by Barbara Milligan
A woman I had just met looked at me with sad eyes. She hadn’t felt God’s love for her since about a year after she became a Christian, over twenty years ago. “God and I were so close at first. I felt loved; I knew I was loved. But the weird thing was, as I got involved in my church, and as I learned how to pray and memorize Scripture, I lost that sense of being loved by God. And I want it back.”
This woman is not alone. I’ve heard similar stories many times before, and I have my own version. But how does that experience happen? How is it that some of us are drawn by the loving embrace of Jesus into his kingdom, only to feel later like poor, homeless orphans?
Sometimes we receive unhelpful advice from Christians we look up to, perhaps including close friends. “Act as though you believe it, and the feelings will follow,” we’re told. So we do, but the feelings don’t follow. Sometimes we try really hard to please God—maybe for years—and we become tired and discouraged. God seemed to be leading us at first, but now we wonder where God is. Or we wonder why God is withholding love from us when we’ve worked so hard for God’s kingdom. Sometimes we become aware of deep wounds that make it difficult for us to receive God’s love. Or, in spite of what our minds tell us, we may see God standing over our shoulder with a clipboard, shaking his head as he checkmarks a box that says “Needs improvement.”
No matter what may be the reason for losing a sense of God’s love (or never “getting” it in the first place), no matter how sound our theology and how obedient our walk with God, no matter how many scripture verses we’ve memorized that assure us of God’s love, and no matter how much we might believe with our minds that God loves us, the result may be the same: Our feelings aren’t changing. We begin to think there’s something wrong with us. We just don’t feel that God loves us.
We might experience this loss periodically or throughout a lifetime. And as with all deep losses, there are no easy fixes. Thankfully, however, there are some things we can do that might, over a stretch of time, help us become aware of God’s love for us—or help us become more aware of God’s love, if that’s our goal.
I’d like to share one of those things with you in this article: the gift of noticing. It’s a gift that can help any God-seeking person draw closer to God, and especially those of us who want to regain the sense of being loved by God. First, however, we need to ask for help.
An old story tells of the little fish who tugs at his mother’s fin and says, “Mom! We’ve got to find the ocean!” “My dear son,” replies the mother fish, “the ocean is all around you.”
The ocean of God’s love is all around us. But often we need help to become aware of it, just as the little fish probably needed his mother to point out the sea anemones, hermit crabs, and jellyfish, teach him how to navigate the currents, and encourage him to taste the salt water, as evidence that he was already in the ocean. Asking for help is basic to experiencing any major improvement in our lives, so we start by asking God to help us become aware of his love. Help us see it and touch it and taste it. That may sound obvious, but it’s an easy step to forget. And it’s helpful to do it regularly—not because we need to badger God so he doesn’t forget to get back to us, but because we might forget that we asked, and then miss God’s responses when they come.
In addition to asking God for help, we need help also from someone who would be willing to serve as a spiritual companion for us. A spiritual companion can help us notice what we might not notice on our own, including ways that God’s love is evident in our lives. The spiritual companion can be a spouse, a close friend, a spiritual director, a therapist, a pastor, a mentor, or other person we trust. Someone who respects us, listens carefully to the feelings we express, affirms us, prays for us, and is available to us for a conversation at least once a month. Definitely not someone who tries to convince us that God loves us or who has their own agenda about how we need to change and how soon. If the person is a family member or close friend, the spiritual companionship can be mutual, with each person taking a turn at silently and prayerfully listening as the other person talks about their relationship with God. The listener can then respond with questions, affirmations, or positive observations that might help the other person notice more ways that God is present in their life.
Having a mutual spiritual companionship is a wonderful way to deepen a relationship, but having a spiritual companion who serves in a professional role—for example, as a spiritual director, a therapist, or a pastor—is also worth considering. This kind of spiritual companion has been specially trained in listening skills, spiritual discernment, and the art of noticing. Of equal importance is that when we meet with them, it’s all about us. That means we can be free from concerns about allowing enough time for the other person to share, or about how each other’s stories might affect our relationship.
One of the benefits of having a spiritual companion is that it reminds us that we are not alone. This can be enormously helpful when we don’t feel loved by God. Feeling unloved is a feeling of isolation, a feeling that if we tried to explain it, no one would understand. But sharing our feelings with someone we trust can help us feel less alone, and can help us feel valued and loved.
Asking for help reminds us also of the need to be honest—honest with ourselves, honest with God, and honest with others. If we’re feeling unloved by God, this is no surprise to God. But we tend to hide such negative feelings, so that we don’t have to face possible disapproval by others and we don’t have to keep experiencing the depth of the pain. Being honest, though, by acknowledging our feelings to God and to someone we trust brings us out of our denial, out of our isolation, and into a place of openness. And that openness can enable us, eventually, to begin noticing God’s love for us.
A helpful tool
So once we ask for help from God and from a spiritual companion, and we acknowledge our feeling of not being loved by God, then what? A tool I’ve found helpful is a ten-minute examen (pronounced like “examine”), much like a personal inventory, that we can do at the end of each day. Also called an examination of conscience and the examen prayer, it was popularized by the sixteenth-century monk Ignatius of Loyola, although it’s been practiced by believers since before Jesus was born. When King David prayed, “Lord, search me and know my heart; / try me and know my anxious thoughts” (Psalm 139:23), he was doing an examen.
Before beginning the examen, it’s important to find a quiet place where we can sit comfortably and be as free as possible from external distractions. We can’t help but have some distracting thoughts or concerns during the examen, but we can respond to each one as it occurs by putting it in God’s hands and then returning to the examen prayer. Sometimes when I’m alone I find it helpful to cup my hands together and lift them to God as a physical way of dealing with the distraction or concern.
There are many versions of the daily examen, and I will describe two of them: first, a simple version, and then a complete version that’s my adaptation of Ignatius’ five-step examen in his Spiritual Exercises. You may want to start with the simple one, and then move on to the complete version when you feel ready. Or you can do the simple one with another person and the complete one when you’re alone with God.
Doing a simple examen
In a simple version of the examen we ask ourselves two questions: When today did I feel most drawn toward God? and, When today did I feel most drawn away from God? With these questions in mind, we review the moments of our day and we pay attention to what was stirring inside us—hope, regret, reluctance, enthusiasm, disappointment, or anything else that might have caused us to feel drawn toward God or drawn away from God at a given moment. Then we let our responses to the two questions lead us into a conversation with Jesus, right then or at a more appropriate time.
Now, even this simple version of the examen may not seem so simple if we’ve been feeling far away from God. So we can ask these two questions instead: What am I most grateful for today? And, What am I least grateful for today? Although these questions were intended for us to ask at the end of the day, we can ask them anytime we want to review how our day is going so far. The questions can help us notice what has been stirring inside us, so that we can become aware of how God may be inviting us, leading us, and ultimately, loving us.
The psalmists in the Bible were adept at doing a simple examen, although they probably did it without thinking about it or giving it a name. The writer of Psalm 77 cries out, “Has God forgotten to be merciful? / Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (v. 9). This is what Ignatius called desolation, or the sense of being far away from God; it is what the psalmist is not grateful for. But in the next verses the psalmist says,
“Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal:
the years of the right hand of the Most High.’
I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.
I will meditate on all your works
and consider all your mighty deeds” (vss. 10-12).
The psalmist then describes some of the miracles he’s seen God do. Ignatius called this consolation, or the sense of being drawn toward God; it is what the psalmist is grateful for. The consolation doesn’t make the desolation go away, but recognizing both a consolation and a desolation gives us a clearer picture of what is happening inside us.
My husband and I sometimes do the simple examen together over dinner. It helps keep us honest when we ask each other, “How was your day?” I might say to him, “My main consolation today is that I met my deadline for a rush project. My main desolation is that I’m so tired I can hardly speak.” He responds with understanding and compassion, and when we’re ready to move on, he shares his own consolation and desolation. “I’m grateful that I had time to take a walk today. I’m not grateful that a client keeps making last-minute changes to the project I’m working on.” We’ve found that sharing our consolations helps us to celebrate with each other and to thank God together, and that sharing our desolations helps us to pray for each other and to invite God into each desolation, so that even if the circumstances don’t improve, we sometimes find peace and hope.
Doing a simple examen together has drawn my husband and me closer together, and it can do the same for just about any significant relationship. One evening when we had two friends in our home for dinner, the four of us did the simple examen together. I set four candles of various sizes, shapes and colors on a small table in the middle of the living room, and dimmed the electric lights to create a prayerful atmosphere. We each, in turn, lit a candle, held it while sharing with the others what we were most grateful for and least grateful for about our day, and then returned the lighted candle to its place on the table. Whenever someone was sharing, the rest of us kept a respectful silence, and we continued the silence between turns by taking a minute or so to privately process what we had just heard. After the last person shared and we observed the final one minute of silence, the four lighted candles reflected our joy as we all exclaimed about how wonderful it was to listen to each other and share with each other. The experience had deepened our friendship.
The idea of lighting a candle as we shared our consolations and desolations came from the beautiful picture book Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Paulist Press), by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn; it’s full of creative ideas for doing a simple examen. I like lighting a candle for several reasons: it’s a quick way to add beauty to the environment, it helps me focus on what I’m doing, and the flickering flame reminds me of the presence and movement, or “breath,” of the Holy Spirit, who is there with me and within me. It reminds me also that Jesus is the light that shines in all the dark, scary places of my life. And that even when I feel no bolder or brighter than a smoldering wick, with wax dripping onto the furniture and carbon forming a dark cloud near the ceiling, Jesus promises never to pick up his golden candlesnuffer and finish the job.
If we’re doing an examen every day, we’re usually doing it alone. This is good, because solitude can help us to be honest before God, without being distracted by another person. Solitude can also help us to receive insights, affirmation, encouragement, faith, joy, and other gifts directly from God. It’s also important, though, to share some of these gifts with our spiritual companion. When we speak the truth out loud to someone we trust, we notice more of what God is doing in us. Whether our spiritual companion is our spouse, a friend, or someone in a professional role, it’s important to schedule time with that person at least once a month, so that we can share some consolations and desolations, notice what God is doing in us, and become more open to receiving God’s love.
Doing a complete examen
If we can set aside time to do the complete version of the examen, as developed by Ignatius, we open ourselves up to even more opportunities to receive God’s love. Although it’s more complex, some people say they can do even this version of the examen in ten or fifteen minutes. Again, sit comfortably in a quiet place and begin to focus your attention on God. Then follow these steps:
1. Give thanks to God for gifts you have received today. Be specific—a conversation with a friend, the aroma of a hot breakfast, a helpful realization. Give thanks also for a way that God used your talents, skills, or other gifts to benefit someone else today. Giving God thanks benefits us as well as God. “You who sacrifice thank offerings honor me / and you prepare the way / so that I may show you the salvation of God” (Psalm 50:23, my change of pronouns). What is the salvation of God? It’s Jesus. So when we thank God, we make it possible to see Jesus more clearly. And Jesus is the love of God in human form.
2. Ask for the light of the Holy Spirit to guide you as you prepare to look inside yourself. God promises to bring into the light the things that are hidden in the dark places of our hearts—even the things we’ve unconsciously hidden from ourselves (1 Corinthians 4:5). Fears, buried traumas, anxieties, mistaken beliefs about ourselves, and other things that we may have avoided before might surface during the examen. The light of the Holy Spirit reveals truth, including the truth about who we really are (Psalm 139:14) and how God delights in us (Zephaniah 3:17).
3. Examine your inner and outer responses to the events and tasks of the day. Review the feelings you experienced—your hopes, fears, disappointments, anger, comforts, discomforts, conflicts, sense of freedom, sense of unfreedom, or anything else, as revealed in your heart, your words, or your actions. In what ways do you notice God being revealed in your day? In what ways was God helping you? Where could you have asked God for help? Notice also how God may be calling you or inviting you today. This review is not for you to receive judgment, but rather to help you to grow closer to God. The writer of Hebrews urges us to “approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
4. Express your sorrow for wherever you notice that you “missed the mark” (the literal definition of sin) today. This could include times when you neglected to turn to God for help. Remember that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Receive God’s forgiveness, perhaps picturing it as light that fills you and makes you whole.
5. Talk with Jesus, as honestly as you can, about other concerns that arise, any discoveries you’ve made during the examen, and what you would like his help with tomorrow. Try to picture Jesus looking at you and listening to you with compassion. Imagine what he might say to you in response. If you keep a prayer journal, write down what you notice about this conversation with Jesus.
Learning to notice
Noticing what God is doing is not something we do just by deciding to do it, any more than we can become sober or overcome depression or be healed from a trauma just by deciding to do it. Noticing is a gift, a daily gift from God, and part of the gift package is supportive friends such as our spiritual companions, and useful tools such as the examen. It is God who gives us the desire for good gifts such as noticing, and God is eager to answer “Yes!” when we ask for that gift. Also, God sticks around so that when we read on the outside of the package the fine print that says “Some assembly required,” we don’t have to figure out the instructions on our own. Just as God gives us the gift, God also helps us learn to use the gift.
I’ve been trying for most of my life to notice what God is doing in me, and in recent years the examen has been a huge help. Sometimes I’m encouraged and grateful for progress that God is making in me, and that draws me closer to God. At other times, I become discouraged by my limitations and shortcomings—although that, too, draws me closer to God when I remember to turn to God with those feelings rather than deny them or avoid them. But as I’ve continued to seek the gift of noticing, I’ve noticed one thing more than anything else: that God’s love is all around me. The more I can see and touch and taste the evidence of God’s love, the more I can receive it as a gift from God to me. And through me, to others.
Acknowledging our consolations and our desolations at any given moment helps us notice what God may be doing in us. And the more we notice what God is doing in us, the more we know God’s love in us and around us. The apostle Paul prayed “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power . . . to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:17-19). The love of Christ is far greater than what our minds can understand or our hearts can hold. But when we’re willing to be open to this love, God helps us notice it, receive it, and become rooted in it.
May you be blessed with the gift of noticing what God is doing in you today, at this moment. And may you soon find yourself swimming in the ocean of God’s love.