Differentiating between Divine Comfort and “Feel-Good Religion” Is Hard

A reflection by Sarah

Last night seemingly out of the blue, my middle school basketball coach came to mind. He had a tendency to work us harder than we were physically able and managed to suck all the joy out of the sport for many of us. He always justified his severity by saying, “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re doing it wrong.” Anyone who has experience in basketball practices knows that wall sits and ladder drills are supposed to hurt. They are normal parts of the conditioning program for basketball. But my middle school coach was never satisfied and would sometimes humiliate us by having us perform intense conditioning drills in front of the crowd at games during halftime. I recall several occasions when our team was in the lead 30-2, and because he was unhappy with how we were playing we had to spend halftime running laps after getting chewed out in the locker room. As I reflected, I wondered why these memories were coming back to me so strongly.

Especially as Lindsey and I are discerning as we search for our next local parish, we hear frequent messages like, “Doing community with people hurts. It’s easy to shop around to look for a place where you’re not challenged and everyone is just like you. There’s more to being part of a Christian community than feeling good about yourself.” These sentiments, while stated with the best of intentions, remind me of messages I’ve received in the past from Christians who assail anything that resembles “American feel-good religion” — a pseudo-Christianity where God is basically a vending machine who dispenses any and all requests because God’s main role is to make people “happy.” I’ve reflected before on the importance of experiencing God’s compassion, and that feasting on divine compassion is not the same as consuming a cotton-candy spirituality. Cotton-candy spirituality is characterized as light, fluffy, superficial, and soft. Yet in attempt to avoid this, asserting that pain marks a rightly-ordered spirituality is exceptionally dangerous. Few people would argue that it is appropriate or helpful for middle school basketball coaches to berate their young players and sometimes run them to the point of vomiting.

Nevertheless, I struggle to find the balance between experiencing spiritual pain on a daily basis and encountering divine comfort that transcends my every understanding.

On Christmas Eve, I was given a wonderful gift from God. Lindsey and I attended services, and I found myself able to pray more easily than I have in a long while. I experienced a sense that God had seen me and my prayers. I began to feel that my presence mattered to God. It’s been hard for me to be present many days, especially as my physical ability level is changing. I can’t leave my bed during and after intense bouts of vertigo. Should severe attacks happen on Sundays, going to church is out of the question. I’ve felt ancillary to Christian communities and as though few notice whether I have managed to make it to service that day. Yet on Christmas Eve, I became overwhelmed by joy at the thought of Christ reaching out in a personal way to tell me that he was glad I was there, that I mattered to him, and that he was happy to receive my prayers.

Then I felt so guilty that my participation in worship that day had given me a good feeling about myself. Immediately, I began scrutinizing myself morally, asking what was wrong with me. What sort of improper attitude had I brought to worship? How had I been cultivating pride? How was it that the feelings I experienced that day in worship matched feelings I’ve frequently had after a good therapy session?

No matter what Christian tradition I’ve been a part of throughout my life, I’ve constantly been catechized that the purpose of Christianity is to worship the living God and to encounter Christ. Virtually everyone around me has made it crystal clear that the purpose of faith is not to make me feel good about myself. Going to church is not the same as going to a therapy session. And if anything, encountering Christ should make me aware of  so many ways I fall short of living fully into my Christian life. Christianity is not supposed to make me feel good. Christ does not exist to tell me that I’m a good, moral person who makes valuable contributions to society.

At that point, I started to see a problem. I have so internalized the messages that religion is not supposed to make me feel good that often I am unable to experience joy, receive moments when God decides to embrace me, and know that God loves me. I don’t think I’m alone in this struggle. Many Christians are deeply committed churches that constantly decry American feel-good religion. Sometimes, I think pastors, priests, and devout lay Christians inadvertently give the message, “If practicing Christianity doesn’t cause constant pain, then you’re not doing it right.” My middle school basketball coach justified his practice regimen by saying, “This is what we need to do to win every game.” Applied to Christianity, this philosophy teaches that daily spiritual exercises exist for one purpose and one purpose only: to get into heaven where you’ll finally receive your reward and all the spiritual suffering will have been worth enduring.

I doubt that when parents say they want their kids to understand the realities of sin and have a profound sense of awe at the God of the universe, they intend to send the message, “You are little better than pond scum.” If you’re a kid who does feel like pond scum, it can be anxiety-inducing to receive messages about being vigilant for any way that sin is creeping into your world. It’s easy to interpret these messages as, “If you’re not experiencing acute levels of pain for your sinfulness at every possible moment, then you’re doing Christianity wrong.” Since Christmas Eve, I’ve been recalling the different times when I’ve been told to doubt experiencing peace and joy because these emotions indicate the presence of a very real passion out to destroy me. At age 30, I’m flabbergasted at just how difficult it is to uproot erroneous thoughts that experiencing joy, peace, or love should have me running in the opposite direction. I have a graduate degree in theology, yet it is surprisingly challenging to affirm how God mercifully extends comfort to us amid loud cultural megaphones decrying feel-good religion and therapy culture.

I am saddened to observe that I don’t have the foggiest idea how to fix this problem. Priests and pastors need to educate people about the purpose of religion. It’s impossible to tell a meaningful story about Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection without ever discussing sin. We can’t talk about putting on Christ and bearing good fruit without warnings about alternative costumes and bad fruit. It doesn’t make sense to proclaim Christ as the Truth if we fail to acknowledge that our own hearts can occasionally be deceptive. We are called to be like Christ. As I’ve continued to explore what it means to be like Christ, I can’t help but see the ways that I fail to live into his commands. How is it possible for any of us to teach about living fully into Christ when all of us see so dimly? To this I can only say, Lord have mercy.

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