Have you ever felt a disconnect between what you believe and what you experience? I was speaking to someone recently who was wrestling with that disconnect. She was in a season of suffering and said something along the lines of, “I am reading the Bible every day. It’s where I’m turning. But when I come across promises of his presence and his peace, it’s so frustrating. That’s not my experience at all—just the opposite. God seems silent. Why don’t his promises touch down in the places I really need them to?"
My counselee’s experience is a common one. Sometimes it’s referred to as the distance between our head and our heart: we believe the right things about God (head) but we don’t experience them to be true in our personal lives (heart). It might also be described as the difference between our confessional theology and functional theology. We take God at his word but struggle to know how his truths make a difference in life lived. Most Christians feel this way at some point or another; it may be a fleeting struggle or one that stretches out over seasons of our lives. And like my counselee, we often feel frustrated by it. Understandably so.
As I speak to this experience, know that I have in mind Christians who really are taking God at his word, and seeking to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. I say that because that distance could be felt for different reasons—for example, a Christian who doesn’t feel close to God but is entrenched in unrepentant sin. When that person feels distance it makes more sense to us. But what I’m addressing is the times when we are engaged in consistent, faithful rhythms of the Christian life, and are still feeling like God’s promises aren’t landing as we’d hope or expect. How do we think biblically about that experience? Here are four thoughts that can orient us when we feel that distance.
- This experience is connected to where we find ourselves in the unfolding story of God’s redemption in the world. In this era, our faith is not yet sight (2 Cor 5:7). We are sojourners, passing through a place that is not our home (1 Peter 2:11). A day is coming when we will see Jesus face to face, and he will change us in an instant (1 John 3:2). It’s easy to imagine that we won’t feel distance in that moment, but that moment hasn’t come. And that fact helps to normalize feelings of distance—as in, “Of course I am not experiencing all of the realities of God’s promises yet. I haven’t seen him yet. I am not home yet. He hasn’t glorified me yet.”
- This experience is a form of suffering. Just because it’s expected doesn’t mean it’s easy. It is troubling. It is distressing. To not yet enjoy perfect connection is a burden—a rightful reason for us to groan (2 Cor 5:1–5).
- Though this experience is a burden, it is actually a reason to be encouraged. Why? Because the person who is identifying this experience takes their faith seriously. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t feel the distress of the disconnect.
- This experience can move us to hope for our promised future. Because it is a good thing to have that connection between what we believe and what we experience, we can expect it in the future. Because disconnect is suffering, we can safely anticipate that we will no longer experience it when we are (finally!) living in the new creation.
With these orienting comments in mind, let’s next think about how we can minister to someone who feels this way now. How does thinking biblically about this experience guide how we interact with people? The next four points correspond to the ones above.
- We provide orientation for their experience; this disconnect is expected in this age when faith isn’t yet sight. We reassure them that feeling this way doesn’t indicate a failure on their part. And we exhort them to persevere in faith, as our forefathers in the faith did, even when they didn’t see the fulfillment of God’s promises in their lifetime (Heb 11).
- We sympathize with the suffering in the experience: “This is a hard place to be.” “I understand your frustration.” We empathize with the experience so they don’t feel alone in it: “I can relate… I have felt that way, too. It’s painful.” We groan to God. We tell him just how bad this feels and just how much we don’t want it. And we trust and remember together that Jesus’ ministry was one of alleviating suffering, and that shows us he has compassion on us. We receive his compassion.
- We encourage their hearts by pointing out that there is something good and right about wanting our heads and hearts to align. They want a good thing, and we admire that about them.
- We become practitioners of hope. The experience of hope is a gift of God to us when we suffer. He gave us promises so that we can hope for their fulfillment. He poured out his love for us through the Holy Spirit, and gave us this deposit that guarantees our future (Heb 5:5; Eph 1:4). So we become really good at hoping for what will be ours. We understand that hope is an action and so we practice it. We direct our thoughts to our hope—and dwell there. And as we hope for the day when our heads and hearts align, we wait for it with patience. Patient because we are submitted to God’s timeline for when he ushers in that day. Patient because we take God at his word, and we believe his promises are true.
And for all of this, we pray. We pray for God to decrease the distance we feel. We pray God will help us wait with patience (Rom 8:25). We pray because he is our hope—and when we hope in him, we will not be disappointed (Rom 5:5).