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Hannah Whithall Smith
The Transient Nature of Our Feelings

Abstract: The paragraphs point out the grave dangers and frustrations that come when we examine our feelings to see how we are doing spiritually.

I believe, however, that my experiences during these years have been valuable in one way, and that is in teaching me to avoid ever encouraging in the young people I have known any sort of a self-absorbed interior life. Self-absorption is always a temptation to young people, and if their religion is of a sort to add to this self-absorption, I feel that it is a serious mistake. If I had my way, the whole subject of feelings and emotions in the religious life would be absolutely ignored. Feelings there will be, doubtless, but they must not be in the least depended on, nor in any sense taken as the test or gauge of one’s religion. They ought to be left out of the calculation entirely. You may feel good or you may feel bad, but neither the good feeling nor the bad feeling affects the real thing. It may affect your comfort in the thing, but it has nothing to do with the reality of the thing. If God loves you, it is of no account, as far as the fact goes, whether you feel that He loves you or do not feel it; although, as I say, it materially affects your comfort. Of course, if you really believe that He loves you, you cannot help being glad about it; but if you make your belief dependent upon your feelings of gladness, you are reversing God’s order in the most hopeless kind of way. I like so much that story of Luther when the devil said to him: “Luther, do you feel that you are a child of God?” and Luther replied, “No, I do not feel it at all, but I know it. Get thee behind me, Satan.”

During all the years when I was struggling over my feelings, I never succeeded in making them what I thought they ought to be; and as a consequence the religious part of my life was a misery to me. But after I had learned that the facts of religion were far more important than my feelings about these facts, and had consequently given up looking at my feelings, and sought only to discover the facts, I became always happy in my religious life, and had, without any effort, the very feelings of love to God, and of rest and peace and joy in my soul that before I had so vainly tried to work up. No words can express how vital I consider this point to be, nor how much, since I have found it out for myself, I have longed to make everybody else see it.

…considering what ticklish things our emotions are, and how much they depend upon the state of our health, or the state of the weather, or the influence of other minds, no more fatal occupation in my opinion can be indulged in that this sort of self-examination and no more unreliable gauge can possibly be found as to one’s spiritual condition than that afforded by one’s own interior emotions.

During all the years however of which I speak, from the age of sixteen to twenty-six, I knew nothing of [the goodness of God]. God was to me a far off, unapproachable Being, whom, in spite of all my eager and painful searching. I failed utterly to find. I had not the slightest conception of what the expression “God is love” meant. My idea of Him was that He was a stern and selfish task-master, who might perhaps, if one could only secure the sort of feelings and of conduct that would please Him, be induced to pay some little attention the needs of His children, but who was for the most part so absorbed in thoughts of His own glory, and of the consideration and reverence due to Himself, that it was almost impossible, except by a superhuman degree of perfection, to win His regards. He seemed to me a supremely selfish Autocrat who held my fate in His hands, but who only cared for me in proportion to my power of adding to His honour and His glory. Of all His loving and beautiful unselfishness, which I was afterwards to discover, I had for all these years not the faintest glimpse.

Moreover, the only way I knew of by which one could know that this unapproachable Diety did condescend to turn even a slight ear to the cries of His children, was to have some sort of an interior feeling of it, and consequently, whenever I was religious at all, the whole energy of my spirit was spent, as I have said, in the effort to acquire in some occult way this necessary inward feeling. The sort of introspection I had imbibed from my Quaker teaching was calculated to lead to constant self-examination of the most difficult sort, because it was an examination, not so much into one’s actions, as into one’s emotions! And, considering what ticklish things our emotions are, and how much they depend upon the state of our health, or the state of the weather, or the influence of other minds, no more fatal occupation in my opinion can be indulged in than this sort of self-examination, and no more unreliable gauge could possibly be found as to one’s spiritual condition than that afforded by one’s own interior emotions. But the religion of my years between sixteen and twenty-six was nothing but a religion of trying to feel; and, as I was a very natural, healthy sort of being, my feelings were not likely to be very sentimental or pious; and the agonizing futile efforts that I have described to bring them up to the right religious pitch is something pitiful to consider.

My soul hungered after God, but I could not find Him. Even the comfort of prayer was denied me, for I had, as I have said, imbibed the idea that you could not pray acceptably unless you felt an inward sense of the Divine favour, and that any prayers offered without this sense were really a mockery, and even perhaps a sin. And, since this inward sense of God’s favour was the very thing I was seeking to secure, and yet might not pray for until I first possessed it, I seemed tossed out helpless and forlorn into dreary darkness.

What the Bible said about God’s love was altogether a secondary consideration to what I might feel about it; indeed, as far as I can recollect, I did not consider the Bible at all. “How do I feel?” not “What does God say?” was my daily cry. I was like a criminal in the presence of a judge, who, instead of being concerned as to how the judge felt about him, should spend all his efforts in trying to see how he felt about the judge.

A more ridiculous as well as pitiful attitude of soul one can hardly conceived of. And yet no one whom I approached on the subject seemed to know any better; and I floundered on in a despairing sort of way, afraid to give up my spiritual struggles lest I should be eternally damned, and yet realizing that they brought no help; and being continually tempted to upbraid God for being deaf to my cries.

I was like a man kneeling in a dark room and praying despairingly for light, ignorant of the fact that outside the sun was shining, and that I only needed to open the windows and light would pour in. In the very nature of things light, either in the physical world or the spiritual world, cannot be self-evolved I had gone to work in entirely the wrong way. I was trying to feel before I knew; and, instead of basing my feelings upon my knowledge, I was seeking to base my knowledge upon my feelings.

It was just as if a man wanting to travel to a certain place, should enter the first railway station he might come across, and, without making any enquiries, should take a seat in the first railway carriage at hand, and should then shut his eyes and try to feel whether he was in the right train or not. No man in his senses would do such an idiotic thing. And yet it was exactly this that I was doing in my religious life. It never entered my head to try and find out the facts of religion. I did not even know there were any facts to find out. My relations with God seemed to me altogether a matter of my own feelings towards Him, and not in the least of His feelings towards me; and every religious energy I possessed was consequently directed towards getting up these
necessary feelings.

Of course it was an impossible task, and, as time went on, and no right feelings would come for all my striving, I became more and more discouraged, and at last, when I was between twenty-three and twenty-four, I found myself being driven into absolute unbelief. I argued that, if there really was a God anywhere, some answer to all my long and earnest wrestling would surely have been vouchsafed to me; and that, since He made no sign, therefore He could not be.

Taken from Hannah Whithall Smith’s The Unselfishness of God, pp. 159-161. I don't agree with everything that Hannah says in her books, but there is much one can learn regardless. Her chapter on discovering victory is wonderful, as is her chapter on the Lovely Will of God.

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