Religion

Paul Prather: Feelings may come and go, but people of faith stay the course

By Paul Prather

Contributing columnist

Even people who consider themselves religious can misunderstand how faith operates.

This can cause them frustration.

They may fear they’ve lost their faith, for instance, when it’s only taken a temporary vacation from which it’s quite likely to return in due time.

To me, there are two distinct types of religious faith: faith that is a feeling, and faith that is a decision. Both are fine; both are appropriate. But they’re very different.

(Actually, there might be other types as well, but these are the ones I want to deal with here.)

Faith that is a feeling is what we think of most often when we talk about faith. As the term implies, it’s faith that we “feel.” It’s the faith of new converts and the recently revived and the Holy Ghost-anointed — of visionaries and saints — a sensory experience.

It can make our skin tingle, our eyes water and our arm-hairs stand on end. Usually it’s joyous, even transcendently so.

It fills us with love and peace of mind.

Its recipients believe “nothing doubting,” to use a New Testament phrase.

This faith of feeling isn’t confined to born-again evangelicals or Catholics.

I remember a friend — a Jew by birth, an agnostic in practice — who told me about experiencing such faith while standing before, as I recall, the Parthenon in Athens.

For no apparent reason, something swept through her, she said: an illumination; an enveloping, other-worldly warmth.

It wasn’t that she was awed by an ancient temple. Suddenly she felt overwhelmed by a tangible, cosmic power much greater than she was, a force others might call God.

She never knew exactly what touched her, she said, and the experience didn’t last long, but she’d never forgotten it. Whatever it was, it was real, and it was good, and she believed it.

Religious people, especially members of certain faith traditions, not infrequently report living in a similar state for months or even years.

To use an old Pentecostal phrase, they just “know that they know that they know” God is present.

But there’s a limitation to all human feelings: they’re fickle.

You can fall wildly in love, but after a while you won’t feel so besotted all the livelong day. You can get mad at your best friend, but eventually your anger fades.

Sooner or later, even the most profound, life-changing religious experiences fade, too.

For my agnostic friend, it took only a few minutes; for others, it takes years, but in either case, it happens. This fading doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong. It doesn’t mean you’ve sinned.

And it doesn’t mean you’ve lost your faith. Instead, it’s the natural course.

There can be a thousand causes.

Maybe it’s because you still pray and pray, but nothing much changes.

Or you’ve experienced a tragedy — your baby was born with a congenital birth defect; your beloved mom is lost in dementia; your husband got hooked on drugs.

Maybe you’re just so busy you don’t have time to ponder spiritual matters. Maybe it’s just the passage of time.

But, in any case, eventually you won’t feel faith. For weeks, months, years at a stretch.

Heck, maybe you won’t even like God anymore. Maybe you’ll no longer believe there is a God to like or dislike, just a universe of endless black void.

That’s when you can quit altogether, or you can decide to keep moving forward.

I’d recommend moving forward.

If you do, that’s when you’ll enter the second kind of faith, the faith of commitment, the faith that’s a decision.

Part of growing up in any realm of life — marriage, parenthood, work, sports — is realizing that, while feelings can be powerful, it’s not wise to base your life on them.

Feelings are too fickle.

We can acknowledge them, even enjoy them, without becoming enslaved to them.

Today, you may think your teenage daughter is the brightest, sweetest kid who ever drew breath. You’re sure she’s destined to become president or win a Nobel Prize.

By next week, you may feel she’s the most ungrateful, entitled little twerp any parent ever had to endure, and wish you’d never had kids.

Whichever week it is, you’re still her parent, you still have a commitment to her, you still have to feed her and buy her that new backpack and see to it her braces get adjusted.

It’s not glamorous. It’s your job.

That’s how faith works, too.

When you feel like you believe and when you don’t, you keep plugging along. You do what a person would do if he did feel faith, the same stuff you did when it was easy.

You go to church. You sing the songs. You read the Scriptures. You pray. You break bread with other believers. You visit the sick.

No, you’re not being a hypocrite. Actually, you’re being a mature disciple, which is to say, one who perseveres in easy times and hard.

The blessing is, if you keep your commitment, the good feelings nearly always return.

Then, of course, they leave again.

Then they return.

That’s what feelings do. They come and go.

But people of faith stay the course.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at pratpd@yahoo.com

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