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

  1. Sarah–

    In sports, different kinds of pain tell different messages. There’s a good kind of muscle soreness that comes with growth, and a bad kind of soreness that means injury. Part of why good coaches are careful with children is that many of them can’t tell the difference yet.

    Faith means finding the right kind of pain. You need to be able to trust your fellow parishioners, but you shouldn’t be grinding your teeth at the sermon every Sunday. Theological tourism might feel like wandering in the wilderness, but hopefully you’ll come find (or perhaps found) a promised parish.

    • We have a shortlist of parishes in our local area, and I do hope to find a compassionate priest at one of them who can help me to discern wisely the difference between comfort and patting myself on the back. Thanks for commenting. -Sarah

  2. This may be just another version of what you have been hearing, Sarah, and certainly you have thought of it by yourself, but I’ll tell you anyway. A priest said to me not long ago, when I couldn’t find peace at church, ” Now Albert, you know there is a difference between happiness and joy,” scolding me a little in his friendly way. I pretended that I knew that, though I really didn’t. Joy, peace, satisfaction all meant happiness to me. I never understood how darkness could bring light, or suffering joy. I still don’t. I dont get the cross thing. Still, I try to believe through it all.

    Then at odd times, there is an unexpected, almost tearful feeling of rightness in church, and it almost seems to be a shared experience, coming to each of us together–from the chanting, maybe, or from the smokey atmosphere and what it does to the light coming through the only window, frosted, facing south. It may be some kind of group-induced private hysteria (my own–there are no outward signs from anyone; its a pretty sober place), or perhaps it’s just a romantic fantasy, but it feels right–and so I want to come back next week, or to a vespers or vigil service during the week.

    But when I get home and start thinking again, I get confused by the loss of that sense of rightness–of “sense” itself, as Fr. Stephen Freeman in his blog recently interpreted the word “Word” (i.e Logos) in John’s gospel–and the renewed turmoil, the jumble of conflicting thoughts and feelings diffuses any remaining happiness.

    But I go back to the place where it happened, hopeful and doubting at the same time. Here I am again, Lord. Trying. Listening. Waiting.

    So I say, go with it, Sarah. You will know that it’s God if–regardless of questions or anxieties or challenges from others– you are more loving and generous the next day, and the next.

    • Thank you, Albert, for sharing about your own sense of confusion. Sometimes the spiritual life feels like a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. Thank you most of all for the last sentence of your comment. I’d like to carry that with me throughout my day. -Sarah

  3. Wow, do I relate to this. I don’t know if I have much to offer in the way of advice, but I can commiserate. Your faith journey is your own and nobody can say what’s right for you. I had to stop going to church for a long time and I think it was so I could learn to experience the divine in the world around me. In the religion of my upbringing, God felt distant and unknowable. My journey continues to be full of ups and downs, of profound peacefulness and painful doubt. I guess the beautiful and amazing thing about God is God is always revealing God to us. Last Christmas, I had a really profound and life-changing experience at the Christmas day service and it was the first time in my whole life I’d felt that God loved me. What am I trying to say? I guess that I’m here and others also walk this path, and you are not alone. 🙂

    • Thanks for the reminder that I’m not alone. I know it intellectually, but it’s tough to remember emotionally. I’m glad that you’re here on this journey with me and others. 🙂 -Sarah

  4. You are right that this is so, so wrong. Living in constant awareness of your sin nullifies the gospel and is bordering on blasphemy, akin to telling Jesus his sacrifice wasn’t good enough. He died so we could have unbroken, delightful communion with God. That was his purpose and his free gift. Are we going to take the gift he gave his life for, or feel bad and “try to do better next time”?

    Why is it so terrifying to enjoy God? He enjoys us! Run to him like a little kid and see his face shine upon his beloved that he chose before the foundation of the world. He sees his Son when he looks at you. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right, or whether it’s “joy” or “happiness” you’re feeling (hint: friendship with God inspires both). The problem is NOT the feelings – it’s what you’re focusing on. Are you seeking God’s face and feeling like a teenager punch-drunk in love? Good! Are you seeking happiness or an ecstatic experience and “trying out spirituality”? BAD – until God uses it to make himself known to you.

    You ask the question, how do we combat feel-good pseudo-spirituality? Not with shame, fear, and self-loathing – you combat it with the real thing: the all-consuming, incredibly powerful, intoxicating love of Christ. Combat false happiness with real happiness, false joy with real joy, false love with real love, the false gospel with the real one. Fall in love with God and the counterfeits, idols and sins fade away because once you taste the real thing it’s hard to go back. As C.S. Lewis puts it, we need to desire MORE, not LESS! Once you know him, it’s wonderful to become more aware of your sin because it means you become more aware of his grace and love to you, and you can tear down barriers to knowing him more intimately. And then preaching about sin becomes an occasion for rejoicing, not condemnation.

    “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Galatians 3:3

    “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” Psalm 84:1-2

    “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” 1 Peter 2:2-3

    “And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘YHWH.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Exodus 33:17-19

    Sorry for the novel. 🙂 If anyone’s interested in further reading, I recommend “The Weight of Glory” by C.S. Lewis, “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray, Galatians and the Psalms. Well, the whole Bible, really. Read it a lot. God loves you.

    • “You ask the question, how do we combat feel-good pseudo-spirituality? Not with shame, fear, and self-loathing – you combat it with the real thing: the all-consuming, incredibly powerful, intoxicating love of Christ.”

      This is absolutely lovely. I’m going to write it in my notebook that I carry everywhere with me. This is truth, and I need more reminders of it. I need to do better with reminding myself of it. Thank you for the lovely gift you have given me in your comment. -Sarah

  5. “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.”

    I’m reminded here of a beautiful Midnight Mass homily, where the priest said that Christ came to us as a child so we could approach him in tenderness and without fear.

    Merry Christmas to you both, you’ve opened up such an important and generous space here, I hope some of the solace you’ve brought to your many readers can be reflected back to you.

    • A belated Merry Christmas to you too! Sorry it took me until near the end of the Christmas season to get back to your comment. -Sarah

  6. This is one of many aspects of Christianity where we so easily fall into an either/or when the Gospel is about a both/and. We cannot (and I know you are not trying to) run away from a clear recognition of our sinfulness and our brokenness and our need for God. But at the same time, we must rest and rejoice in the knowledge that our Father loves and accepts us, not because of our own merit (otherwise we might fear disqualifying ourselves) but because of Christ.

    I continue to pray that you will find a home in a parish where both sides of this truth are kept before your eyes. Happy New Year.

  7. I laughed when i read this! I had coaches just like that for basketball when I was in grade school/middle school (when it was happening as well as looking back) I still think they were too hard on us and my parents agree.
    i hate sounding like a broken record but being raised catholic (in catholic school) and apart of a church community with elder nuns and an older priest, there was more of a focus on melancholy and how to be better; but happiness and joy? Forget about it….in my area when I go back home and have been to local catholic churches they are becoming even more entrenched in sadness, judgement, and punishment (not to mention pre vatican 2 mindset) and a message of hope, salvation, and joy just isn’t there…there should be a balance. And the church and community should be more like home and family then a place….like secretary of state just dread and anxiety.
    You both seem to have valid reasoning and feelings to back finding a new church home.
    Anyways, best of luck and don’t give up on yourselves,future, or church! 🙂 or maybe try not to stress

  8. Just seeing this. Very interesting post for me. In the modern Quaker tradition, there’s a very strong emphasis on spiritual experience as being something uplifting, that fulfills you and makes you happy. I embraced that fully when I first became a Christian, but as time has gone on I’ve increasingly felt that happiness is not the point of Christianity.

    And yet, neither is misery! It’s good to remember that other people are journeying in different directions in this regard, and that I should be careful not to assume that those who are experiencing great happiness and comfort in Jesus are “doing it wrong.” It may be exactly where they need to be. And many times, where I need to be, too!

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