“You’re obsessed!” My friend Elise laughed at me as she sat down on my bed. The month before, my mom, step-dad, and I went to watch a movie called JoJo Rabbit for my twenty-eighth birthday, and I fell in love with it. This was not one of those situations where the trailer was better than the movie. This movie was a breath-taking work of art that was funny, moving, creative, and it inspired you to endure life’s hardships nobly—and Elise needed to know about it and have the same experience I did. In fact, everyone needed to know about it.
I found myself telling people over and over again about this movie. I also found myself inwardly frustrated because they’d look at me with dead eyes and give unfazed responses, like, “Huh,” or, “Interesting,” when I passionately explained the plot to them.
“While we often think of love as leading us to care, care can also lead us to love.”
We all have things we’re obsessed about. Things we just talk about because we love them. My friend WayAnne loves organic, sustainable gardening. She listens to podcasts where people literally just discuss different types of dirt. She thinks people who use MiracleGrow are barbarians.
I’ve heard some people say that when we really love God, we’ll talk about Him with the same kind of enthusiasm WayAnne has for dirt and I have for JoJo Rabbit. They say things like, “When you truly love God, praise and sharing just flow out of you, effortlessly. No one has to explain to you how to talk about the things you’re passionate about. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it. It’s the same way with God.” And this is often true, I guess. I’ve had times where I didn’t have to think hard about telling someone what Jesus was doing in my life. I wanted to talk about it, and I felt it deep in my soul.
That’s not always the case.
When you look at the full scope of the Christian experience, a constant state of bubbling over about how “blessed” you are doesn’t ring true with most of us. At least it doesn’t with me. I’ve had lots of times where I felt embarrassed to talk about God, I didn’t know what to say; I wanted to watch TV instead. Talking about Him just felt like exercising: a nice idea in theory but exhausting in practice. If you’ve had both of these experiences—effortless praise and no feelings—you may have wondered, “Was I ever really converted? Do I really love Jesus? I used to want to talk about Him. Is something wrong with me when I don’t feel like talking about God?”
David and Solomon have two passages that help answer these questions and can help us know what we should do when we’re struggling to praise God. Let’s look at David’s passage first:
In Psalm 103:2, David writes, “Bless the Lord, O my soul…” At first glance, this sentence is not super unusual. Afterall, David is the guy God used to take out a giant, save Israel, outsmart a murderous king, and kill wild predators. Of course, it’s super easy for him to praise God. But then David says something curious: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.”
Don’t forget? If praise to God should just flow out of anyone, it should be David. But in this Psalm, we see that David had to be intentional about contemplating what God had done for him and talking about it. He had to remind himself. Maybe he even scheduled it in between hiding in caves and collecting Philistine foreskins. In other words, praise wasn’t always spontaneous. It didn’t just flow out of him. Does that mean his praise was inauthentic? Did the lack of spontaneous emotion make it insincere? David didn’t seem to think so. He goes on throughout the rest of the Psalm to describe in some of the most eloquent, heartfelt language how good God is.
No one has to explain to you how to talk about the things you’re passionate about. You don’t have to think about it. You just do it.
David understood that human beings, because of our sinful bent, are forgetful of the blessings God gives us. It’s our default to focus on the negative and to only see the bad. So we shouldn’t conclude that praise has to be spontaneous in order to be authentic, and we shouldn’t necessarily assume we must not love God if it doesn’t flow out of us naturally. Our hearts need to be guided.
So how do we guide them?
I follow a woman named Amy Meissner on Instagram who ran a mending and clothing repair workshop in Alaska before the pandemic. In a newsletter I subscribe to, she’s quoted as saying, when you take the time to repair something, if you didn’t have an attachment to the thing you’re fixing beforehand, you definitely will after you’ve “taken the time to care for it.”1 Or, as another artist I follow put it, “While we often think of love as leading us to care, care can also lead us to love.”2
In other words, we can be passionate because we love something, but when we take time to notice and care, we also become passionate. Sometimes we talk about something effortlessly because we love it, but we can also love something because we’ve made the effort to notice it, contemplate it, and care about it. As one of my friends likes to say, we can feel our way into acting, but we also act our way into feeling. Solomon talked about this principle in Proverbs 16:3: “Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established.”
In fact, praising God when you’re not feeling excited about it is, sometimes, more authentic than speaking from emotions, because our emotions are often affected by many factors that have nothing to do with where we’re at spiritually. So a lack of emotion doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of love for God. It could just indicate a lack of sleep or food or a bunch of other things. On the flipside, strong emotions aren’t always a marker of sincere passion for Jesus, especially if those emotions only come out when someone is listening to a lot of worship music. But if you choose to praise God, regardless of whether you feel it, your praise is coming from genuine belief and trust. It’s not just a full-stomach or a good mood talking.
That’s not to say that if you listened to a certain song and it made you feel like praising God, your praise was insincere because the music simply manipulated your emotions. Music is a gift to help us express and to feel. But genuine praise goes much deeper than emotions. It isn’t confined to them. Genuine praise is expressed because we know God is good, not because we feel that He’s good. Feelings are great when they’re there, but if they’re not, it’s not necessarily an indicator that something is wrong. It may just be an off day. As the saying goes, emotions are kind of like toddlers: you don’t want to let them drive the car, but you also don’t want to shove them in the trunk.
Genuine praise is expressed because we know God is good, not because we feel that He’s good.
Not only can our actions bring our feelings back in line, but not letting our feelings lead is really the only way to grow. It’s a principle that runs throughout all of life. If you only practice violin or study a new language when you feel like it, you’ll never make much progress. Spiritually, if we’re waiting to feel close to God and get goosebumps or something before we praise Him, then we’re not really in love with Jesus. We’re just in love with our feelings. Just as in every other area of life, we have to take action toward where we want to go spiritually, to be disciplined, or else we’ll always be victims of our own emotions.
So, take the pressure off of yourself to always feel something. Expecting to always feel excited about your faith is unrealistic. Thinking the ideal Christian never has to intentionally think about praising God or sharing Jesus is dishonest and goes against the reality that we were designed to worship God with our heart, soul, and mind. Focus on understanding who God is and praise Him anyway. Tell others what you’re grateful for. Journal about His character. Sing about it. Your emotions will eventually catch up.
Being hooked on a feeling is overrated. Being hooked on Jesus is so much better.
- Austin Kleon, October 12, 2020, https://austinkleon.com/2020/10/12/we-love-because-we-care/