Greg, you’re always talking about how we need to keep our eyes fixed on the cross to see and experience God’s love for us. But I find myself arguing with God, asking him: “How am I to believe that you love us that much when you don’t love me enough to lift the veil over my mind and break me free with your love?” I have never felt any of God’s love, or presence or anything! The truth is that God feels distant, unloving, and even non-existent, and it angers me that my Father, who supposedly loves me, leaves me in this godless prison. Why doesn’t God lift the veil and make himself real to me? B.
I’m so sorry to hear your plight. I completely understand the anger you express. You feel like you’re helplessly imprisoned in a godless dungeon and naturally wonder why God doesn’t deliver you, especially if he truly loves you as much as he says he does.
Now, I can’t pretend to know all the reasons why you can’t seem to experience the reality of God. But I’ll share with you what little I do know and what I’ve found has worked for me and countless others.
All of our emotions are associated with videos and soundtracks and other experiences we automatically run in our brains. We think by replicating our real life experiences in our heads, with all five senses, and there is always an emotional component to our thought. We tend to think that people and events outside us cause us to be angry or happy or whatever, but actually the thing that produces our emotion is the way we interpret people and events outside of us. And we interpret them automatically by conjuring up videos and soundtracks and other experiences in response to the people and events outside of us.
This is why a person might say to two different people, “you are fat,” and one cries while the other laughs. To the first, the words perhaps evoked memories of being publicly humiliated on a bus in 6th grade, while to the other it conjured up the image of an insecure five-year-old insulting them as they attempt to impress their five-year-old peers, or something like that. We usually aren’t aware of the videos and soundtracks we run in our brain, because they occur at about 1/3000th of a second, much faster than our consciousness can attend to. But THIS is how all emotions operate.
So, if you change the mental pictures you run in your brain, you change your emotions.
All that is to say if you’re feeling like God is distant, unloving, non-existent, it’s because you are unwittingly running videos and soundtracks and other experiences in your brain of a distant, unloving and/or non-existent deity. Anyone who experienced what you experienced in your mind would feel the way you feel. This isn’t your fault B. Who knows how the crap in our brain got there? The important thing is to realize that the crap is there and that this crap is the source of our crappy emotional experience. Most importantly, you need to know there is something you can do about it.
Here’s what I recommend.
a) First, know the intellectual reasons why you believe Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. Some people base their faith on personal experiences they’ve had, but I find this to be far too fickle and subjective. I instead ground my faith in historical and philosophical considerations. If I actually experience God’s love or anything spiritually, that is great, but if I don’t, it doesn’t at all affect my faith that this is true. (If you’re uncertain about why you believe, I encourage you to study the matter, e.g. Letters from a Skeptic, by my dad and me or The Jesus Legend by Paul Eddy and me).
b) Once I’ve intellectually resolved that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, I now try to get all my thinking to line up with this (2 Cor 10:3-5). And a major part of this is making regular time to imagine Jesus. I put on some beautiful music, turn out the lights, and then meet Jesus, listen to what he has to say to me (always the same wonderful stuff he says in the NT, but now it’s to me personally). I sometimes take walks with Jesus, and we sometimes go back into the past and redo wounding memories. I talk about this in my book Seeing Is Believing and also in Escaping the Matrix (with Al Larson), both of which I strongly recommend for you.
c) This imaginative exercise will probably initially feel like you’re “making this up” on your own. Any time we do something “new” in our imagination, it feels like WE are making it up. Don’t worry about this. Even if you were “just making it up,” you’re still bringing your mind in line with what is true (see “a”), and that’s a good thing. For example, if I imagine Jesus right next to me right now, who cares if I’m making it up? I have good reason to believe Jesus is right here next to me. So if I imagine him here, I just made my overall worldview more accurate. In fact, my perception of my room at any moment is inaccurate to the degree that I see the room without him.
But if you open your imagination to the Spirit, whose job it is to unite us more and more with Jesus, I think that over time you’ll sometimes become aware that you are not “making this up.” We encounter the real Jesus in our imagination. (BTW, this is a very traditional practice, called “cataphatic prayer,” and the imagination has been called “the inner sanctuary,” precisely because it was understood to be the place where we encounter Christ).
d) Don’t enter into this imaginative exercise for the purpose of experiencing emotions. That will sabotage the whole thing. Rather, enter the imaginative exercise because you believe it’s true that Jesus is the definitive revelation of God. So don’t try to experience anything, and don’t get bugged if you don’t. But over time, if you are consistent with this, you’ll likely find that you begin to experience the feeling of being loved by him and begin to feel love toward him. Most of the time I spend in imaginative prayer I don’t feel much, but on occasion I get beautifully moved.
Finally, you might be wondering — why doesn’t God just “remove the veil” and cause me to experience him? There are always an unfathomable number of variables that affect the extent to which God can and can’t break through in our world (see my Is God to Blame?). But one important variable may be this. God wants us to be empowered to take back all that the enemy stole. And the first thing we need to learn to take back is our mind. We do have authority over what we think, and therefore over what we feel. It’s just that in our fallen state, we rarely use this. We thus allow our thoughts and feelings to be dictated to us by others — which is why most people feel they just are the way they are and can’t change. But Scripture everywhere tells us what to think (e.g. Phil.4:8), which presupposes we have power over what we think. And while God is always working to open us to as much of him as possible, I don’t think he ever wants to lobotomize us by controlling our brain for us.
Anyway, I hope you try this for a significant period of time and I hope you find it begins to make the truth of Jesus feel more real.