If you’re a preacher, you’ll almost certainly have had that experience where you just don’t feel it. You get up in the pulpit and you have absolutely no confidence in the notes you have prepared. You’ve prayed about it, you’ve prepared as well as you felt able but you get up and you’ve got nothing.
I am the kind of character who rarely feels confident in what he has prepared. I rarely think I’ve prepared a belter; I tend to feel that I have marginally less bad sermons than others. I’ve stood in the pulpit lacking confidence in my notes, feeling – despite my best efforts – badly prepared and praying, over and again, that the Spirit would undertake for me.
On days like that, if one ever felt like you needed to sense God’s presence with you, it is days like this. Rarely, however, have I ever felt much. I have stood in the pulpit with my ropey notes, my feeling inadequate and my prayers and felt absolutely nothing (at least, nothing helpful and nothing I would identify as spiritually exceptional). Yet, despite that total lack of feeling anything special, I have lost count of the number of times people have come up to me afterwards to insist that the Lord had spoken to them or something that was said was particularly helpful for them.
It is a potent reminder that our feelings are often a shoddy guide, especially when it comes to spiritual things. We have no evidence that when Stephen and Peter and those so described as being ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ at various points, felt anything particularly different to normal as it was happening. There is no doubt the Spirit was at work and the Lord was using them, but how they felt at the moment is entirely unclear. Likewise, the way we feel is a poor guide as to whether the Lord is working or not.
RC Sproul outlines a similar experience here. He concludes his story this way:
I didn’t feel His presence, and so I thought He wasn’t there. I had become a sensuous Christian, allowing my strength of conviction to be determined by the strength of my feelings. I realized that I’ve got to live by the Word of God, not by what I feel. I think that’s how you deal with doubt. You begin to focus on what God says He’s going to do rather than on your feelings.
When the Lord says his Word will not return to him void, we have to believe that is what will happen. We have to accept that the Lord may be working despite what we do or don’t feel. Feelings are generally a terrible guide.
All too often, we place far too much store by our feelings and put not nearly enough weight on what we know from God’s Word. To have assurance in the Christian life, we need to rely on what we know, not what we feel. To persevere in the service of the Lord, we need to focus on what we know, not what we feel. To be able to give anything to those who we would serve, we need to focus on what we know, not what we feel.
The Lord will achieve his purposes irrespective of how we feel. If we don’t feel his presence, that tells us nothing of whether he is there or not. The Lord has told us in his Word that he will never leave us nor forsake us. He has told us the Spirit is dwelling within our hearts, whether we feel it or not. He has told us that he will empower us to the ministry that he calls us to and his grace is sufficient for us, irrespective of whether we feel it is so.
Let us focus on what we know, not on what we feel.