Does Your Faith Ever Feel Like a Burden? Here’s What to Do

Published: Aug 15, 2019
Does Your Faith Ever Feel Like a Burden? Here’s What to Do

Can I confess something? Nearly every aspect of growing in faith has, at some point, felt like a dreary obligation. I have procrastinated about reading Scripture. I have grumbled about getting up for church. And I have dreaded prayer.

Ironically enough, I also felt anxious about falling behind with each of those disciplines. It’s a vicious cycle: the more I fret about growing in faith, the more I avoid the practices that might bring me closer to God—and the more I feel guilty and resentful.

For years, I assumed that this pattern meant I was a terrible Christian. Now, I recognize that Christ is alongside me no matter how I feel, gently encouraging me to lay down my sense of obligation and find his easy yoke instead.

But if you’re anything like me, you need some really specific ideas for how to do that without the same old cycle of guilt and dread.

Spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, or service are good. But fear and perfectionism can turn these gifts into obligations that crush our spirit. We know we should pray, or study Romans, or memorize Scripture. And yet (please tell me I’m not alone here) we often react with all the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old cleaning her room.

The solution to our dutiful, anxiety-laden faith is not increasing our effort, guilt, or shame. Instead, we have to dig down into the roots of our dread and ask Christ for help and transformation. Here’s how to begin relieving the burden of your faith:

Can I confess something? Nearly every aspect of growing in faith has, at some point, felt like a dreary obligation. I have procrastinated about reading Scripture. I have grumbled about getting up for church. And I have dreaded prayer.

Ironically enough, I also felt anxious about falling behind with each of those disciplines. It’s a vicious cycle: the more I fret about growing in faith, the more I avoid the practices that might bring me closer to God—and the more I feel guilty and resentful.

For years, I assumed that this pattern meant I was a terrible Christian. Now, I recognize that Christ is alongside me no matter how I feel, gently encouraging me to lay down my sense of obligation and find his easy yoke instead.

But if you’re anything like me, you need some really specific ideas for how to do that without the same old cycle of guilt and dread.

Spiritual disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, or service are good. But fear and perfectionism can turn these gifts into obligations that crush our spirit. We know we should pray, or study Romans, or memorize Scripture. And yet (please tell me I’m not alone here) we often react with all the enthusiasm of a ten-year-old cleaning her room.

The solution to our dutiful, anxiety-laden faith is not increasing our effort, guilt, or shame. Instead, we have to dig down into the roots of our dread and ask Christ for help and transformation. Here’s how to begin relieving the burden of your faith:

Dig Past Shame and Get to the Root of Why Faith Feels Dreadful

The crazy thing about spending ten years disliking pretty much every spiritual discipline is that you can never fully admit you’re struggling to yourself.

How is that possible? Shame.

Not that long ago, I cracked open one of my journals from college, and tentatively read through some of the entries from one of the most fraught, anxious times in my faith. As I read, I found apologies on almost every single page.

“I’m sorry I put off my quiet time today, Lord,” I wrote time and time again. “I’m sorry I don’t take your word seriously.” “Forgive me for not prioritizing time with you.”

I knew I hated my quiet times because almost every day, I put them off, did them with a knot in my stomach, and felt bored while completing them. I was desperate for Jesus to meet me in those intentional times of study and devotion, but more often than not, I felt like a terrible failure even before I started.

So I’d dutifully confessed my weakness, then started the whole vicious cycle again the next day. But the dread didn’t go away—the harder I worked to be faithful, the worse my procrastination and dislike became.

I was so ashamed of feeling anything negative about faith, I never asked God to help me understand why I felt that way, much less considered that I might have good reason to struggle.

I assumed that any negativity was terrible disloyalty to Jesus and absolutely unacceptable.

So I confessed my procrastination without ever investigating why I did it.

Not until after I graduated did I get therapy and begin understanding the roots of my dread.

Over years, with the help of a counselor I discovered that I’d experienced emotional abuse as a kid. I had coped with that abuse by trying hard to be perfect. Even as I experienced grave trauma, I never allowed myself to admit to my sadness, distress, or grief.

The more I performed, the more my life filled with anxiety, guilt, and dread.

I carried all those toxic patterns into my faith. Like a lot of abuse victims, I confused the people who hurt me with God. I saw Jesus as a rigid taskmaster who made no allowances for my frailty. I had no conception of a gentle Savior who carried me in his arms, much less a God who delighted in me, and asked me to delight myself in him.

As I healed from my past, I began seeing God with new eyes. Getting to the roots of my broken conception of God helped me stop being so hard on myself. In turn, that healing allowed me to see that it was possible to find joy in faith instead of a weight of obligation.

Ask God to Open Your Eyes to Joy

Even after I got therapy, I still found spiritual disciplines a heavy obligation, not a wonderful gift. After years of struggling, I began to feel angry at Jesus. If God wanted me to grow spiritually, then why did spiritual disciplines still make me feel so terrible?

An inkling of the answer arrived in the form of a Sunday sermon. “When choosing spiritual disciplines,” my pastor said, “start with the ones you enjoy.”

I stared at him, then down at my sermon outline. Choose what you enjoy? His idea was practical, life-giving, and yet completely foreign to me.

Suddenly, I saw my years of hard work for God in a new light. God had laid out a banquet of delicious options in front of me, and I had consistently chosen the dishes I hated. I had assumed enjoying time with God didn’t really count. I was working hard to appease someone I thought of as abusive—never realizing God didn’t require me to run myself ragged.

How in the world had I gotten so mixed up?

Slowly, I began to lay down what I thought I should be doing to please God and instead sought out disciplines that sounded delicious.

For example, just in my Bible reading habits, I have found joy has enriched my time in Scripture without requiring resentment-inducing discipline.

After reading Phyllis Tickle’s memoir, I yearned to experience liturgy for myself. Reading the Daily Devotions in the Book of Common Prayer aloud helped me approach daily quiet times with ease instead of anxiety. After years dreading the idea of memorizing Scripture, I began to learn the included Scripture passages effortlessly, and repeating them to myself when I longed for God’s peace.

During an especially stressful year, I started feeling hungry for CDs of Scripture set to music I’d purchased for my kids. Suddenly I was singing God’s word throughout the day, and memorizing verses, again without any conscious effort. I’ve always found worship music opened the door to my heart; the CDs did something similar for me and the Bible.

My church developed an app to help our whole congregation read the same Bible verses at the same time each day. Again, I felt drawn to participate for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. Experiencing the Bible with the body of Christ felt more doable than going it alone; it’s the first time I’ve been able to read Scripture daily without anxiety in almost two decades.

When I am moved by a particular passage or verse, I often make art out of it—reflecting on the words in a deeper way as I joyfully draw.

As I’ve depended less on hard work, and more on yearning, my connection to Jesus has flourished.

I’ve learned that when it came to spiritual disciplines, God makes me hungry for just the right discipline at the right time. It’s not about how hard they are, or how much work they require, but whether I need them. And my need depends on God’s direction, power, and guidance. In truth, paying attention to joy has helped me be more aware of the power of the Holy Spirit in my life than ever before.

With God’s help, many disciplines that used to feel like drudgery now feel like precious invitations. They save me each and every day.

Know that You Can’t Make or Break Your Faith

Behind my anxiety and dread of heavy faith obligations was an insidious lie: I thought it was up to me to be a Good Christian. If I didn’t work hard to grow, then who would?

The answer was Jesus, not me.

Yes, regular discipline and intention is important for us in our journey with Jesus, but I vastly overestimate the amount of my effort God uses to change my life. I imagine myself like those Flintstone cars, with my legs providing all the energy to get me from point A to point B. But in truth, God is the engine of our faith, asking for our participation but providing all of the power necessary for change.

Only when I let go of my addiction to working hard did I realize that everything I had once dreaded was actually a doorway into the Kingdom.

Asking why I struggled brought healing. Bewilderment about the Bible helped me understand God more clearly. Paying attention to joy helped me trust the Holy Spirit’s lead.

In the end, it wasn’t my big, important efforts that brought me God’s grace. It was God.


Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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