Stuck At The Wall (Part 1)

For as long as I can remember, I had assumed that the “normal” Christian life follows a pattern. The journey begins when you put your faith in Jesus Christ and entrust your life to God. Soon afterward, you enter a phase of discipleship where you study the Bible and learn essential Christian doctrines and practices. Then you enter a life of servantship, putting your gifts and talents to use in the service of the church. This servant phase – learning to deny yourself, to take up your cross of mission and follow Jesus daily – is the purpose of discipleship and the highest form of spiritual development.

Or is it? My own personal experience contradicts this pattern. After many years of living in that servant phase, I stopped growing and began to regress. Serving ceased to be a joy and became a burden. I had little desire to worship God and was not intrinsically interested in people. Outside the boundaries of formal ministry activity, I had almost no personal interaction with God. In my heart there was little love, only a deadness that I did not want to reveal. The answer to spiritual malaise, as far as I knew, was to repent, pray more and study the Bible more – to do exactly what I had been discipled to do, but more often and with greater intensity. That answer – which was based on the assumption that any spiritual problem that I had was purely my own fault – was unbearable. And revealing my personal weakness was not acceptable behavior for a “spiritual leader.” So I refused to be honest about what was going on inside of me. As long as I continued to do what was expected of me without making waves, everyone assumed that I was fine. No one in the church ever asked the kind of penetrating personal questions that would have revealed my true state. The only one who did so was my wife, and when she did so I became defensive and brushed her concerns aside. I assured her that I was okay. But I was not. I had hit a wall in my spiritual life, and she knew it.

My story is not unusual. In the book The Critical Journey, Stages in the Life of Faith, authors Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich report that many Christians throughout history have hit this wall. The experience seems especially common among pastors and church leaders. Realization that we are at The Wall is often accompanied by illness, family crisis, spiritual dryness, burnout, and loss of joy. If the Christian is honest, he admits that his faith doesn’t appear to “work” anymore. Pat answers that used to sound spiritual now seem inadequate. He may become so disillusioned with himself, his spouse, God, and the church that the very foundations of life appear to be crumbling. If he is not honest, he may continue to soldier on, serving in an almost mechanical way.

Fortunately, there is life on the other side of The Wall. But in order to get there, we need to start paying attention to our own inner condition and emotions. We need to understand what we are feeling and why. For many of us, this journey inward will be uncomfortable, because it will bring us to some painful realizations about who we are. If we examine our emotions – especially how we react under stress — we are likely to find that we are self-centered, fearful, easily upset, defensive, jealous of others, closed-minded, unwilling to listen or learn from all but a few select people or sources, driven by the need to save face and bolster our own self-image, and so on. We will discover that we are emotionally immature. And it is a plain fact that no one can become spiritually mature if he remains emotionally immature.

I suspect that some of you will object to what I have just said. You might respond, “How we feel is not important. We must not pay attention to or be driven by our feelings. We live by faith in the word of God, not by what we feel.” Until recently, I would have said the same thing. I would have said that the mark of spiritual maturity is to deny yourself and obey God regardless of how you feel. Indeed, this is a common theme in modern evangelism and discipleship. For example, one Christian website says this:

Do not depend upon feelings. Tied as they are to your ever-changing circumstances, feelings are unreliable in evaluating your relationship with God. The unchanging promises of God’s Word, not your feelings, are your authority. The Christian is to live by faith, trusting in the trustworthiness of God Himself and His Word. A train is a good illustration of the relationship between fact, faith and feeling:

Feelings are like the caboose – they are important but are designed to follow a life of faith and obedience… But you should never depend on feelings or seek after an emotional experience. The very act of looking for an emotional experience is a denial of the concept of faith, and whatever is not of faith is sin.

This de-emphasizing of emotion and experience in favor of objective fact and propositional truth is a hallmark of modernistic evangelical Christianity. (The term modernistic refers to patterns of western thought that were heavily influenced by the period of Enlightment and Scientific Revolution that began in the late 18th century.) And it is easy to find Bible verses that support this idea. For example, Jesus said in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

We all need to put aside our feelings from time to time. But to consistently ignore our emotions over the long term is neither sensible nor healthy nor biblically supportable. Human beings are persons, and persons have emotions. When we examine the whole Bible, we cannot deny that emotions play a major role in the spiritual life. Turn to any page in the book of Psalms, for example, and you will find a wide range of human emotions expressed directly and honestly.

Moreover, it is impossible to truly obey the two greatest commandments – to love God and to love other people – apart from feeling. Of course, love is not merely an emotion. Love involves commitment and self-sacrifice. But if love has no emotional component, is it truly love? Love without feeling is unnatural, forced, stunted and unhealthy. Jesus said in Mark 12:30, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart…” And the Apostle Peter wrote, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart” (1Pe 1:22).

Can you imagine Jesus obeying and serving his Father without feeling any love toward him? Can you imagine Jesus taking care of people without ever liking them, without affection or compassion? No, I cannot. Whatever Jesus did for his Father and for the people around him was never insincere or forced. All of his actions sprung naturally from a heart overflowing with love.

Early in our Christian lives, many of us have learned to put aside our feelings, thinking that if we simply believe and do as we should, then right emotions will follow automatically. But what if they don’t? What if, after many years of following Christ and living by faith, we remain unchanged on the inside? What if, instead of experiencing the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) we are filled with worry, anxiety, anger, jealousy, despair? Or what if we are just dead inside, not feeling much of anything? After many years of denying my emotions, I became dead inside and no longer knew what I felt. I denied myself and went on, trying to persist on that “soldier spirit.” But the ideal Christian is not merely a soldier. A soldier is trained to obey without question and kill without remorse. He is a robot, a machine, not a whole person.

Someone whose will, decisions, actions are consistently inconsistent with his feelings is disconnected and broken. One who has little or no emotional component to his spiritual life – who is driven primarily by obligation, duty, loyalty to doctrines, principles and organizations rather than by real affinity toward God and the human beings who bear his image – is not a mature Christian. He is a conflicted, unhealthy person who desperately needs to be healed.

That is who I was. That is who I still largely am. But over the last two years, God has been working in my life to heal me in ways that I did not expect. He has been slowly bringing me through The Wall.

(Read parts 2 and 3 of this three-part series.)


  1. Jennifer Espinola

    Wow, Joe, thank you so much for putting into words a lot of the struggles I face as a Christian. I have to admit i struggle with a skewed view of discipleship. For a long time, I thought the Christian life should follow a linear growth pattern where we are always growing and bearing fruit. I thought the “valleys” and bumps were digressions and marks of weaknesses and sins that were largely of my making. I even told one of my bible students that as we grow in Christ, the highs become less high and the lows less low- meaning, we aren’t governed by our emotions so easily. Boy, i didn’t know what i was saying! As Sharon said in a different thread, the disciplines we follow can shape our unruly, selfish lives into the giving, sacrificial lives required of disciples. But our inner lives are not so easily transformed by outward disciplines. When a person experiences physical pain, it is a natural response to cry out. The pain response is important becomes it lets us know when something is wrong so that we can attend to it. So why should spiritual pain be any different? Why shouldn’t we cry out when we are suffering in our spirit or feel a lack of joy or disillusionment? Perhaps we are uncomfortable with letting Christ go deep into the recesses of our being. But i am slowly realizing that unless I let him in, and let all the ugliness come to light- i cannot really be content let alone grow in the maturity of Christ. I love meditating on the Psalms for this very reason- it is an outlet for all the raw and “ugly” emotions that I have and when I pray, I realize God is more than able to handle my emotions. I agree that we shouldn’t disparage our emotions as weaknesses, but make the most of them to lead us to Christ so that we can truly love Him with all our being.

  2. Maria Peace

    Dear Joe,

    Thank you for expressing your inner thoughts and true feelings. In my case I carry my feelings on my sleeves and everyone knows what I am feeling. After being a missionary, learning a new language and culture, raising a family, working, building a new house, and soon pioneering a new chapter, I should have been burned out a long time ago. But in all my struggles, I have come to God for his help. I am basically a happy person not because I can fake it well but because I realized I’m really a sinner. Only by God’s grace and by his Son’s blood I am forgiven. When I am upset, my husband knows it. I tell him about it and then we pray together. It is good that I have someone who I can pray with and let out my feelings. I agree with you that just denying your feelings is not healthy at all. Truly Jesus let others know how he felt, for example his prayer in anguish at Gethsemane, when he cleared the temple with holy anger or when he felt satisfaction when he saw the Samaritan woman run back to her town to tell others about the Messiah. Jesus also touched the leper with much love and affection. When I see a sun set, I see the powerful, burning love of God for me. Joe, I say it to all, let your feelings be known, God always does. We should be transparent and honest. It is also good to have a prayer partner:)

  3. Brian Karcher
    Brian Karcher

    Excellent article! I have been learning that my emotion needs to be healed. Jesus’ healing is for my whole being. It may seem odd to some readers here, but I’ve actually learned this through preparing and delivering UBF conference messages in the Great Lakes region.

  4. Every time when I am reading st. Paul’s letters I am so moved by his honest sharing about his feelings, motives and so on. His letters to Galatians or Corinthians, who was at least at particular rejected him was so fulfilled with true love, true worries, true hope, true pain. He humbled himself, open his heart and came first to believers, who misunderstood and rejected him It is so moving. I want to be the Christian and shepherd like he.

  5. James Kim

    Hi Joe. Thanks for the article. I also experienced suppressing my emotions long time ago when I read 1 Corinthians 7:29, “–From now on those who have wives should live as if they had none” Now this sounds funny but I was serious at that time. This may be consistent with “soldier spirit” you talked about. I learned a lot about healthy emotional expression between husbands and wives when I read a book “five love languages” by Gary Chapman. Usually man tends to be more logical and cerebral, and woman tends to be more emotional and intuitive (both complimentary in this way). When we face serious life problems there are three possible ways to respond. First, shrug it off and ignore it. Second, struggle without God’s help. Third, cry out to God like the Psalmist. One of the healthy ways to express our emotions, I learned, is to sing hymns. Esther Rusthoi wrote in Hymn 279, “Oft-times the day seems long. Our trials hard to bear. We are tempted to complain. To murmur and despair. Sometimes the sky looks dark. With not a ray of light. We’re tossed and driven on. No human help in sight”. Then she experienced the joy and hope in heaven and shout aloud. “It will be worth it all when we see Jesus. Life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ. One glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase. So bravely run the race till we see Christ.” I am so thankful for many nameless heroes of faith who walked life of faith and won the victory.

    • Joe Schafer

      Thank you. I also used to think that loving my wife was in competition with loving God. At times, I even used to use 1Co 7:29 to justify my poor behavior when I was acting selfish and unloving toward her. I am truly sorry about that.

      I have even heard some Christians suggest, based on 1Co 7:29, that a wife can become an idol in a man’s heart, so we should be careful not to love our wives too much, and we should remain emotionally distant from them. But an idol is an imaginary figure that does not exist. An idol is a fabricated depiction of an ideal woman, as one might find in a romantic movie, or an image that one might see in pornographic material. The actual flesh-and-blood woman to whom I married cannot be an idol. She is a real person, created in the image of our living personal God. She is the most precious gift that God has given me in this life to help me to understand who he is is and what his love is all about. The more I truly know and love my real wife — rather than some false image of a woman who doesn’t exist — the more I can understand the affection that Jesus Christ has for his Bride.

    • Sorry for offtopic, but what did Paul mean in 1Cor 7:29? How we could interpretate it correct?

  6. Joe Schafer

    Hi David. When you ask, “How should we interpret 1Co 7:29?” the only answer I can give right now is “Very cautiously.” Paul was addressing some very difficult moral, cultural and spiritual problems that existed in the Corinthian church at that time. We don’t really know what the “present crisis” was. Although there is certainly something for us to learn from 1Co 7:29, we cannot build a comprehensive theology of marriage upon that one verse. Using the principle of “interpret Scripture with Scripture,” we have to understand it in light of other passages, such as Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives.” This is a difficult question, and I don’t think there are any quick, easy answers. This is something that I want to learn more about.

    • Thanks, Joe. I just wanted to raise this point as well, so we could avoid narrowness.

  7. christian misurac

    thanks for sharing your heart Joe. As we talked earlier today I have met the wall once already and I am sure I will meet it again in my Christian life. I have something to share regarding emotions. God has taught me to use them as a tool rather than a means of making decisions like I used to. They help me to see what is really going on inside of my heart. I never suppress them but I also don’t live by them (unless the Spirit leads me to do so). When I studied John 10:10 I realized that Jesus lived life to the full. When I thought about what this meant, I realized it included the full spectrum of emotions. He was most sensitive to emotion because of his pure heart. I haven’t thought this through too much, but I think numbness of heart is due to lack of purity in heart. I observed this while visiting Mongolia. Their hearts were so pure and their lives were so rich with love, laughter, struggle with God, fascination with his word and many other things I hadn’t fully engaged in for years. It was almost like observing children. I had never seen anything like it before. I believe Jesus felt the deepest sorrow of God’s heart for the lost and the highest joy in relationship with God and others and everything in between. This is what I want. I want to cry and laugh whole heartedly for the rest of my life. I never want to feel numb, even to sadness again.

    • Joe Schafer

      Christian, thanks for sharing this. What you say is profound Like you, I want to be fully alive. I have had an active (maybe hyperactive) intellectual life, but not much of an emotional one.

      At present, these are my life’s goals: I want to deeply experience the love of God, and I want others to deeply experience the love of God through me. This begins with my relationship with Sharon. I want her to experience the full measure of a husband’s love, so that she knows that God loves her. My job as a husband is simple: to help her to realize — not just in theory, but in her actual experience — that she is truly and deeply loved as she is, for who she is, and not merely for what she does. How tragic it would be if my wife went through her entire life never experiencing true love! So I have resolved to make sure that this never happens to my wife, nor to my children. I believe that if and when when we get this family thing right, then the love within our family will overflow to those around us, producing real friendship (not mere coworking relationships) within our church.

      For the rest of my life, this is what I must do: I must love others. Not just serve them, but actually love them; there’s a huge difference! My life will be a success if several people feel so loved by me that, when I die, they will cry their eyes out, and then praise God.

      And one thing I now know: loving others does not begin with campus mission, or even with my children, but with my wife. This is what God has intended.

  8. I really thought I had hit the wall back when I made a decision to get “married-by-faith”. I knew I was making a decision to commit my life to serving God through UBF and with what things that were going on in my life at that time, I really felt God was carrying me over “the Wall.” But now after 4 years of marriage, I find myself either back at the Wall or maybe I never climb it at all. I depended on my husband to carry me over it but obviously that’s not possible or shouldn’t even be expected from another human being.

  9. I find it very interesting how you detail the “hitting the wall” as an experience foreshadowed by loss of joy and spiritual dryness. For some reason, I always thought of those as the after affect, but I believe your interpretation is more accurate. I think the biggest thing we should be doing for our Christian family is helping people out of when they hit that wall, since God did command us to Love one another. Often times, people hit the wall and just go through the motions to still appear to be spiritually there, even though internally they are not. It is important that we begin to recognize when spiritual dryness starts to occur. Life becomes draining for the people that are living that way but they are too insecure or idealistic to realize that the problems they are having are internal instead of external. I think this article definitely pushes us to question our inner emotions and embracing our emotions.

  10. christian misurac

    thanks for your reply to my reply. I like your goals. Especially the one about loving your wife being at the center of loving other. I don’t know if you listen to Mark Driscoll of mars hill church in Seattle but I think you might like him. He did a sermon series on Song of Solomon, which is all about loving your wife/husband. He is a very passionate person and pastor (and he’s hilarious). Just a suggestion.

  11. christian misurac

    just to clarify, loving Jesus is at the center center and your husband/wife being at the center after that. Not that you all don’t already know that:)