For as long as I can remember, I've had an unsatisfactory relationship with God. I've never really had a sense of true communion with God; all of my prayers and devotional readings have been driven by an undercurrent of guilt and fear that I've committed some grave wrong doing for which God will eternally hate me. I am under the firm belief that everything about me is completely unacceptable to God. I am also plagued by an incurable loneliness. Fellowship with others often leaves me unsatisfied; I try to forge a deeper connection and often fail. At the same time, I'm afraid that when others get close enough to me, they'll find some Dark and Terrible Flaw that renders me unlovable.
For my whole life, I've tried to be a dedicated Christian. I've always attended church; I've been on countless youth retreats and mission trips; I have strong Christian friends whom I admire and from whom I seek counsel; I used to have a strong prayer and devotional life, but it never felt like enough. The Bible has been empty for me more often than not, and my prayer life has offered little comfort or insight. My prayers are often tortured pleas of not understanding why I am so far away from God. I've often found myself wondering if I was ever really a Christian at all, because of my constant emptiness.
I've always wanted to be satisfied by God, but that satisfaction has never come; that resting in the assurance of His goodness and mercy and righteousness has always eluded me. I feel like I've done all the motions correctly, but have reaped none of the rewards. If I've had the heart to seek Him, why have I not been able to find Him? What more do I have to do, how much harder do I have to pray, how much more desire do I have to have?
God has moved in my life in many ways, and I don't discount any of His blessings. I would just like to know why I feel so unfulfilled and what I can do to change. I've come to the realization that God Himself is not enough to satisfy me, and I don't understand why.
My dear, you are not longing for something more than God; as you have always known, as you know now, and as you knew even when you wrote, God is precisely what you are longing for. He is the perfect and all-complete Good; He is fulfillment Himself, in person. For something to be better than God would be like something being warmer than heat, brighter than light, or more audible than sound. Every partial and inadequate good that we experience is a foretaste of Him; He is the Good in its Fullness.
Your unfulfilled desire for Him is so painful that you wonder whether some Dark and Terrible Flaw has made you unlovable to Him. Nothing could be more contrary to the truth. In His eyes, that longing for Him, that aching hunger so relentless that it can be satisfied by nothing short of Himself, is one of the most loveable things about you. He loves each of us, but I am speaking of the way He loves you personally. He has a special love for all those who experience that particular sort of suffering. Why else would He have said such things as "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven," "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted," "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied"?
If your longing for Him is so great, then why is it so unfulfilled? For several reasons, two lesser and one greater. You have a good deal of insight into the first of the lesser reasons already, and I've pared your letter down to the bare bone for posting on the web. As you explain in the original, longer version, your relationship with your Dad, good man that he is, leaves something to be desired. While you were growing up, his emotional disorder made his behavior, moods, and methods of discipline so unpredictable that, as you write, "I had no frame of reference for what he considered to be right or wrong, therefore I believed that I must always be wrong."
The only thing missing from these premises is the conclusion. You were not always wrong. Your persistent fear that you cannot please your Heavenly Father is an irrational residue of your lifelong inability to know what would please your earthly father. That feeling of fear is lying to you. Therefore place your confidence in God, not in your feelings about Him. St. Paul says that in everything God works for good with those who love him, and He does not leave His good work unfinished.
The second of the two lesser reasons for your unfulfillment is that you are relying too much on yourself. For two long you have tried to pile up good deeds to please God -- your "countless" mission trips and all the rest. Don't misunderstand me; they were very good things, and He does care how we live. As John explains, "this is love, that we follow His commandments; this is the commandment, as you have heard from the beginning, that you follow love." But remember that what makes our offerings of love acceptable to Him, imperfect as they are, is His grace acting in and through us. As the ancient sacrifices at the altar were sprinkled with the blood of animals, so our self-sacrifices are sprinkled with the blood of Christ. This fact too should reassure you.
I called these the lesser reasons for your unfulfillment. The greater reason, I think, is this: You are expecting the perfect rest and satisfaction of God in this life. A few paragraphs ago I wrote that every partial and inadequate good that we experience is a foretaste of Him. Let me expand that remark. Certain false teachers say that if only we follow Christ, we will see Him with perfect clarity right now and be perfectly happy. I hope they are merely foolish, rather than liars. They are certainly mistaken. Why else would Paul have written, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face"? He goes on to explain, "Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." The Father of Lights is preparing us for fulfillment in Him. That is the meaning of the virtue of Christian hope: It means the hope of seeing Him – which is the hope of heaven.
Do we yearn and cry out in the ache of that hope? Of course we do. Why should we be surprised? Let me quote St. Paul again: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."
So go on aching for God, child. Go on yearning for Him. It is His Spirit that moves you to yearn and to ache, drawing you on to Himself. I advise only one change in what you are doing. But it is a big one. Here it is.
You write, "I used to have a strong prayer and devotional life, but it never felt like enough." Who told you that prayer had to feel a certain way to please God? God didn't tell you that. Or did you think that God Himself is a feeling? He didn't tell you that either; if He were a feeling, that would make Him just a part of you. At best, our feelings are responses to God. All too often they are responses to something else. He is That to Whom we hope to respond in feelings, thoughts, and faith acting in love: Reality, the Holy One, the Awesome Truth. But One day our feelings and all the rest of us will all come into order, when at last He is all in all.
We breathe because we need to breathe, eat because we need to eat, drink because we need to drink -- not, if we are wise, because these things give us feelings. Why should prayer be any different? But "Be constant in prayer," Paul tells the Romans; "Pray at all times," he tells the Ephesians, "constantly," he tells the Thessalonians. "Have no anxiety about anything," he says to the Philippians. James writes, "Is any one among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise." Jude writes, “wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life."
That's the ticket: Wait for His mercy. The virtue of hope is particularly difficult for many people today, and you are not alone. Hope has become a heroic virtue. Really it was always beyond our unaided capacity; in this age of doubt it is even more so. But that is the point. We rejoice even in exile, because are not without aid. It wasn’t for nothing that St. Paul said God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. And He makes you a promise: If you yield even the suffering of unfulfilled longing to God, He will use that suffering to hasten His work in you. "Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love Him."
Thank you for writing. In recent years I have found it necessary to write much more than I used to, and much more than I had expected to, about the pain of the longing for God. Your letter voices the longings of many more than you think.