave you a brain to use, not to stifle. You shouldn't fear your own intuition.
posted by tastybrains at 6:47 AM on May 8, 2008

The absence of the presence of God has a strong history in Christianity. See Mother Teresa, and, you know, Jesus on the cross. We had a discussion about that which might have helpful info to you. Ignore the people discussing whether or not she was a good person.

Maybe what you need is to deal with the depression first. Lots of people think that admitting that they need any kind of help with depression makes them weak and crazy, but it's really the opposite. The people who can never admit that they need help are the ones who collapse. I think there's an analogy to Christianity in there. See a family doctor for advice on a counselor or someone who works with depression. It can get a lot better. It's tempting to talk to your clergy about this, but frequently they don't really know what works.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:49 AM on May 8, 2008

What is it, do you think, you would get/gain/achieve if you had stronger faith and trust in God? Do you think that strengthening these beliefs would make you feel more secure about where you're heading in this life (or, if you believe, the next?)?

This may be my opinion, but I believe it's impossible to tell someone how they can be a better Christian/Muslim/Jew/Deist, etc. It's sort of the difference between faith and works. One does not necessarily determine the other, there is no formula between the two.

Perhaps you could take time time to develop your own faith - not what we, or a priest (or other religious mentor) tell you. What in this world gives you a sense of purpose? It could be as simple as making eye contact and saying "hi" with a stranger on the street, who otherwise feels invisible in their personal life. What gives you hope? What makes you feel fulfilled and content? At what moments do you feel a sense of remarkable synergy with the things and people around you?

I don't think faith comes from a book or a church or mosque or what people tell you. Faith isn't a thing you can grasp or quantify - it's something you live. Trust God yourself.
posted by raztaj at 6:58 AM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Years ago, I went through the same thing you are and drive myself insane and into depression trying to figure it all out.
Finally, I realized I will never have all the answers, which to me, is what faith is. I know I'll never have complete faith, just able to let go of all my fears and insecurities. There's comfort in that, though. I know the limitations of my faith in God, and it's helped me a lot to go on in life knowing that I'm not perfect.
posted by jmd82 at 7:01 AM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't think you're going to find the answer you're seeking here; too much antipathy, too many evangelists.

To answer your question narrowly, I'd say that beliefs are reinforced by the group. If you want more faith in your life, spend more time with people who have more faith. But that's pretty much how cults work.

More generally, I do wonder if you need the spiritual equivalent of a relationship counsellor. Someone a little more detached than a priest, who will help you explore what God means to you, without leading you.
posted by Leon at 7:01 AM on May 8, 2008

I strongly second the suggestion that you talk to your priest or minister about your relationship with God. In the interim, here are my thoughts:

Is it that when you're happy you feel the presence of God and when you're unhappy you feel His absence, or is it that you never feel his presence and merely experience different levels of belief?

If it’s the former, then it’s likely that there are some places or events that are most correlated with the feeling that God is present in your life. See if you can identify them. If there is some place of great natural beauty, or of great stillness, or a comforting place, or whatever it is – see if you can find it again, or find a place like it, where you can go to commune with God. If church is not that place, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your faith. Churches are made by man to worship God, but God made all the world, and He can be found in all parts of it.

You say,

I am not looking for an easy life or a perfect life, just one that is able to trust God more.

This gives me pause. What’s happening in your mind when you are depressed and question Him? Are you getting angry because you feel like God should be helping you in your time on need, but you can’t see His help? Do you feel alone? If this is the case, then your problem is one of perspective. You’re having trouble seeing your blessings. This is one of the most common causes of a crisis of faith. Something bad happens to us, we look around, and we say, “where is God? Why doesn’t He do something about this?” If this is what you’re experiencing, then I again urge you to speak to a religious counselor who can help you with this issue.
posted by prefpara at 7:12 AM on May 8, 2008

[a few comments removed - question is loosely "I want stronger faith" - you all know where metatalk is.]
posted by jessamyn at 7:16 AM on May 8, 2008

Can you talk to your minister or pastor about this? This is exactly the kind of question that many devout people have struggled with throughout history, and clergy are trained to help with it. They are pros! Don't be afraid to tell him/her that you are having doubts, or you aren't feeling the kind of presence you want/expect to feel, and you'd like to talk it over.

If your own clergy member can't help, or you feel that you can't tell him/her, try another nearby church, even one of a slightly different denomination. Clergy, like lay people, vary in their level of intellectual and people skills, and whether they will "click" with you. Smaller doctrinal differences don't make a difference to the very basic questions like this, which any honest devout person will encounter at some point.

You should talk to someone about this in person, as it's a problem that won't be solved in one quick session. The problem of faith and God's presence is a difficult one, it's one of the central problems that faithful people face. You aren't alone in feeling this way. Don't be ashamed.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:16 AM on May 8, 2008

Yeah, I agree this is a bad place to ask this BUT it is a good question, one that I have dealt with myself.

Your first stop is the Psalms. There you will see that David was able to express just about every emotion there is to God-including those of despair and feeling alone. So what you do is do as he did-go honestly to God, and talk to Him, telling him EXACTLY what you are telling us here. (See, God knew those times would come, and provided us with examples of it, etc. etc. He is looking out for us even when we don't know it.)

I have more to share but I prefer to take it to memail.
posted by konolia at 7:19 AM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

Why don't you start just start reading various stuff? But stick to high quality works, like Dante, Tao Te Ching, etc. Include some not explicitly religious philosophy to, like say John Locke, or even modern ones like Peter Singer.

In general, reading such book is the best way to assuage this feeling, i.e. not understanding life. You may not get the answer you seek, but you'll get a lot of answers to other questions, often questions that you might not have realized are part of your question.
posted by jeffburdges at 7:24 AM on May 8, 2008

Frankly, this does not sound so much as a crisis of faith as it is depression. Recall that one of the major symptoms of depression is hopelessness. In addition, depressed people no longer find enjoyment in things they used to love (sound like your current relationship with your church?). Maybe find a therapist, or talk to your pastor/priest/whatever about faith-friendly therapy.

On the other hand, I am only a man of my personal cloth1, and not of faith, so there you go.

1 I'm a minister in the ULC, but I'm a strict materialist atheist...
posted by Xoder at 7:24 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oops, I killed the most important phrase while editing : Why don't you start just start reading various other beliefs and philosophies?
posted by jeffburdges at 7:25 AM on May 8, 2008

Why is it that athiests feel the need to weigh in on a question that has absolutely nothing to do with them? There is a time and a place for your ego driven quest to denigrate belief in a higher power, and this is not it.

I consider myself a spiritual person (though not religious), and in my experience the main barrier to faith, or recognizing the existence of God/a higher power is becoming too accustomed to a very limited perception of the world. It is very hard to experience or have faith in God when you are doing the exact same thing day after day, week after week. The best way to experience God and strengthen your faith is to do things that jolt your perception in a very significant way.

This can be achieved in many different ways. If you are the kind of person who can appreciate it, art, film, literature, and music can be effective ways to do this, especially those with very archetypal narratives. Watch movies that have a powerful emotional effect on you, and find out what kind of movies have that effect on others. There was a thread on AskMeFi not too long ago asking about what movies affected people deeply, Baraka was mentioned often and would be a good place to start on that front. Incidentally the title means "blessing."

If you are a city person, getting back to nature can also be a powerful way to jolt your perception and have a transcendent experience. Go somewhere remote: by the ocean, in the forest, in the mountains, open yourself up to your surroundings and try to quiet your mind and just let it come. Prayer and meditation in places like those can be especially powerful.

Finally, if you are open to the idea, drugs can also get you there. I'm not really sure what your specific religion has to say about it, but there have been many people who have managed to reconcile drug use (for a certain purpose) with even some of the more conservative theistic traditions. As many shamanistic cultures will attest to, educated, and respectful drug usage can be one of the best ways to strengthen, or even initiate a belief in a higher power. If you go this route, of course make sure you do your research and take the proper precautions.

Ultimately, though you can put yourself in situations that are more likely to trigger a transcendent experience, it is not something you can force. As long as you are receptive, God can appear anywhere.
posted by paradoxflow at 7:27 AM on May 8, 2008 [3 favorites]

Bible study. Seriously. Find a great group that's dedicated to open discussion and hard work (i.e. not a didactic approach.) There's a lot of searching and ambiguity and questioning and personal crisis going on in there -- strengthen your faith by delving into it.

posted by desuetude at 7:32 AM on May 8, 2008

Beyond reading/discussion, the concept of stewardship -- sharing your treasures and gifts with others -- might be worth exploring and trying out. Even in a non-religious context, volunteering, helping out others, or just sharing your talents in a potluck.
posted by ejaned8 at 7:38 AM on May 8, 2008

God has bestowed many things upon this planet - animals, minerals, plants. And yet people do not take advantage of these blessings, especially when in search of...

Ah, I'm being too obtuse. Smoke some weed. Seriously. Use it as a tool to contemplate God, his essence, the paradox of his ineffability. Ignore what those close-minded cretins say. They are only after control of your life and that of others.
posted by unixrat at 7:40 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have friends who are extremely devout, who feel the presence of God in their lives in a very powerful way. What they have in common is the choice they've made to be surrounded by the faithful in their everyday lives. If you consider all the time they spend in voluntary contact with other people (including work), I'd say they're spending upwards of 80% of their time with people of a very similar mindset.

When any of them seems to be having issues with their faith, they work very hard to bolster one another. Feeling alone in your belief in anything will of course make you question it (read about the doubts of scientists before their theories are embraced by the public, for instance).

I am not a theist
posted by phrontist at 7:40 AM on May 8, 2008

Like a lot of folk in this thread, I'd echo the advice to talk to a member of your church's clergy.

Also, though: How do you pray? I know some people are more comfortable doing so vocally, some people use actual words in their heads, some people tend more towards meditation, some sit still, some move about. Maybe changing up the approach you use might help you find the best way to get nearer to the sacred.
posted by Greg Nog at 7:40 AM on May 8, 2008

I do understand what you are going through. My struggle with depression/faith has been a long one. However, I am coming out the other side now, and my relationship/faith/trust in God has never been stronger.
I am here to tell you that there IS hope (hard to believe when things feel hopeless, I know), and that it is pefectly acceptable to have doubts and question things. Your faith shouldn't have anything to do with whether you think you SHOULD have faith in God.
I strongly agree with what Konolia said- the Psalms are an amazing picture of the emotions that we go through in our faith- and God anticipated them. Even though roughly half of the Psalms are "lamentations", so to speak, at the end David is always praising God.
I'm not sure what denomonation you are, and it doesn't really matter (although, if your current one is not feeding you spiritually, it may not be a bad idea to explore some other ones), but I can tell you of some authors that have really helped me:

John Eldredge (Desire, The Sacred Romance, Wild at Heart, Captivating, and Epic are all books that I highly reccomend)

Donald Miller (Blue Like Jazz is amazing)

Rob Bell - I would actually download his podcasts (he's the pastor at Mars Hill Bible Church) or download his Nooma videos. They're short little videos about God, and they are pretty amazing.

In the end, I believe that God will guide you as long as you are truly seeking Him. He will reveal Himself to you.
And I will be praying for you, if that helps.
posted by nataliedanger at 7:41 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

ObClarification: By 'cretins', I mean those that are after the plant, not the others giving advice in this thread.

Carry on.
posted by unixrat at 7:42 AM on May 8, 2008

As Anne Lamott pointed out, faith is not certainty. Faith is moving forward in the absence of certainty. Or, as she puts it, "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty."

You don't need certainty to have faith. You just have to keep moving forward in times of uncertainty.

Be well.
posted by jeanmari at 7:49 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think what you may be feeling is actually pretty common. I don't suffer from depression but I also never really feel the presence of God. The way that I feel about it is that true love and devotion don't come from the moments that you feel like you are in the presence of God but rather when you are in your darkest, loneliest moments and you still devote yourself and have faith in God. It's sort of like a marriage. You're not always going to feel lovey-dovey towards your spouse but that doesn't mean that you are going to up and quit the marriage. You have to stick it out through the thick and thin. My own relationship with God is on a much more intellectual level because I have never felt the presence like some people claim.

I'm with prefpara. Counseling may be very beneficial for you.
posted by crios at 7:51 AM on May 8, 2008

I agree with jeanmari. I am a theist, but I have a hard time with the church and the Bible. Both things have become so warped due to greed, power, and intolerance that I look for God in other things, mainly my wonderful circle of friends and my beautiful city. Seriously, just going for a long run on Sunday mornings makes me more aware of God and all this nice stuff he put into motion. Faith sucks. It's hard. Mostly because life sucks. But it can be great, too. But remember, it's that whole free will stuff that got us where we are. I believe that God just kind of put things in motion and left the rest up to us. We do with it as we wish; sometimes we screw up and sometimes we do lots of good. And that whole "everything happens for a reason thing." I don't know how much stock I put in that, or how much you do, but I guess I believe in it enough to look at crappy situations with an "at least I'm learning something, becoming a stronger/better person" attitude. Maybe I'm thick, though.

I'd also give ole Anne Lamott a read, especially Traveling Mercies. It's easy to relate to her.

Good luck.
posted by cachondeo45 at 8:00 AM on May 8, 2008

I don't know you, but much of the language and expectations surrounding (especially, but not necessarily evangelically oriented) about what to expect to feel and to happen when one has decided to follow God. So often such lofty and idealized language is used that it creates unrealistic expectations and feelings of obligation.

When these expectations are not met, it is easy to experience frustration, guilt and a sense of failure. This isn't to say you will never experience the "ideal" versions of spiritual experience But you will not experience them all the time. A good minister will help you grow and to live out your faith in a non-ideal world.

If you read any of the mystics or Medieval spiritual writers, some that had the most profound experiences also endured the most serious struggles. I think of the devotional writer Thomas a Kempis, who wrote of periods when his sense of “consolation” was withdrawn. It is not unusual for even the most devout to experience the absence of God.

If you are experiencing clinical depression, it is an illness and you are not responsible for your failure to trust or to feel what you have hoped or expected to feel. Depression can profoundly affect your spiritual life, and you should take steps to have it treated.

It may also be that your faith is evolving, as your experiences and intellect do not mesh with the way the Christian life has been described to you. Heart and Mind do not have to be in conflict with one another, but both Mind and Heart could be in conflict with the description of the spiritual life that has been given to you.

Finally, there is a broad range of Christian devotional practices and it may be that more diversity or a different type of devotional exercise would be more rewarding for you.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:04 AM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the suggestion upthread of Ask Mefi demonstrating atheist bias, and this comes from an agnostic himself.

I'd not feel too bad about doubting God. Mother freakin' Teresa did for much of her life. It is not unusual. Even those who are Christian do not continually and forever trust in the Lord.
posted by WCityMike at 8:13 AM on May 8, 2008

Well... for one thing, faith comes from God. And you can pray for it (Mark 9:24)! :) But also - maybe you need to feel God in your heart and not just your head... and to build not just an intellectual but also an emotional relationship with God. Psalms 100 helped me a lot recently; I realised, again, that God's love is everlasting and unconditional - and that gave me peace and renewed faith. I go through bouts of depression as well, but I'd rather go through the depression with God than without God... it feels so much better (understatement) and more comforting. Maybe - pray for God's strength to help you keep on trying, and to give you more faith... right now it sounds like you're trying to carry a lot of the burden yourself. It also helps to have people praying for you... and I can help out with that part. :) God loves you very much. I'll be praying for you to feel God's love for you more and more in your life.

It's ok to admit to God you don't feel or believe much - in the sense that being honest with God is a good place to start. Sometimes I keep on trying to pray or psych myself into wanting the, uh, 'Sunday school' thing I feel I should want, without admitting that I actually don't want it... like psyching myself into praying for something that I mentally believe is the right thing to want when my emotions and heart rebel against that notion. And I realised that sometimes it's easier to just stop, and rant to God, and pour out what my heart really does want even though I know it wants the wrong things, and to let God do the healing and readjusting and renewing within my heart after I've honestly shown him how very ugly it can be - instead of trying to just fix my heart myself and will myself into wanting and praying for the 'right' things with the 'right' mindset. Sorry if that was a bit incoherent... but... maybe you get what I mean?
posted by aielen at 8:14 AM on May 8, 2008

Seconding what jeffburdges said: perhaps by reading about or exploring other faiths, you'll get a better understanding of your own.

Among the very devout, there's a strong danger of lost perspective. One becomes so dependent on the 'entire absolute truth is (x)' that one detaches from seeing the mosaic of truth, and even the slightest problem can make you question the piece of truth as if everything is a yes/no question.

All (or at least most) religions are windows into the same Truth, and by thinking about the same Big Questions in different ways, you can gain a much deeper understanding of life, the universe, everything.

Fish too, yes.

I found Karen Armstrong's A History of God, which explores how we ended up with three different major faiths that all came from the same source and wisdom, to be very useful in gaining wider understanding.
posted by rokusan at 8:40 AM on May 8, 2008

Keep in mind that the struggle you are expressing has been expressed throughout history.

Read the Pslams, and take note of how many times your exact dilemma is voiced. Pslam 88 in particular is a cry without an answer.

Also read Romans 7, which tells of the writer's agonizing struggle of wanting to do good, and be faithful, but being unable to, since the flesh and the spirit are eternally at war.

In short, you will be much more at peace when you realize that your situation is not unique. Accepting it as part of the human condition within the context of a life of faith will, ironically, go a long way toward restoring your faith. Fighting it, or wishing it was somehow different, will only lead to further frustration and unhappiness.

There are some questions that humanity has struggled with throughout time: God, faith, love, existence. It's not likley that you will figure out the answer to it all, if no one else has either.

Relax. You're fine.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 8:46 AM on May 8, 2008

I think you should learn more about other religions, besides the one you are currently in. You might find one that is more compatible with your way of thinking and experience.
posted by delmoi at 9:04 AM on May 8, 2008

You want the thoughts in your head to propagate to your heart. Almost by definition, that is not something you can will to happen. The feelings in your heart have a mind of their own. It is the equivalent of saying "I want to be happier." Yes, there are steps you can take that are likely to make you happier, but wishing for it is not going to make it true. People can't control their feelings on a whim, (which, come think of it, is kind of a good thing.) Hence the concept of doing what you think you should, despite your fears, doubts, and other feelings- in other words, faith. Lots of good advice above. Good luck.
posted by proj08 at 9:12 AM on May 8, 2008

snap_dragon: I would like to sense God in my life. I go to church regularly, pray, and read the Bible to understand Him better but I still have such deep bouts of depression where I either don't trust or sense his presence. There is a wide gap between what I believe with my heart and what I understand in my head. For example, I understand and believe in the sovereignty in God but when hard times come or extremely difficult emotions (despair) arise, that is the first thing I question. I am not looking for an easy life or a perfect life, just one that is able to trust God more. Any opinions on how to do this? I feel a great tension between trying harder, and just letting go but my letting go resembles more closely giving up than "letting God" if you know what i mean. To summarize, I want a stronger faith. Any ideas? Thanks so much for input.

This is a very interesting question, one I've been pondering most of my life. I'll share some of my conclusions; I hope they help.

First of all, no one senses God. To say that one senses God is to say that God is a sensible object, a physical object, and the doctrine that God is a physical being is strictly against all of the teachings of the Bible, not to mention heretical. The greatest of prophets sometimes sense the direct manifestation of God's obvious will, but I am not one of them, and, from your question, I presume you aren't either. The rest of us have to live with what we're given. That means being very careful about how we use such terms as "sense God;" it's an expression of something legitimate, I think, when you ask the question, though it's phrased wrong, but when, for example, people constantly talk about how they sense God or "his presence" (as though such a thing existed in more than a distant symbolic sense) or about how they hear God's voice or know his plan, they are almost always deceiving themselves. Again, the greatest of prophets can have inklings of God's plan and hear whispers of his voice, but the rest of us cannot hope for such things. We should be very careful to avoid the habit of framing things in terms of "God's plan for my life" or "God told me that" or "God wants." When we believe that we experience God so directly, we're almost always experiencing something else.

This brings me to my second point: that "something else" which we're experiencing is generally emotional turmoil. When I look around at Christianity today, my sense is that the vast majority of Christians have something less like faith and more like emotional urgency. They believe because they want to believe, because they feel a moral obligation born out of shame to believe, and because they fear unbelief. In other words, their faith is intended to meet emotional needs. The result is that, as you've described, their faith fluctuates with their emotional state; when their needs are beyond the palliative emotional boosts provided by the hysteria which the modern religious community usually induces, they are at a loss. When the tide of emotion falls, so the tide of faith.

Third, you say that you have a hard time "trusting God." What do you mean by this? Think carefully. You know, I can tell, that God won't make everything perfect right now, and that he won't make your life easy. We might not even be happy all of the time; there are depressing things in life. You understand all of this. But you use some words that raise red flags for me. Oftentimes today we're told that all we need to do is "let go and let God." This is a bumper sticker, not a way to live your life! Of course God is in absolute control; that's a truism. All the same, we have responsibilities and requirements. His forgiveness was meant to allow us to live moral lives and recapture our moral dignity; it wasn't meant to free us from it. Those things are precious, and we need to remember how fulfilling they can be. We should remember that we are not in control of everything, but we also have to keep in mind that fulfillment in this life in large part consists in doing what's right and standing up for the good. "Letting go" is always depressing; moreover, it's not a Christian act.

See, you don't sound like you have a problem trusting God so much as you're linking that trust to your emotional state. I don't think that, when you get depressed, you say to yourself, "I now doubt that the triune God is precisely in control of everything; rather, it seems that he's only in control of many things." No, what you mean, I think, is that you get depressed, you get sad, and you seem to think that that is a sign that you don't trust God that everything's going to be okay. If trusting God meant being happy all the time, then most of the prophets, not to mention the Christ himself, didn't really trust God. In this world, difficult things happen, and it is not a moral or spiritual lapse when we feel unhappy about them. Stop treating yourself badly out of the false notion that you're morally obligated to a particular emotional state. Rather, confront the real reasons behind that emotional state with clear eyes and no shame, prayerfully and boldly. Psychiatrists can be very helpful in this.

Finally, one somewhat more personal note. I sense, from the words that you use, that you're in an evangelical or other modern 'Christian' church. If so, I urge you not to walk, not to crawl, not to stroll, not to skip, but to run as fast as you possibly can from it. It's bad for your spiritual well-being. In these times, there are many false prophets, through no fault of their own but through their own ignorance, and it's hard to find a good church that can really foster spiritual development and provide the silence and peace that it needs. If you have reservations about the Catholic church, then I highly recommend Orthodox Christianity; it's the most rational and realistic sect of Christianity I've been able to find, although I admire the Anglicans highly. The key point is: the point of going to church isn't "sensing God" by inducing a tortuous and painful array of emotions; when we do that, that's not God that we're sensing in church. Silence, peace, reflection, and quiet devotion are rather the environments in which faith flourish, especially in these noisy, tumultuous times.

Good luck, and God bless.
posted by Viomeda at 9:18 AM on May 8, 2008 [12 favorites]

Maybe the best thing for you would be to try to learn to accept that your faith comes and goes. When you're experiencing a crisis, focus on the fact that you've got through similar situations before, and allow it to pass in its own time.
posted by tomcooke at 9:24 AM on May 8, 2008

Sorry, that was really long. Cliffs' Notes, for those in the tl;dr camp:

You don't need to be ashamed. Being sad or depressed doesn't mean doubting God, else Christ himself was a doubter. You have no moral obligation to be happy or to "feel" God. Live well, and you'll come to know Him better.
posted by Viomeda at 9:24 AM on May 8, 2008

I was listening to a lecture by Peter Kreeft once in which he suggested to those of us in your--our, insofar as you are NOT alone here--position that we might seek God by living and acting as if we had already found him and trusted him completely. Sort of a Mother Teresa example. She did not "feel" God for a very, very long time. But she trusted him so much that she could pick up some comletely unfortunate, forgotten-about, rotting human being out of the gutter and whisper in their ear "I love you" because she knew that's what God expected of her. Pretty crazy.

I also recommend reading Dr. Kreeft's work if you want to do some "thinking" about God. I'll second Viomeda's cautionary advice about relying too heavily on "feeling" God. Have you ever been in a relationship where you "feel" that person forever, always with the same intensity, as strongly as you did when you first met them? Of course not. One MeFi has used a term like 'marathon infatuators' or something like that in responding to someone's question about why they didn't love so-and-so as much as before. Most of us humans simply aren't wired that way. It comes and goes, and love gets stronger in ways you might not recognize or even miss. This is why you must have a philosophical framework--a solid, trusting, true belief in God--to get you through what one writer has called the Dark Night of the Soul. Perhaps this will shed some light on your own dark night.
posted by resurrexit at 9:37 AM on May 8, 2008

Or, what tomcooke and Viomeda said just now.
posted by resurrexit at 9:37 AM on May 8, 2008

As others have said, doubt is a part of faith (mine, anyway), not something that acts in opposition to it. Try Thomas Merton's journals or RS Thomas's poetry if you want to see some better minds than mine working through the process (both worth reading whatever your faith background/belief).
posted by unless I'm very much mistaken at 9:40 AM on May 8, 2008

Others are right that this isn't the best forum for the question, but some of us are indeed Christians who would be delighted to help you out. (I'm assuming you're Christian of some sort since you mentioned reading the Bible.)

I should say that I'm a convert from indifferent agnosticism to devout Catholicism, so what I say will come from that perspective. I'm also going to reiterate points made by others.

1) Pray. I know in your question you said that you pray, but people mean lots of different things by that word. Reciting the Our Father, praying before meals and asking God to take care of loved ones before bed are all good things, but the best way to advance towards knowledge of God is to take time to be still and put yourself in His presence. It's hard to say how much time, but generally it takes people 10-15 minutes just to calm down and get their minds off of distracting minutiae. Think of it as building a relationship -- the best part about it is just being with that person. It's honestly very difficult to get to know somebody if you don't spend time alone with them. There are plenty of web resources to explore types of meditative prayer. The Psalms are a good way to enter into silent prayer, especially since many of them deal with questioning God.

2) Don't spurn the church. I'm going to contradict most other people on this thread and say that the church is crucial (here's my Catholicism coming through). If you read Genesis, you find that we are not made to be alone, and if you read Acts, you see the early church was a community. This is hard because the church truly is full of miserable, insincere, self righteous, unkind people, but that's kind of the point of Christianity -- we were made for glory, but we all fall short.

2a) Small Group -- This doesn't necessarily have to be a Bible Study (though that's certainly a good thing), but most Christians benefit from some sort of small group where they are supported by other Christians, can have serious discussions about faith and how to live it and how to struggle through doubts.

2b) Speak to a minister -- Other have mentioned this and it's definitely a good idea.

3) Deal with your depression. I suffered from depression before I converted, and although finding God did help me find meaning to life, my depression didn't completely disappear. Depression is multi-factorial. I have to be careful when things or tough at work or even when the seasons change because I can fall into negative though patterns and then despair starts to creep in and all of sudden "Oh my God, MY FAITH IS A SHAM AND WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING?" Dig down to see where the doubts and depression come from and see what you can do to change that. Secular therapy might be a good idea.

4) Volunteer Christ is with the poor in a special way, and for two thousand years Christians have given testimony to feeling especially close to God when they are with the poor. You don't necessarily have to go to the soup kitchen (though that's an excellent thing to do). Volunteer for your church garage sale, sign up to help at your local community center, whatever it is, work on something larger than yourself for no other reason than it's a good thing to do.

5) Read The Bible is great, but it's so hard to understand and interpret. If you decide to see a minister, he or she can recommend some resources to complement the Bible. I've never been too big of a fan of CS Lewis, but I have friends whose lives he has changed, so he might be worth checking out. I prefer GK Chesterton (a Catholic), I found him more persuasive in demonstrating that Christianity is perfectly reasonable.


What I think is the truly awesome thing about God is his universality. We find him in solitude AND in the church. We find him in nature AND in the ability he has given man to create technology and art. Some people find God through literature and poetry, others by reading incredibly dense and rigorous philosophy and theology. We can be close to Him through fasting and prayer, but what words do we use for a really good meal but "heavenly" or "divine"?

Overall, what I'm getting at is that Christianity is less a set of things to believe in than an encounter with God. The doubts will always be there, but they are so much easier to work through if the basis of our faith is a knowledge of the person of God.
posted by odragul at 9:49 AM on May 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

When questions come up that concern Christianity (I think the questioner is coming from a Christian background, particularly given the responses marked best answer) I always suggest the Ship of Fools discussion board as a better place to discuss these topics in a context that has people that will take them seriously and who are sympathetic to the question of wanting more faith. I'm a materialist and an atheist (agnostic at best), but I was raised in a religious home, and value that.

For this particular situation, depression is certainly quite likely, but finding a Bible Study group combined with what may seem like ritualistic regular practices is what I'd recommend (but that's my ritualistic heavily liturgical Catholic side). Along with reading broadly on the topic, including outside of Christianity. The Bible is a book of contradictions, not only in the "gotcha" way that certain cruder readers like to point out, but also reflecting the contradictions of life.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:20 AM on May 8, 2008

There's been some great stuff so far in this thread (and I suspect Pater Aletheias will be along soon with the perfect answer--how does he do that?!?). What konolia said is a good start. Reading the Psalms shows you a couple of things. First, David, who is described as a "man after God's own heart" spent a lot of time feeling utterly abandoned by God. This is a really common feeling. Second, he told God exactly what he thought about it. David was pissed that God wasn't doing what he thought he should do and he was pretty blunt in how he communicated it. Let yourself do that. If you feel that God is far away, tell him! If it ticks you off and you want to cuss him out, do it! Getting mad at God is an act of faith because you're still acknowledging his sovreignty.

If you want some outside help, I would really recommend Beth Moore's Believing God study. It's available online so you can watch the lessons and download the homework. (A warning--Beth is very...uh...Texan. But if you can get past that, she's got some amazing things to say.) I did the study with some friends a couple of years ago and it was life-changing as well as faith-changing (and I'm not one to use those words lightly).

I've learned through my life that faith is a funny thing. I have made life decisions that make Christians frequently describe me as a person of great faith. But I don't think of myself that way at all. I know that I'm most often full of doubt and spend most of my time trying to make things happen instead of waiting for God to act. But if I truly look at my life, I can see the faith that God has grown in me. When I set out on my life journey, I had nowhere near the amount of faith it would take to get where I am today. I prayed for faith, hoping I would be transformed into some faith powerhouse--a zealot almost. What I got was enough to get me to the next day. But all that faith slowly added up (with a few steps backward along the way) and now I'm sitting here explaining my faith to a bunch of strangers, most of whom don't even believe at all, which is something I wouldn't have done three years ago. I guess all that is to say that you should look at faith as a journey. As long as you're on the path you're doing okay, even if you don't feel like you're moving. One day you'll be able to look back and realize how far you really have come.
posted by wallaby at 10:22 AM on May 8, 2008

The only perspective I can speak to with depth is that of Christianity. I'd amplify that not only is the state you describe present in the Bible (i.e. the Psalms), it is ubiquitous. It is worth revisiting Job and Ecclesiastes, both of which have tons of depth and subtlety (often ignored) on this and related topics, as well as the many meditations on it to be found in, particularly, the prophets - Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and particularly Isaiah. The sense of abandonment by God is fundamental to the Passion story, it is a fundamental theme of the action from Gethsemane through the crucifixion. I'd argue that not only is this state (suffering in the absence of the sense of God's presence) not an indication of a failure of faith, it is a central element (maybe the central element) to the path of faith.

I'd strongly second the idea of engaging in service. In the Gospel stories Christ explicitly asserts that when we serve those in need we are in direct communion with Him.

Frankly, as the years have gone on the sort of simple feeling of the "presence of God" has diminished for me. I went through a period where this trend was very distressing and challenging. In my mind it this change is purposeful and necessary. As I consider it, now, faith is not a feeling. Faith is the force that enables me to act in my convictions regardless of how I feel: the being of God and of Christ become manifest in my life as I engage in community, in service, in prayer, in the traditions of scripture.

Nevertheless I struggle with depression and question God's presence and the meaningfulness of life. Please remember that depression and anxiety are not some kind of indication of your failing God (or God failing you) any more than any other organic illness is. This kind of suffering is part of life. Pay attention to what professionals treating your problems tell you to do. It sounds from recent questions like you are in the middle of a tough transition; don't underestimate that your current struggles are in part attributable to predictable, rational stresses of change, and will get better.
posted by nanojath at 11:31 AM on May 8, 2008

I have struggled with this same thing myself and I know lots of other people who have as well, so it's definitely not uncommon. A year or so ago, I ran across the Real Live Preacher blog and found The Preacher's Story, which addresses just what you're talking about and for me was an epiphany. I loved it so much I'll post a bit of it here but I think the entire thing is really worth a read:

...we think having faith means being convinced God exists in the same way we are convinced a chair exists. People who cannot be completely convinced of God’s existence think faith is impossible for them.

Not so. People who doubt can have great faith because faith is something you do, not something you think. In fact, the greater your doubt the more heroic your faith.

I learned that it doesn’t matter in the least that I be convinced of God’s existence. Whether or not God exists is none of my business, really. What do I know of existence? I don’t even know how the VCR works.

What does matter is whether or not I am faithful. I think faithful is a hell of a good word. It still has some of its original shine. It still calls us to action.

Once I stumbled upon this very old truth, I prayed the most honest prayer of my life.

God, I don’t have great faith, but I can be faithful. My belief in you may be seasonal, but my faithfulness will not. I will follow in the way of Christ. I will act as though my life and the lives of others matter. I will love.

I have no greater gift to offer than my life. Take it.

That’s it. I pushed all my chips across the table. The preacher bet it all. Why? Because the idea that there is a God who cares for us busts my heart wide open. Because I pushed reason as far as it can go but I wanted to go farther still. Because I wanted to, and... well... I just wanted to.

I’m an idiot and out of my mind, and I don’t care who knows it. Sue me.

I think jeanmari summed it up well:

You don't need certainty to have faith. You just have to keep moving forward in times of uncertainty.

Good luck.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:39 AM on May 8, 2008

I applaud you for reaching out for help even to a place where your views would not be received entirely with open arms. I struggle with faith and it makes me feel somewhat of a hypocrite if I only turn to God during the hard times. I know that my wife has strong faith in general but admits that she has problems from time to time. As others have mentioned, Mother Theresa and others have had similar problems and news of that relevation really blew my mind. I have wondered what hope there is for me.

I'd highly recommend that you talk with a minister or like minded friends. Everyone struggles so this is a universal condition that can be shared amongst supportive friends. When I went through a tough patch a few years ago I found great strength and comfort in talking to others. I couldn't imagine living in the past where it would have been socially unacceptable to be open like that (speaking from a male perspective here). Talk, share, and struggle. Its what we all have to do.
posted by mmascolino at 11:53 AM on May 8, 2008

I was in a similar position myself several years ago. What freed me was recognizing that my anxiety arose not from the doubt itself, but from my fear of it.

I wanted desperately to believe in God. If you come from any sort of Fundamentalist background, the threat of damnation is omnipresent. So, if pursuing my doubts led me to abandon my belief, not only would I lose the comforts of eternal love, guidance, and an afterlife, but I was terrified that if I died in the meantime, I'd be sent straight to hell. Thus, I began to purposefully avoid engaging atheists in discussion, reading arguments against God's existence, and so forth. When the unwanted thoughts arose, I'd try to distract myself - which, of course, made them loom even more predatory and caricatured on the peripheries of my consciousness. The stress of the charade was overwhelming.

Finally, I was sitting outside one winter day, and I decided to make a deal with God. If you are real, I said, then you can certainly handle me doubting you. If you're real, then I have no reason to be afraid, because ultimately, I'll be led back to you. And if I die in the meantime, then you can't send me to hell, because if you are real, then you know my heart, and you know that I'm just on a journey to find you and make my faith stronger. And if you're not real...then I can't hide from that possibility any longer. So I'm going to face my doubts, ok?

That was six years ago, and I'm still facing them. But I'm also still not dead. So, this story (like all of our stories) is to be continued. And I say to you, never, ever avoid thinking things through because you're afraid your thoughts will lead you to a place you don't want to be. You're strong enough to handle it, and so is God.
posted by granted at 12:33 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dylan Thomas on this subject.
posted by prefpara at 12:46 PM on May 8, 2008

I'd really encourage you to spend time with God in his word. Romans 10:17 says, "So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ." I think we're often tempted to make faith this goose-bumpy, mountain top experience. Those things happen at times, but they are not the day-to-day reality of the Christian life. God speaks to us through his word and you'll find words of assurance and comfort there.

I think your first step is to be sure you're in the faith and have the assurance of knowing what will happen when you die. A lot of people think going to church makes you a Christian - that's not the way the Bible defines Christianity. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going into a garage makes you a car! : )

I'd also recommend reading John Piper & listening to some of his podcasts. He does a great job of encouraging true joy in the Christian life. You can read the entire book, "When I Don't Desire God: How To Fight For Joy" online.
posted by caroljean63 at 1:12 PM on May 8, 2008

Does your prayer ritual involve listening? Perhaps you are not skilled at listening. Perhaps you are talking talking talking AT God rather then WITH him. Talking WITH someone requires a good deal of listening. Maybe a shift in your prayer away from talking and more quiet energy in listening and you may find that God has been telling you something all along, but you havent heard it.
posted by spicynuts at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2008

There ARE spiritual advisors out there. They're a sort of therapist/pastor. If they're good, they don't generally push their own spiritual agenda on you (though you should find one with at least a SORT OF similiar spirituality)- they help you find your own path.

And if they think anti-depressants should be on that path, they'll tell you so.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:33 PM on May 8, 2008

I have no real answer for this question - only that I've just read two books by Pearl S. Buck, and your question brought them to mind. I found them at a garage sale last summer, and the time came to either read them or pass them along in my own garage sale this weekend (the catch and release program!). So perhaps this is why they were placed in my path. The first, The Exile, is about her mother's life as the wife of a missionary in China; it describes a similar struggle with faith as yours. She has a similar disconnect. The other book, Pavilion of Women, also examines faith, but in terms of trust and practice. The protagonist is guided to find what she needs, but only after she is ready for it.

Why I tell you this is because sometimes I find it helpful to seek information along parallel lines rather than hoping it's right in front of me - and I believe in being taught to fish. After all - you're not asking for a stronger faith to be handed to you here, just how to find it. Reading of others' very satisfying resolutions may help with what you're looking for.
posted by peagood at 2:37 PM on May 8, 2008

I've gone back and forth on this issue a fair amount, and I can only give you the three things that have helped me accept and understand my faith, in hope that you can find similar options:

1) Reading Keirkegaard's Fear and Trembling. It's a long, thorny meditation on what faith means to Abraham and Isaac, which, for me, helped cut away a lot of the conceptual bullshit about defining faith and how to think about faith.

2) Having a friend of over ten years become an Anglican priest (well, he's off at seminary now). Having someone that I could talk to who had both thought long and hard about his own faith and who wasn't judgmental meant a lot to me.

3) Altered states, specifically with LSD and MDMA, but also with music and art. Drugs, for me, extend and make more malleable the transcendent experience (which I can also find through art or music, but it's less predictable and sustainable).

I recommend all three heartily.
posted by klangklangston at 3:58 PM on May 8, 2008

There's a lot of good stuff here and a lot of junk too. Its going to be up to you to sift through that, OP. But you should take much of this to heart. Most of what I would say has already been said, but your question did bring some favorite quotes of mine to mind:

Faith is not something that acts automatically, that acts magically. This, I think, is the blunder of which we have all, at some time or another, been guilty. Many people, it seems to me, conceive of faith as if it were something similar to those thermostats which you have in connection with a heating apparatus. You set the thermostat at a given level, you want to maintain the temperature at a certain point and it acts automatically. You do not have to do anything about it, the thermostat acts automatically…

Now there are many people who think that no matter what happens to them, the faith they have will go into operation and all will be well. But faith is something you and I have to bring into operation. Faith is a refusal to panic. Faith is reminding yourself of what you know. – D.M. Lloyd-Jones

Walking on the water is easy to impulsive pluck, but walking on dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is a different thing. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he followed Him afar off on the land. We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes. – Oswald Chambers

No words can express how much the world owes to sorrow. Most of the Psalms were born in a wilderness. Most of the Epistles were written in a prison. The greatest thoughts of the greatest thinkers have all passed through fire. The greatest poets have ‘learned in suffering what they were taught in song.’ – George MacDonald

When Heaven is going to give a great responsibility to someone, it first makes his mind endure suffering. It makes his sinews and bones experience toil, and his body to suffer hunger. It inflicts him with poverty and knocks down everything he tries to build. In this way Heaven stimulates his mind, stabilizes his temper, and develops his weak points. – The Book of Mencius (Chinese, 300 BC)

Those who believe they believe in God but without passion in the heart, without anguish of mind, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself. – Madeleine L’Engle

I asked the Lord, that I might grow in faith and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know, and seek more earnestly his face.
I hoped that in some favored hour at once he’d answer my request,
And by his love’s constraining power subdue my sins and give me rest.

Instead of this he made me feel the hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell assault my soul in every part.
‘Lord why is this?’ I trembling cried, ‘Wilt thou pursue me to the death?’
‘Tis in this way’ the Lord replied, ‘I answer prayers for grace and faith.’

‘These inward trials I employ
from self and pride to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thine all in me.’
– John Newton

Suffering is the very best gift He has to give us. He gives it only to His chosen friends. – Therese of Lisieux

The Psalms were not prayed by people trying to understand themselves. They are not the record of people searching for the meaning of life. They were prayed by a people who understood that God has everything to do with them. God, not their feelings, was the center. God, not their souls, was the issue. – Eugene Petersen
posted by allkindsoftime at 4:55 PM on May 8, 2008

Community! Find other people in your church to hang out with and talk about your faith. Most churches have small groups or other places where people can get together and discuss these things.

Being a Christian is not a solo activity, and the best way to grow in your relationship with God is to do it with other people.
posted by jpdoane at 8:35 PM on May 8, 2008

There's been some wonderful advice here. My two cents: Some of the strongest Christians (both those I know personally and those in the public sphere) started their religious journey though either an active effort to disprove Christianity or a deep and fundamental questioning of every element of their faith. Three that come to mind: Paul, CS Lewis, and Josh McDowell. I honestly believe that God wants us to question everything; there's just so many inscrutable things in this universe, how could he NOT want us to ask a million questions?

At some point, however, you will realize (or have already realized) that not every question has a satisfactory answer. Now, if you ask a question and you get an answer that makes you think everything you've ever believed in is wrong, well, then you should re-evaluate whether and why you believe what you do. But many questions just don't have answers that can be completely expounded on. Why is there a Trinity? Why is Revelation so confusing, and why is it even in the Bible in the first place? Etc etc. I put all these unanswered questions in a box and call them faith. I certainly go back to the box from time to time and pull out a question and re-examine it, but I don't let one unanswered question stop me from focusing on other things.

Also, as others have said, walking with God is wonderful but it's even more fulfilling when you can share your walk with others. My spiritual highpoints have always been when I'm in a community of people who can encourage me. Also keep in mind that sometimes a lack of feeling God is itself a test and trial that he puts to you.
posted by Happydaz at 9:01 PM on May 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Scripture...Set time to speak with God,
He can use all things for good!
Fellowship with like minded believers and quality friends..
posted by Luka_187 at 6:33 AM on July 11, 2008

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