Christians say strange, pious things all the time, but one of the most confusing of those strange, pious things is the idea that God is the one who must meet our emotional needs. I feel scandalous even questioning this idea, because it sounds so right on the surface.
As depicted in Christianity, our relationship with God is one of deep emotion and intimacy — God as father, as mother, as friend, as lover. Christ promises rest for the weary. He binds up the brokenhearted. Never will he leave us or forsake us. God is love.
Out of this, we’ve understandably developed this idea that God meets all our emotional needs. “Put your relationship with God first” translates into, “Run to God first with all your joys and pains.” Jesus is your best friend, Christians will say. Jesus is my boyfriend, teen girls will say. And woe to those who say otherwise — if you don’t find your emotional security in God, we’re warned, we’ll ruin all our relationships, human and divine.
It’s idolatry to expect any one person to fulfill all our needs. Only Jesus can do that.
When I first started dating, I felt guilty and idolatrous all the time, because, frankly, I preferred my boyfriend’s comfort to God’s. When I ran to God first and sobbed it all before him, I was met with silence. No words of advice. No hugs. No stupid jokes that lightened the mood. Just cold, existential silence…and the constant nagging thought that any comforting emotion I did feel was probably of my own manufacturing. And the other nagging thought that I shouldn’t think that way, and then that other one, where it was sinful of me to even expect an emotional experience, because spirituality wasn’t all about emotions, even though only God could ultimately meet my emotional needs.
Running to God first left me more distraught than running across campus to curl up next to a physically present person who verbally whispered, “I love you,” who advised me out loud in real time, who had real arms to hug me and a real mouth to tell me it was all okay.
Did he always meet my emotional needs? No, of course not. But it was less painful, even if equally frustrating, when my fallible boyfriend (or friend, or parent, or sibling, or professor) let me down emotionally than the perfect, omniscient, omnipresent God.
And the best of human comfort was by far preferable to the best of comfort I experienced alone with God. I could walk away from friends and family and feel full to the brim emotionally. I could walk away satisfied from a “God moment,” as I called them, but it was shorter lived, involved more emotional investment, was not reliably accessible, and rarely, if ever, left me overflowing.
For much of my childhood, I experienced periods where only Jesus was my friend. It was fine. I got by. But I much prefer life when I have human friends who laugh and hug and tease and physically exist without any mental exertion. Just Jesus was a lame friend, to be blasphemously honest, even if he was, in some vague, inaccessible sense, always there.
Like I said, scandalous. Idolatrous. Real Christians don’t feel that way. Hence the intense amount of guilt I felt about my closest relationships.
I question that now.
In much of mainstream Western spirituality (both Catholic and Protestant), emotions are categorized as primarily spiritual. The measure of one’s spirituality, to some extent, is one’s emotional connection to God. We might not admit it in our doctrinal statements, but I don’t think I’m alone in identifying the Christians with their hands raised, eyes closed, tears streaming down their faces as the more spiritual (especially if this response is consistent every single Sunday).
This is called pietism, an Eastern Orthodox priest told me. We prefer powerful sermons. We like our music stirring and emotional. If you’re Catholic, you depict Christ primarily as battered and anguished, hanging on a bloodied cross.
All of this to evoke some sort of emotional response, with the assumption that emotions really are spiritual, transcendent, and other-worldly.
But are they?
The more I study psychology, the more I’m convinced that emotions belong solidly in the physical realm. Physicality — illness, chemical imbalances, stress on the one hand; massage, exercise, warm baths on the other — affects mood. I’m amazed at how many problems a good night’s sleep solves when nothing else will.
And touch, we’re learning more and more, is vital to human well-being. Psychologists link a lack of human touch to aggression and an inability to regulate negative emotions in men, because there are limited forms of physical affection that men can give and receive without being perceived as sexual. Neglected infants who rarely receive cuddling suffer developmental delays and permanent mental damage. And on the flipside, infants who get regular skin-to-skin contact with their caregivers receive a developmental boost.
But we don’t need science to tell us how difficult life is when you’re far away from close friends and family and there’s nobody there to listen or give you a hug. It’s no shocker that we’re happier and healthier when connected to a good marriage, family, or community.
It shouldn’t be blasphemous to list consistent emotional and physical connection to other humans as a psychological and physical necessity. Yes, necessity.
We Christians are uncomfortable with thinking of companionship as a necessity, partly because of pietism and partly because good relationships aren’t as easily acquired as other necessities in life. It seems selfish to call relationships a necessity when so many come from broken families, operate without close friends, or long to be married. We want to offer hope to those less communally fortunate (especially if we find ourselves one of the lonely ones).
That’s where much of our strange, pious sayings originate. We tell women that Jesus can be their boyfriend to take away their heartache about being single. We tell kids that Jesus can be their best friend to give them something to grab onto when they’re bullied or isolated. We tell the lonely that Jesus is everywhere and always there, unlike any human. And we beef up that relationship with Jesus — he’s all I need; if you’ve got Jesus, you’ve got everything; even people in happy relationships need to run to Jesus first, or they’ll be a wreck.
But we know, deep down, that’s not true. Yes, Jesus can give hope, but Jesus cannot meet our emotional needs, not the way a human can, because emotional needs are primarily physical needs — like clothes and food and shelter. Just as we cannot wear, eat, or set up house in Jesus, we cannot meet our emotional needs in him.
There is a sense in which Jesus can meet our emotional needs, and it is in the same sense that he meets our other physical needs — through other people. He provides for our emotional needs through our own efforts to reach out and join community, just as he provides for our other physical needs through our own efforts to find a job and earn a paycheck. And when we are incapable of meeting our physical needs — whether it’s an emotional poverty or a financial poverty — he commands his body to be there with food, clothing, shelter, and, yes, friendship, if need be.
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours. — Teresa of Avila
Ironically, this meeting of physical needs is a deeply spiritual act. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this,” James tells us, “to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” He goes on to say,
What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
This is precisely what we do when we tell emotionally needy people to run to Jesus. “Go in peace,” we tell them, “find friendship and love,” when it is through our physical body, our friendship, our presence that God wishes to reach them.
We can run to God when we run to others. We can connect with God when we connect with others. God is pleased when we eat real food, live in real houses, feel real heat, and get real hugs from real bodies when we need them. It is a terrible, terrible lie to guilt a person for wanting human touch and companionship, to send them on their knees to Jesus without giving them the tools to meet their emotional needs.
Which leads me to say that the tools to meet our emotional needs are not merely having friends, being married, or starting a family. People will not always be there, and even if they’re there physically, they’re not always there emotionally.
And even then, we can misdiagnose our emotional problems when we rely too heavily on others without developing self-regulation, self-soothing, and independence; when we pine away for a boyfriend while ignoring other relationships right in front of us; when we put too high of expectations on others. Sometimes our desire for companionship can distract us from the need to love ourselves, meet other physical needs, get an attitude adjustment, or just go take a nap. And of course our desperation for human love can manifest itself in a myriad of spiritual problems too.
But this is true for all physical needs. We can have too much or too little of material things that then causes mental, physical, and spiritual problems. We can be unregulated in our desire for material things. That doesn’t negate our need for food or clothing or work; it’s just to say that sometimes we need other things too, or we need to order our desires to get the most out of what we already have.
Many Christians today, particularly if they bow out of the long tradition of sacramental theology, are ascetics and reductionists when it comes to spirituality: the more you can believe without any sort of physical aid, the more you can deny your physicality (this unconscious thinking goes), the stronger Christian you are. Rosaries, weekly Eucharist, icons, the other five of the sacraments, candles, and incense are seen as primarily stumblingblocks to a real relationship with God.
Human relationships are treated the same way. Some Christians never attend church because their relationship with God allegedly doesn’t need a communal aspect. And if you try to tell someone that a big part of your relationship with God involves giving and receiving human love, you will get many questions about the legitimacy of your spirituality.
This is completely out of touch with the spirituality presented in Scripture, tradition, and the reality of who Jesus is.
Jesus became God with us in an incarnate, physical way. He fed the hungry. He healed the sick. He took a child on his knee. He developed relationships with others, who became so close to him that they leant upon his bosom during a supper that two thousand years later allows us to partake of him in a physical way. And even though he is no longer on earth, we experience God’s grace and presence through bread, wine, water, and chrism. Christianity is sacramental because our God became incarnate, and our God became incarnate because he knows our physical needs.
Sacramentalism aside, the fact that God instituted a community of people and commands that we partake in that community shows us that God will not call us to loneliness — ever. Loneliness is not a sustainable life for any human, even a human who has Jesus in her heart.
But loneliness builds dependence on God, a pious Christian might argue. It might, just as starvation might bring one closer to God. There are many mysteries about how this world works and how God works in it for good, but we do not stop feeding the hungry and helping the poor just because God might do a spiritual work.
In the same way, as part of Christ’s body, I am obligated to help those who are emotionally impoverished, regardless of what God can do and is doing spiritually through that impoverishment. And as a human being with a body, I am obligated to meet my emotional needs in a physical, emotional, human way.
So I will first run to my husband’s arms when I need comfort, and thank God that I can.