“He is not a means, and our joy is not the end”

November 8, 2010 | 42 comments

6th-Century image of Christ from St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai

A longtime topic of interest for me has been the concept of “spiritual dry spells, “ when you can’t seem to feel God’s presence. I haven’t had a whole lot of emotional religious experiences, and when I was first in the conversion process, I had none. I felt like I was doing something wrong since so many other Christians seemed to have all these great, powerful experiences.

I’ve read a lot on the topic, and probably the best analysis I’ve heard comes from Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book Jesus-Shock. He writes:

What is precious in believing-without-seeing is not the not-seeing but the believing, the strengthening of the faith muscle when the crutches of seeing and feeling are removed. Seeing Him was not enough, for thousands saw Him yet turned away, and even shouted, “Crucify him!” Feeling Him in the heart is not enough either, for that is subjective, that is ours, that is fallible. Furthermore, we are self-centered experience addicts. We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.

I’ve definitely been guilty of this. After I did have a few really powerful experiences where I felt overwhelmed with emotion, filled with happiness and joy, I would often go back to church seeking that — the experience. I can think of more than one occasion when I’d sit in the pew, staring at the crucifix with longing; but, unfortunately, not a longing for Jesus. I’d look right past the image of him on the cross, my desires fixated on those big emotions I felt last Sunday. It was as if I were a junkie, and Jesus was my dealer. I was happy to see him not for who he was, but for the “high” I wanted him to give me.

Kreeft points out that this is why the Eucharist is such a perfect way to encounter God: we get all of him, his full self, and our feelings about it are a completely optional part of the package. Kreeft writes:

We long for joy, and He tells us that He is our joy, and that He will be in us Himself, not that he gives us joy. (Jn 15:11) He is not a means, and our joy is not the end. That is idolatry. He is the end.

Kreeft then recounts a famous saying about Fact, Faith and Feeling walking along a wall. Fact goes first, then Faith, then Feeling. As long as Faith keeps his eyes on Fact, they all make steady progress. But Faith keeps turning around to see what’s going on with Feeling, and he gets unsteady. Faith and Feeling both end up tumbling off the wall, while Fact walks on alone.

Looking back, I now think that it was to my advantage that I felt nothing during the conversion process. Back when I had no emotional experiences, I had no temptation to make them idols. Since I didn’t have Feeling walking behind me, I just put one foot in front of the other, steadily following Fact.

It’s not as simple now that I do occasionally have those wonderful emotional experiences. I’m very tempted to make idols of them. But now, when I catch myself sitting in a pew, looking right past the Lord in search of a fleeting emotional high, I think of what Kreeft said. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the facts, to behold Jesus for who he is, to receive him in the Eucharist, and let that be enough. Because, as Kreeft so wisely reminds us, “He is not a means, and our joy in not the end.”




  1. Sheba

    I truly believe the Holy Spirit led me to your blog the first time I prayed asking questions about the catholic faith when I was getting back to the church beginning of this year. Since then, every time I have a question, your blog seems to have the answer. I was wondering in today’s early morning Mass why I did not have that “connection”, but felt “a hope” rise in me after the Eucharist…. Thank you. May the Lord always be with you.

  2. Cléo

    I feel the same way as Sheba about your blog (and all the links and people on it), Jennifer. As a Belgian convert (from a protestant-evangelistic upbringing = water and dry bread for me, always hungry) ‘in process’, I’ve been reading your (old) entries for a month now. They explain so much to me, on a deeper level, yet in such an accessible way. You surely are a blessing to many, and I’ll recommend your blog to seekers and ‘new’ catholics whenever I get the chance. This post about ‘He is not a means’ is kind of a reassurance for me this week, since I’m only attending mass regularly for less than half a year and worry sometimes about not ‘feeling’ ‘anything’ at the moment.
    Thank you! God bless you and your family. Greetings from Leuven, Belgium.

    • Elizabeth

      I love how you put that, “water and dry bread.” I’m a cradle Catholic, but I’ve explored protestantism and that is a perfect explanation of it.

      Thanks, Jen, for this post! I’ve never thought about it this way, but I have definitely been selfish with Jesus’ potential affect on me.

  3. Nzie (theRosyGardener)

    Thanks, Jen – I’ve been finding this out, too. I’ve been very undisciplined in prayer and am finally correcting it. I miss the closeness to God I felt as a child, very deeply. It’s so painful that the thought even brings tears to my eyes. But while he does sometimes withdraw from us, I’ve realised that in a way, I withdrew from him.. but not being God, this was an error, rather than a teaching tool. I finally told my mom this at the end of the summer, and as always she had something wise to say. She’s a disciple of Salesian spirituality, and while I don’t think it was a direct quote, she said God does withdraw, so that we have to seek him, and that de Sales taught something to the effect of him doing so that we might ‘seek the God of Comforts, not the comforts of God.’

    And for a similar experience in fiction, C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair hits on this theme and the discernment one as well. Thanks for a great post, Jen.

  4. Ciska @ This Journey Of My Life

    Thank you so much for this post. It was really good to read it this morning. You’re absolutely right. All too often, we long for a “religious experience” not because we long for God, but merely because we love the experience. And I too have to agree with Sheba and Cléo above (who happens to be a very close friend of mine) that your blog is a blessing on my own road to the Catholic Church.

    I’m trying to find a home for Kate. Please help me spread the word. You can read about her here: http://thisjourneyofmylife.wordpress.com/category/home-is-where-the-heart-is/kate/

  5. Andie

    Beautiful and real post. When we work with RCIA candidates we often warn about the feelings. I do believe that God gives us those incredible experiences but if we had them all the time, what would we need faith for? All of the miracles that Jesus did weren’t enough, were they? It’s a walk with him, sometimes in darkness. But he asks for faith, trust and perservence. Your words are beautiful and so true. I love Peter Kreeft. Thank you, we need to read posts such as yours, they bring us right to the heart of our faith.

  6. Michelle

    This post is incredible. I feel like I miss out on the “highs” my faith can bring me at times. I have finally learned (about 10 years ago) and it’s not about me and my feelings and to try to keep looking to Christ.

  7. Margo

    Great post Jennifer! I think you are addressing one of the most important issues concerning Catholics and I appreciate your candor and heartfelt honesty as you describe your personal feelings and insights. So many of us seemed to be driven by emotion, and when that gets in the way of what the true presence of God is all about, that’s the point where, unfortunately, many people become lost and maybe even start questioning their faith. Cradle Catholics have left the Church in droves over this very topic.

  8. Liesl

    I sometimes wonder if we are the same person because you always seem to post on topics I am thinking about right when I need them. This one especially – it’s something I’ve been going through for a bit now, during a time when I’ve really been praying for answers, and I just feel – nothing. I don’t really get that feeling anymore at Mass or adoration and when I pray, I don’t really feel a presence. So this post is amazingly helpful and I’ll have to pick up his book. Maybe God’s way of answering my prayers in a way is through you and your blog posts! He does work in fun ways sometimes.

  9. Erin P

    Jen- Thanks for this! I had to journal about it just because it’s one of the last pieces of me arguing (internally) why I’m reverting… Your posts are always so thought-provoking and a real blessing to the searching heart. So thanks for that!

  10. Leila

    Once again, you have captured my own thoughts and said it even better than I could. I read Jesus Shock and I was struck by those passages as well. Powerful!

  11. Stephanie

    A few years ago I read a book by John Piper that examined old letters and sermons of Jonathon Edwards (God’s Passion for His Glory). It’s not a Catholic book, but the one thing that I learned from it is the idea that ‘God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.’ Piper (and Edwards) argue that our chief aim on this planet is to glorify God, and they believe (through Scripture) that the only way for us to glorify God is to be completely satisfied in Him. I have to say this concept has changed me immensely. It has turned the focus off of me and onto Him.

  12. Catherine

    Very wise words. My dad has always cautioned me about the lure of emotionalism in faith, yet he can barely talk about the amazing love of God without tears in his eyes! But, his words were true – being Christians does not mean being “experience junkies”. I have chronic headaches and frequent migraines, but the near-constant pain has taught me that God is always with me, even when I don’t feel it. And my goal is to be closer to Him through prayer and Scripture reading and meditation, not by trying to “feel” closer. Excellent post. Thank you.

    P.S. I am a lifelong Protestant. My parents are Southern Baptist and my husband and I are part of the Evangelical Free Church in America. This issue, though, is of concern to all Christians.

  13. Craig

    Fact, faith, feeling, and faith keeping an eye on fact, not feel. A tripod. I look at why I believe in somewhat the same way, my three E’s.

    Emotion (will)

    I think all three are necessary – the facts behind the faith (evidence), and because where proof is possible faith is impossible the emotion (meaning the will, the choice to believe – evidence helps this but we still must choose to take that last step and believe) – and Experience, this is the ongoing relationship with Our Lord, it takes time, it’s like our own personal Scripture written on our hearts, and revelation comes in stages as it did with Abraham, the father of our faith. Three E’s – almost exactly like the three F’s.

    You stretched my spiritual mind – again – I heart that.

    God Bless

  14. Jennifer Fulwiler

    I wanted to say thanks for all the great comments, especially Sheba and the others who said that this blog may have helped them in their faith. I’m so touched and honored. Thank you!!!

  15. Marco


    Thanks so much for writing this post. I have been also undergoing a spiritual dry spell for the past three months. The dry spell is so deep at times that I even feel a loathing towards any spiritual activity. For example just last night as my wife and I were praying Night Prayer, I lamented how I felt that I was not praying at all, that all I was doing was reading a book. This spiritual dryness, makes it very difficult to connect or even have a desire to want to be with God. I am a recovering feelings junkie. Thanks once again for writing this post.

  16. ~Ana Paula~A Católica

    A BIG HELLO from BRASIL, Jen!!

    I loved your Post! I believe everyone have a personal and unique way to take and love Jesus Christ.

    I have the joy of feeling emotions and sometimes during a Catholic Mass I have to dry my tears. BUT this not means I am better or special than others. It is just MY WAY to be with Christ.

    And in the end, like you said in your Post, what matters is the FACT that Jesus is REALLY here, there and everywhere!! BE WELL, you and all your lovely Readers!

  17. Jen G

    This topic is so important! I’ve known people throughout my life who excuse not going to church because they “don’t get anything out of it” or find it “boring”. I’ve always been told that love is a decision, not a feeling. I consider attending and serving my church as an act of love and obedience that honors God. Everyone at times certainly does have profound feelings, but the key is to follow through even when we don’t have those feelings. We know that Mother Teresa had her own struggles with the dark night of the soul, but she carried on regardless. We need to focus less on the wish to be entertained and have a greater spirit of service to God.

  18. Nina

    I’ve never been one who has felt “consolations” and have had many not just dry spells, but dark nights. This is such an important topic—-just like discernment, one of the most crucial for today’s faithful, I think. Please continue exploring these two very central hinges in the spiritual life. This post ministered to my soul today. 🙂

  19. Barbara

    I was very fortunate to be given a few very profound experiences during my conversion process, but these came well after I had started to be willing to believe. The first one was during a time when I started exploring Christianity in a very general way, then when I finally said yes to the possibility that Jesus was God, then finally when I said yes to the Catholic faith. The combination of the two (will and then spiritual experience/ feeling) taught me a very valuable lesson: that having faith wasn’t a matter of being intellectually convinced, but rather having the willingness to believe whether one is convinced intellectually or not. This has helped me weather the moments of doubt and rebelliousness that came afterward. I came to the conclusion that even if the whole of Christianity wasn’t true, there was no way I could really know that, and I wanted the “living water” that Christ offered, so I let that desire lead me. In a way it was like coming to see the deeper truth in Pascal’s Wager, which tells us that faith is ultimately a choice.

  20. Bonnie

    Jen, This is a great reminder, especially in the midst of everything I’m in the midst of. Thanks for the post.

  21. priest's wife

    The Kreeft book looks like the book my husband wants to write- about how feelings are getting in the way of faith and reason

    “Furthermore, we are self-centered experience addicts.” SO TRUE

  22. Megan

    AWESOME post!!! I need to get this book! Leila wrote about it in one of her “Books in the Bubble” features, and it sounds absolutely amazing!!

  23. Erika

    This book just went straight onto my Amazon wishlist! Thanks, Jen!

    • MargoB

      Erika – don’t forget looking in your public library, or asking them to borrow it from whatever library owns it; might get it sooner!

  24. KarenElissa

    I was thinking somewhat along these lines recently at Mass. Life has been extremely stressful the past couple of months. I was at mass and it was one of those times when I was just barely surviving, didn’t feel much of anything, and was having trouble even paying attention. After I received communion, I was thinking about what a great gift the Eucharist (and the other sacraments in general) is. When praying or reading the Bible or whatever, we can get caught up in the feelings, and if we don’t have those feelings, we must be doing it “wrong.” But with the sacraments, we have those objective, physical reminders that even if we aren’t feeling different, somehow we are. Even though I was having a rotten time of it and didn’t feel anything, I knew objectively that I had just received the Body and Blood of Christ and that in and of itself was enough.

  25. Ruth Ann

    I am inspired by your post, Jennifer, and also by your readers’ perceptive comments. I have begun reading a book called Sounding Solitude by Sr. Mary Paul Cutri, O.C.D., who writes from the viewpoint of Carmelite spirituality. She addresses this topic of feeling the presence and absence of God early on. Feelings are not a true indicator of faith. In times of dryness we exercise faith. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” “Lord, I trust you.”

    For 17 years of my adult life (I’ve always been Catholic), I attended Mass without ever feeling anything. I actively participated, but I felt somewhat like Marco who commented above. Yet, I was faithful to Sunday Mass and even daily Mass when possible. I would say to myself and to the Lord, “I’m here, Lord, because I know you want me to be here.” The knowing was an inner conviction, but not a feeling.

  26. Ute

    This is one of the best explanations of dry spells I have found, and adding your experience to it really drives the point home! Thank you so much for sharing!

  27. Katherine

    What an inspiring read. Not too long ago, I mentioned to dh that earlier in our marriage it seemed God did some pretty amazing miracles for us, things that could only be explained by divine intervention, and more than once. It seems lately that hasn’t been happening as much. I admit I was “feeling” a bit discouraged by it, but what you have written here is so true and wise.

    Thank you.

  28. Ouiz

    Thank you for posting this! I have always felt like I was on the outside looking in — everyone else around me seemed to get these marvelous consolations and emotional highs, and I felt… nothing. I try to remind myself that emotions, while nice, aren’t necessary, but oftentimes it’s hard to grasp that. Thank you for the encouragement!

  29. Laura

    I’m one of those people who had been thinking of just this topic—I keep coming to your posts from my email updates, thinking that THIS time it won’t be pertinent to me, but that never happens!

    Like you, I started out pretty much devoid of emotion, until suddenly, about a month ago, I was knocked down for about two days with a wave of new feelings I’d never felt before. And ever since then, I’ve been trying to get that feeling back…never admitting, though, that what I really wanted was just that feeling, not to be guided by God.

    Anyway, you’re right. Even when you’re not feeling at your highest peaks, it’s a good time to remind yourself that your goal isn’t necessarily to reach emotional peaks all the time!

    “Were I to say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me, and light become night around me,’ to You the darkness would not be dark; night is light as day; to You dark and light are one.” Ps. 139

  30. Lisa V.

    Wow this is just so impactful to me. Sometime in the last couple of weeks I had heard something similar in that Jesus is not a means to an end, that He is the end, the reward. Oh what a reward! I’m so happy for this message through you today that indeed, it is not, and never will, be about me. Only Him.

  31. Melissa Spence

    Awesome blog post! Thanks for sharing those thoughts.

  32. Sylvia

    This really hits it for me. I left adoration last week without consolations and was disappointed. I even told myself these things happen to even the greatest Saints but still felt let down. I couldn’t shake it but this post and your discernment post really nailed it for me.

  33. M. Christi

    This is why I think LifeTeen Masses are a bad idea. You’ll find not only teenagers, but many adults who go to these Masses because they like the way it entertains and makes them feel. These are the people who’ll usually say: but Mass is sooo boring without the happy clappy songs and guitars. What happens when suffering comes into their lives? Will they abandon the faith because it no longer feels good? We’re there at Mass to worship.

  34. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    Yet again, I admire the stark honesty with which you treat such a often talked about but not often admitted aspect of the faith-journey. How true it is, though, that all of us can get caught up in the emotions and focus more on those than on the Truth. Being able to admit that’s sometimes been the case is huge. Our society promotes anything and everything that’s self-centered, feel good, immediate satisfaction, pleasure-filled…that realizing our relationship with God must go much deeper than warm fuzzy feelings is along the lines of offering up suffering when it comes to steadfast faith and discipleship.

  35. Elisabeth Allen

    Thank you so much for this post – it dropped into my inbox at a very timely moment and I’ve found the quotes from “Jesus-Shock” encouraging!

  36. Dawn Farias

    Jennifer!! This is fabulous. Such perfect points. Thank you! Fact is what keeps me anchored, for sure.

  37. Charley

    Wonderfully insightful! This is hands-down exactly what I needed today. I have been struggling with the very same thing lately and I couldn’t put my finger on the issue. You’ve helped me to realize that I too have been worshiping the feelings of joy and serenity I’ve received on occasion from my relationship with God. I never would have imagined that I was doing that. I too converted in 2006 and one of the reasons I searched for God, probably like many, was to find a solution to the discontentment within my soul. Therefore, I can see how it would be easy to fall in the trap of worshipping the good feelings you get once you start to feel better. Absolutely fascinating insight! Thank you.

  38. Michael Lozada

    For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known (1 Cor 13:12).

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