One of the tricky things about faith is that, for most of us, it is tied up in all the other aspects of our life. Things like family, friends, life, death, struggles, joys, fears all play a role in how we look at and live our faith. This can (and should!) be a wonderful thing; but unfortunately, it causes many people’s experience of the Catholic faith to be based on fear rather than love. It is based on a fear of Hell, fear of punishment, fear of rejection, rather than being founded on a love of God and neighbor.
Recently on The Patrick Madrid Show, Patrick read an e-mail from a listener named Alicia whose past experiences with Catholicism lead her to have a faith based on fear rather than love. Alicia wrote:
I was raised Catholic, however I struggle deeply with it now because I was raised in such a way where [the Catholic faith] was used to scare me and my siblings rather to enforce that God was loving and forgiving. I remember, starting as early as 10 years old, I would be extremely fearful of going to sleep because if by some chance I died in my sleep, I would go straight to Hell because I had sins on me – like not cleaning my room, or talking back to my parents, etc.
I was brought to a Christian church by my friend a few years ago, and I fell in love with it because they really made you feel the presence of Jesus, and spoke in a way that I could understand that Jesus is LOVING and that we can be His FRIEND. This blew my mind, so I stopped going to the Catholic church because this was more attractive to me than the ritual of the Catholic Church. I just couldn’t feel the same way in the Catholic church.
Fast forward to now, and I don’t go to the Catholic church yet again because I can’t help but remember how much fear was induced into me as a child about religion. … I want to get to a point where I go to church not out of fear but rather out of love, because that’s what I want to do. … How can I become a strong believer in my faith? Where can I begin? I WANT to come back to the Catholic Church but I can’t get a grip on my own mental state, so I can’t even figure out what is real and what is not.
Patrick had a few pieces of advice for Alicia:
Remind Yourself: We Love Because He First Loved Us
Even if you don’t feel it emotionally, but intellectually, in your head, remind yourself that Jesus really does love you. He doesn’t hate you, He doesn’t dislike you, He’s not waiting to zap you. God is not up on His throne with His telescope watching your every move so that He can zap you when you get out of line. That’s not how God is. That’s how many of us maybe think about God – this divine enforcer who really doesn’t care about you unless you get out of line. And that’s all false.
God created you out of love. The fact that you even exist is a testament, a monument to His love. You wouldn’t be here if He didn’t say, ‘Yes! I want Alicia to exist. For her own sake.’ He doesn’t need you, He doesn’t need me, He doesn’t need this planet, He doesn’t need anything outside of Himself. He created us out of love. He shares Himself with His creation. So perhaps even just by looking in the mirror, that can be the first step for you in just coming face-to-face (literally when you look in the mirror) with proof that God loves you. And remind yourself that you wouldn’t be there to look in the mirror if God didn’t love you.
Consider If You Need Mental Or Emotional Healing
You’re probably experiencing a combination of not only religious doubt but also some mental issues. I’m not going to go so far as to say you have a mental issue – but don’t rule that out. And good counseling can help you uncover whether or not there may be an issue there that would require some therapy or some healing at an emotional or mental level. This is nothing to be ashamed about, if it so happens that this is a cross you are carrying, there are ways of alleviating that.
Look At The Church As Noah’s Ark
The next thing I want to get to is what you’re describing as you didn’t feel in the Catholic Church that you experienced love, or that you were going to Mass because you wanted to but because you were feeling guilted into it. That’s not uncommon. But realize that it was Jesus who established the Catholic Church, and keep in mind the Catholic Church is imperfect, filled with a lot of imperfect people like me.
The example of Noah’s ark might be helpful. If you were faced with the option of going through the flood with Noah and his family on the ark, versus going through the flood outside the ark and having to take your chances, I’m pretty sure you would rather be on the ark. But think about how stinky it was on the ark, with all those animals packed into close quarters. And imagine trying to get a good night’s sleep on the ark, with all that noise and the commotion of the passengers and animals, who all wanted to eat one another. It was a messy place, it was untidy, it was smelly. But yet, it was a safe place to be because Noah’s ark was able to ride out the storm.
In a way the Catholic Church is very much like that. Now it’s not entirely like that. There’s great beauty in the Catholic Church. But we human members have a habit of being like the passengers on Noah’s ark – we can be a little bit rowdy and make things unpleasant.
Start With The Sacraments
So to the extent that I can offer you encouragement, it would be that when you go to Mass on Sunday don’t go looking for entertainment, don’t go looking for a warm tingly feeling. If you get that, so much the better, but that’s not why you go. You go there to be with Jesus. To worship Him in spirit and in truth. To worship the Triune God and to receive His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity under the appearance of bread and wine in Holy Communion.
The Sacraments will give you that sustenance that you really need. The lifeblood of Jesus Himself inside you as you receive the Holy Eucharist is the most personal relationship you could possibly have with Jesus, and everything else starts from that.
God Loves You And There’s Nothing You Can Do About It
Keep reminding yourself of this fact, especially in those moments when you’re not feeling it, keep saying it: ‘God loves me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’
It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, what you’ve done. It’s your mind or the devil whispering to you, ‘God will never forgive that.’ That’s not a message from God. He loves you. He wants to draw you closer to Him. He wants you to be happy. He wants to give you all these good gifts. And maybe like that lost sheep that was out wandering, He is looking for you right now. And He will gather you back in His arms and bring you back to the pasture where you’ll be safe again.
Listen to Patrick’s full response below:
The Patrick Madrid Show airs weekdays from 6:00 – 9:00 a.m. Pacific on Immaculate Heart Radio.