If Jesus Saved Me, Why Don't I Feel Different?

Published: Jun 11, 2020
If Jesus Saved Me, Why Don't I Feel Different?

For years, I knew that I should feel so much different about my faith if I were really walking with Jesus as I should. I should feel grounded, peaceful, devoid of doubt, anxiety, and spiritual laziness. Everything in faith would be different if I could get my act together. I just needed the right method. If you feel this way, you are not alone.

For years, I knew that I should feel so much different about my faith if I were really walking with Jesus as I should. I should feel grounded, peaceful, devoid of doubt, anxiety, and spiritual laziness. Everything in faith would be different if I could get my act together. I would finally be able to trust Jesus and live a life worthy of the calling I had received. 

I just needed the right method.

I’d try a new devotional, small group or leadership position, energized with real hope. But after a while, I’d realize I still felt stuck, ashamed, and afraid.

Surely something else will work, I’d think. Then the cycle would begin again. 

This went on for a bruising, lonely, frightening decade. I loved Jesus—but that did not seem to be nearly enough to change me.

If you feel this way, you are not alone.

Am I Bad at Being a Christian?

There is good news for all of us in this bewildering cycle of hope and despair. The questions we have about Christ’s power in our lives are normal and understandable. You’re not a terrible Christian for feeling unsure what difference faith makes for you.

Indeed, God meets us right at the precipice of these doubts with abundant grace and practical help for our everyday lives. We don’t have to try harder or believe better to connect to Jesus and be changed. Instead, we can begin waking up from the terrible nightmare that it’s up to us to bridge the distance to God in the first place.

My crushing despair shifted as I began to shift my expectations about what a life in Christ should feel like—and heal those beliefs that kept me stuck and ashamed.

Salvation is both a split-second new reality and an achingly long journey.

The Now and the Not Yet

As a new Christian, I loved the stories of instantaneous transformation in the Bible. The first disciples dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Paul was changed on the Damascus Road. The Holy Spirit transformed tongue-tied Galileans into bold preachers on Pentecost.

These stories are true. And I have celebrated moments like this in my own faith—split-second decisions where everything changed.

But if we only focus on lightning bolt moments, we miss the other stories. 

  • Jesus probably worked as a carpenter for ten-plus years before beginning his public ministry.
  • The disciples ate, drank, and talked with Christ firsthand for three years and were still taken aback by his death—not to mention his resurrection.
  • Paul’s legendary ministry did not start until 14 years after his conversion.

Many theologians call the long wait for Kingdom come the tension between the “now and not-yet.” The moment we call upon the name of Jesus for the first time is powerful and transformative. Yet it is also a tiny step forward in what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction.” 

Here on earth, wholesale change takes time—even after life-changing transformation. 

This might not sound like good news. But I’d beg to differ. 

Realism about the now-and-not-yet nature of God’s work heals us from shame. Just because we don’t feel transformed into Christ’s image right now does not mean momentous changes aren’t afoot.

What we know intellectually takes time to work its way into our bodies, emotions, and ways of life.

Do I Need New Expectations for Maturity?

As a teenager, I so longed to be a “mature” Christian. Adults told me I was mature for my age all the time (Yes, I was that kind of kid). Surely I could get extra-mature in faith if I wrote notes in my Bible’s margins?

I did consider what “mature” meant in the natural world—a particular aging process that is impossible to hurry. A green banana doesn’t get sweet because it studies harder. A peach does not ripen in winter. And the great truths of faith—the deep habits of joy, and obedience, and surrender—take decades for the sincerest, most on-fire Christians to learn.

There are no shortcuts. 

In the church, we’re urged to grow in faith, but in the natural world, “growth” is not a conscious process. Even at school or work, a good work ethic helps—but no rookie accountant is going to become an industry veteran in a month.

Honestly, many of us get anxious about growing as quickly as possible, losing sight of the fact that when Jesus describes the life of faith, it’s about dependence on God’s power, not our own effort. “Remain in me,” Christ commands in his meditation on the vine and the branches. The branch remains still the whole time—grafted into the vine by someone else’s hands, called to stay put and depend on the Father for everything.

We ought to bring all our enthusiasm and discipline to faith—but anxious striving can blind us to God’s work, timing, and power, and it indicates a misunderstanding of our relationship with God.

Our idea of what a “Good Christian” should look like can lock us in shame and fear.

Is My “God” No More Than a Program?

Quite honestly, I think a lot of us are stuck in very mechanistic views of faith. For instance, I assumed God’s transformation was like a software update. I assumed that if my ‘Jesus’ program ran correctly, all my thinking, behavior and emotions would change in one fell swoop. Isn’t that what Jesus meant by “be perfect as my Father is perfect?”

When I felt doubts, resentment, bitterness, or loneliness at church, I assumed my ‘update had failed. If I struggled to read my Bible, it meant I was spiritually lazy; if I hesitated to pray, I did not have my priorities straight. And if I felt anxious about any of those problems, I didn’t trust God.

But is a perfectly predictable thought life and pleasingly cheerful emotional life really the “perfection” God imagines for us?

I was relieved last year to read Pastor Bob Johnson’s interpretation of the verse calling us to “be perfect.” It’s not unrealistic, robotic perfection, but a calling to become what we are created to be. As Johnson puts it, it is like “an acorn [becoming] an oak tree.”

And who are we made to be? Human

God gave us questioning minds, unruly emotions, and an abundance of imperfections. Our human weaknesses are not deviations from God’s perfect software update for our insides, but an expected part of what it means to be us. In the not-yet perfect world we live in, being human is normal. We can have grace for our own imperfections and limits. They are part of God’s plan for our lives.

But it’s not just faulty expectations that can lead us to despair. Our past experiences can do the same. 

What False Beliefs Have I Put Energy Into?

In my case, a shadow hung over my faith in the form of a spiritual rule of thumb I applied to every part of my life without noticing.

It was this: If it brings you pleasure, it probably doesn’t count.

I loved praying in groups—but spent all my energy trying to pray solo. I enjoyed doodling Scripture—but shamed myself for not memorizing it. I enjoyed discussing the Bible in small group, but hated that I struggled to study alone.

Is it any wonder that my time with God felt like a dull obligation instead of a joy? 

It was not until I’d gotten years of therapy that I realized I’d survived trauma by working really hard through awful circumstances. I confused that childhood coping mechanism with God’s call on my life.

Jesus wasn’t asking me to choose the most unpleasant ways to worship and love him. But my early experiences made that really hard to believe.

All of us bring baggage into our relationship with God, and healing from that is part of the saving work God does in our lives. But the process is confusing. The toxic messages we learn from abusive parents, unkind teachers, or other people can habituate us to treating God like a punitive taskmaster, or ourselves like irredeemable villains. Many of us are so used to harshness, we don’t even notice our own.

If faith feels like a joyless slog, if you’re anxious or angry all the time, you might have some healing work to do. That doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you a beloved child that Jesus longs to embrace.

Don’t Let Shame Speak

If you’re anything like me, you wonder what is wrong with you. Other people seem to find joy and life in Jesus—why can’t you? 

You are not alone, failing, or in need of fixing. Instead, God, even now, is gathering you up to embrace you wholeheartedly.

For me, beginning to feel Christ’s power in my life was more about rest, joy, and grace than it was an anxious mandate to ‘do better.’ As I began to release shame and give myself grace, I found God’s presence everywhere. What had once been an anxious performance became a slow dance of relief and joy. It turns out we serve a God who invites us into joy and wholeness in every moment of our lives.

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