Intellectual barriers to faith often end up smokescreens for emotional barriers. That’s what I found in my own search for God, and it’s what I’ve observed with many people Exploring God. I’ll never forget the night I realized, “This is true!” I didn’t have all my questions answered, but I had enough answered to realize there really is a God, He revealed himself in Jesus, demonstrated His great love for me by paying for all my wrongs, and now He waits to see if I’ll say “Yes” to His offer of forgiveness and relationship. So what’s the problem? Seemingly if God can just prove to us He’s real and this Jesus stuff is true, we’ll all believe—right!?
It’s not just a head decision; it’s a heart decision. There are forces at work in us and around us that motivate our decisions, and we’re not often honest about them. Helping people be honest about the emotional barriers to faith can often prevent endless hours of arguing intellectually, when the person is not going to believe…because they really do not want to believe. Here are the common emotional barriers. Asking questions can help get to the honest issues preventing faith:
1. I don’t want to believe. Sometimes when people seem stuck arguing their case against Jesus, regardless of the evidence I give them, I’ll stop and ask: “Do you even want this to be true? Jesus is claiming to reveal a God who loves you enough to die for you, so that you can not only be forgiven, but walk in relationship with God now and forever. Do you hope that’s true? If not, why not?”
We all have what’s called confirmation bias—we’re wired that way. We look for evidence that supports what we currently believe is true (our current faith), and we screen out evidence that attacks our faith. We all do this because we all want security. Feeling like we are right helps us feel secure. That’s also why it usually takes a crisis (great pain or the collapse of our current worldview) to get us to reconsider our current faith. That’s also why most people only turn to God when life gets painful or unmanageable (and why God in His mercy allows pain for a season). If someone doesn’t want to believe, it’s helpful to be honest, and it’s often due to one of these other emotional barriers.
2. I don’t want to be like those Christians. Hypocrisy is another emotional barrier. Some people had bad experiences with Christians, or just have negatively charged emotional feelings toward Christians. They just “don’t want to be like that.” I find it helpful to ask those struggling with hypocritical Christians or negative cultural biases: “Have you ever read about Jesus’ life and teachings?” Usually, they say “No.” I’ll point out that Jesus had the hardest time with religious hypocrites of his day. He didn’t like hypocrites either, but most people flocked to Jesus—He was life-giving—why don’t you read about Jesus and then let’s talk, because maybe he wants you to show others how not to be a hypocrite.”
But I’ve also heard people say, “I don’t want to be a hypocrite, so until I know I can do it right, I’m not going to even try.” To this I ask the question: “You mean unless you can be perfect, you’ll never follow God?” That usually gets us into the real issue—no one’s perfect, and that’s why we need God. In fact, we’re all hypocrites. We all say, “I’ll never,” or “one shouldn’t,” yet we break our own moral code. If you don’t want to be like “those Christians,” then let God guide you to become the loving person He intended you to be, then you can show them God’s real intent.
3. I don’t want God ruining my life. This was the REAL issue for me. I didn’t want to turn my life over to God, because I secretly thought He’d ruin it. If God had his way, I’d lose all my friends, I’d never have real fun again, I’d end up married to someone I wasn’t attracted to, living somewhere and doing something I didn’t want to do. This is the real reason many people run from God and hide behind intellectual barriers. They have some secret sin or addiction they’re clinging to for life, and a little voice inside is screaming “Don’t let God in—He’ll ruin it for us!” Or they have good, God-given goals, but still fear God wants to take it away for some reason. He wants them to live a miserable life.
Here’s the question I’ll ask after telling of my emotional fears: “Think about it, if God is the most powerful Being in the Universe, and He wanted to ruin your life, do you think He’d need your permission?” It’s funny, but I never really considered this. God respects our freedom and works with our willingness because He loves us, came to lead us into an overflowing Life of love, joy, peace, and a soul-stirring kind of freedom we long for. But that requires our trust and willingness.
4. I don’t trust God. Another common but unrecognized emotional barrier comes from associating God with parents, authority figures, or religious leaders who hurt us or let us down. We don’t trust God because the God in our heads is not someone we’d want to trust, or maybe even be around. The most important question is this: “How do you feel about God? When you think about God, do you imagine someone you’d want to be with? Do you imagine a Life-giving, loving, joy-filled, encouraging, trust-worthy person who is for you—who is on your side?” If not, I’ll tell them what Keith Miller used to say to me, “Then you ought to fire that god and get you a new one!” Why? Because the god in your head is not the God revealed in the Bible.
When you think back to your journey to faith (or maybe you’re Exploring right now), what was/is the biggest emotional barrier for you?