Q & R: Lost my love for God

Here’s the Q:

The teacher told us the greatest commandment is to love God. I’m afraid that I’m not sure if I love God anymore, and I would appreciate any help you might be able to provide.
My story is the one of the kid who grows up in a conservative church, leaves home, goes to college (Bible college!) and suddenly finds that his doctrine doesn’t match up with his view of reality (or of God). As many of your readers, I have gone through a process the past several years trying to find what I really believe and who I really worship. About six months ago I started reading your blog and saw all your hype for A New Kind of Christianity. As I had not read any of your (previously heretical) books yet, I went through the New Kind of Christian trilogy, Generous Orthodoxy, and a couple of others before I tackled your new book, which I am currently enjoying. The way that you and other authors (especially Bishop Wright–I love him!) respect the Bible and Jesus and can come away with a radically different yet valuable interpretation has really taken root in me. I feel that my mind is becoming reborn. As Paul says (1 Cor 15:36), nothing can grow until it dies.

I’ve become quite comfortable with my (post-pubescent?) new beliefs, but I’ve noticed that I am lacking the same love for God which I had before I underwent my transformation. I used to be able to pray and sing and contemplate. Now when I pray it feels more like muscle memory. A good analogy perhaps would be when you encounter an ex-girlfriend. There is a knowledge of previous intimacy and a desire to rekindle the flame, but everything just feels superficial and forced.
I love obeying God’s commandments. I love trying to live how God would have me live. I am just missing the love for God which I used to have so strongly. This is frightening because of Jesus’ teaching that the most important thing is to love God. I don’t want to embark on one of your “adventures in missing the point,” by doing what is good but ignoring who is good.
Is this something that you have experienced on your journey? I know there are times in most believers’ lives when God is silent, and though God is silent now I still believe. But God has been silent for a couple of years now, and I just want our intimacy back.
Can you speak to this?
PS – If you can’t reply to this, could you at least point me in a good direction? Maybe someone before me has already started this conversation with you.

R: Thanks so much for this important question. First – as to this being something I have experienced: yes.
My first bout of doubt, questioning, and spiritual struggle hit me when I was a senior in high school and intensified into my sophomore year of college. What you’ve written perfectly describes what I was experiencing. I hit another rough patch a few years later, and then again in my late thirties.
What I especially feel I have in common with you was that I wanted to feel intimacy with God. I “missed” God. It wasn’t a small matter to me to not feel God close to me – or to feel my heart warm and alive towards God. I still feel that way today. Because of that, I don’t expect what I’m about to say next to satisfy you – it wouldn’t satisfy me! (But stay with me, because it needs to be said …)
The fact that you are still trying to do what God wants, to live as God wants you to live, even though the warmth of heart that you once experienced seems to have abated … this is no small thing. In fact, as you well know, Jesus says if we love him, we’ll keep his commandments. So to him, love isn’t simply a warm feeling toward God: it is expressed in exactly the way you are expressing it. It may be (C. S. Lewis said something like this) that the most mature and profound kind of love is precisely the kind you are showing – and it may be all the more precious because it is continuing even without feelings of closeness.
You’ve probably heard that Mother Teresa spent decades of her life in a similar situation: obeying, do what’s right, serving, loving others, giving, remaining faithful – even when she didn’t feel God’s nearness. This makes me admire her all the more – it doesn’t decrease my respect for her, but increases it.
So I want to encourage you in this – but at the same time, I don’t expect you to say, “OK. So it’s fine that I don’t feel love for God welling up with in me. I’m fine with that. I’ll just get on with life.”
The question is – what to do. Years ago, someone gave me a book of little quotations from the old Puritan Samuel Rutherford (from whose writings the beautiful old hymn “In Immanuel’s Land” was written). Somewhere in that old book, as I recall, Rutherford said that when he felt Christ is distant, he would “make din” (something like that) – or make a lot of noise – until he felt Christ near again. In other words, he would continually tell his Lord how unsatisfied he was. That’s what I would recommend.
All this is very fresh to me, because I’m finishing up my next book which is on the spiritual life (title etc TBA). One section focuses on spiritual aspiration and draws heavily from the old Methodist hymnals that included a lengthy section “For Believers Seeking Full Redemption.” Those old hymns pour out to God the agony of desire – which I feel between the lines of your email. So my suggestion – from one struggler to another – is to let out that desire. Keep telling God, in the strongest language you can find, with “groanings that cannot be uttered” as well, that you want your heart to be more and more full of love for God.
There’s a lot more I could say – for example, about how your old vision of God is dying and a new one is being reborn, and so you will need to find new reasons and ways to love God in this new vision. (This post is relevant, I think …) But I think the most important thing is to encourage you to keep expressing to God the same frustration, longing, dissatisfaction, etc. that you expressed to me. Do it in writing, in music, in art, in word, and so on … but don’t stop “making din” until you feel the well springing up again.
I hope that helps … my prayers are with you, and with everyone who reads this post and identifies with you.