God Can’t Meet Your Emotional Needs

priscilla-du-preez-195816

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.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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21 thoughts on “God Can’t Meet Your Emotional Needs

  1. Remnants of Wit

    This was a wonderful article, and I agree with a lot that you said (particularly your defense of sacraments). And I agree that emotional and spiritual needs are different things. But I was wondering if they could overlap. For example, I feel tired and bogged down when I know that I’ve sinned. Confessing my sin to God brings comfort, because I know I’ve been forgiven. Am I confusing an emotional response with a spiritual one, or does the spiritual comfort extend into the emotional?
    Once again, I loved your article–thanks for clarifying this confusing topic.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Since we’re body, soul, and spirit, I think everything overlaps! I would say feeling the need to be forgiven by God is a spiritual need, different than needing human comfort. A warm bath or a hug wouldn’t be able to alleviate the need for divine forgiveness! It totally makes sense that you would have an emotional response to having a spiritual need met, though, because our emotions and body and spirit are all interconnected. In other words, an emotional response doesn’t necessarily mean that the need was emotional. That’s how I would look at it, anyway. :)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Abigail

    YES. All of this, YES. Thank you for putting so beautifully into words what I’ve learned from my own life. As a teenager, I lacked meaningful friendships and suffered greatly because of it. I got sick of people telling me that Jesus should be my best friend, because even though I recognized that I should not cling to and depend upon people to make them my absolution of sin, perfect love, or redemption, needing someone to be physically present in my pain and to share my interests and giggle with me was not idolatry. As I would often wail to my mother, Jesus was not going to flail in excitement with me over the last “Doctor Who” episode, and that wasn’t his job — I needed people for that.

    One thing I am forever proud of is my ability to go, “Hm, none of these spiritual platitudes work. I guess they’re not true.” I did often feel guilty for not deriving relational comfort from God, but I was able to adjust my worldview, realizing that even though Scripture casts God as a comforter, it never remotely suggests that God should be your one and only best friend. I cast this idea in the same bucket as other unbiblical Christian platitudes that I liked to mock.

    I can credit C.S. Lewis for providing me with a robust and dependable theology for friendship. It was obvious from reading both his fiction and essays that friendship is one of the most fundamental needs and sources of human fulfillment, and I’m grateful for how this influence has shaped my perspective both on how to handle loneliness and how to engage best in the friendships that did eventually develop.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Good for you to seeing through this bogus platitude! It’s taken me much longer. :P The theology I was reading (and I wasn’t reading C. S. Lewis on friendship) wasn’t at all helpful in allowing me to view friendship as a necessity, either.

      Like

  3. telltalesnotlies

    If Heavenly Father wanted us to be disconnected with others, he would have set us up, each on a separate, oxygen surrounded asteroid and raised us up directly. However, he placed us on one beautiful planet, in families. It’s all connected, we’re all connected.

    Like

  4. WorkinMama

    This is so beautiful and well-said.

    I would add that for most single people, having meaningful relationships with friends and family does not replace the deep longing for a spouse, nor is it supposed to.

    Like

  5. Allison Caylor

    This is so, so good! I remember having a lightbulb moment with my sisters a few years ago when one of them mentioned that when God said, “It’s not good for man to bad alone,” they hadn’t sinned yet. Adam could walk with God, and he still needed a flesh-of-his-flesh human.

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      What a great point! I was so confused about that passage for so long because I didn’t understand how Adam could be missing anything if he had a perfect, unhindered relationship with God. Now it makes perfect sense.

      Like

  6. villemezbrown

    I love this! Incredibly insightful and helpful and beautifully put. I especially like the quotes from Teresa and James about God meeting physical human needs through the actions of physical human beings.
    Adele

    Like

  7. Emma

    I’ve questioned why I haven’t felt God strongly before, but its always been framed by either wondering if He was real or if there was something wrong with me. It has never, ever occured to me that the idea of being fullfilled in God alone could be incorrect. This believe seems to uniform among every denomination I have had contact with, and questioning it feels scandalous. Yet, your article resonates with what I have felt to be true, so I’m inclined to agree I think…

    Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Come to think of it, that was my exact same process. I spent my whole life wondering if God was real or if I was defective instead of if the idea that God was supposed to be my “buddy” was a true one. Explore it and see where it goes!!

      Like

  8. Jasmine Ruigrok

    I used to beat myself up if I was trying to wrestle through something with God, but wound up talking to my Mum about it in the end, and then I felt guilty because I felt better talking to my Mum than to God about it. I’ve come to realize that God made us for community, and like you said, often He uses people as His hands and feet to meet our emotional needs. Yet on the flip side, I’ve also been through very lonely, tough times that have been just me and God, and it built in me a reliance on His Word, and a dependence on His presence regardless of my feelings. Hear me, I think feelings are INCREDIBLY important, and that they are a tell for deeper emotional/spiritual issues. Having said that, it takes the pressure off God to meet my emotional needs if I don’t go to Him expecting to feel the warm fuzzies, and it also takes the pressure off myself feeling like I need to “feel” Him emotionally to be sure He’s right there with me. That’s my two bob! I appreciate hearing your journey, and love hearing the freedom you’ve come to in embracing those human connections that are so precious. I swear there were plenty of times I was pouring out my little soul to God and He was facepalming: “Girl! I put your Mum RIGHT THERE! Go talk to her!!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bailey Steger

      I’ve been learning that we can derive meaning and virtue even from less ideal situations (like when it’s just you and God) while still advocating for the ideal situation. I think we (okay, I) get confused when I see these amazing super Christians who are all alone in prison cells praising Jesus, and I’m over here crying because I don’t have a friend across the street. Everyone’s journey is unique. I can look back to one time (one time only) where the loneliness built a dependence on God, and all the other times it was a destructive loneliness.

      I like how you describe emotions as potential indicators of a spiritual issue rather than equating them with spirituality itself. Good distinction.

      Like

    • Bailey Steger

      Right?! Erich and I used to talk about this a lot too. Well, more like *I* would talk about it and he would politely stare at me in interested horror at the strange ideas I’d picked up about Christianity. Lol

      Like

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