Dear Lauren,

I don’t know how to move past the guilt I feel for what I’ve done wrong, for the areas I continue to stumble in, and for being in a “lower” place than I was last year, despite having really tried to do my best. I don’t know how to get past this feeling. And I know I’m supposed to be using this time of year to feel closer to God, but I don’t know how to feel or believe that God loves me despite my not being where I’m supposed to be. I was wondering if you had any suggestions.

Lauren Roth

Lauren Roth's Answer

Well, you certainly are hard on yourself! I’m not really sure God is as hard on you as you are on yourself. And I think that’s your key to real redemption.

Because you need redemption from your own harshness before you can feel God’s love for you. And believe me, He does love you. If you have any doubts, just look around: do you see colors? Yes? That’s God showing He loves you. Do you smell any nice smells? Yes? That’s God showing He loves you. Have you eaten any good-tasting foods in the last day/week/month/year/life? Yes? That’s God showing He loves you. Do you have any friends or family or people in your life that you like? Ditto! Are you currently breathing?? Ditto! Do you have any constant debilitating pain right now? No? That’s God showing He loves you.

The goodness God gives to us is all around us, constantly, and He gives it to us so we can feel His love.

I was once talking with a very great and wonderful rabbi from Memphis whose wife had been hit by a car and was in a coma. He said to me: “People are constantly asking me, ‘Aren’t you angry at God? Your wife has been in a coma for months.’ And I answer them: ‘I’m breathing in and out. I’m alive! I am so grateful to God for that!’” The gifts God constantly gives us are innumerable. When you start to recognize all of them (or even some of them) every single moment, there is little room for doubt that He loves you. Even when we have physical or emotional pain, there is still so much good He’s giving us—and that shows us His love for us.

To start feeling God’s ever-present, bountiful love, I suggest you start keeping a gratitude journal. Buy a notebook which gives you pleasure to look at. Pick a size and a color that makes you happy when you see it. Then, once an hour, write down something you’re grateful for. You can also just write down lots of things you’re grateful for once a day, but I like the idea of training yourself into constant awareness of all the good you are receiving, so I would suggest once an hour. If you want to make it easier for yourself, set an alarm on your phone for every hour, and write your list right onto your phone.

That should help you start to feel God’s love for you.

God Is Always Helping Us

Now, let me tell you the nature of God’s love. It is not solely punitive. God doesn’t punish people because He’s mean-spirited. He only “punishes” people to help us remember to do the right thing. We don’t even know if what He’s dispensed to us is “punishment.” When we want to go to school A, and God says, “No,” that’s not necessarily a punishment. Maybe school A wasn’t going to be good for us. When we want friend B, and God says, “No,” that’s not necessarily a punishment. Maybe not having friend B will teach us things we never would have learned otherwise. Maybe getting into that traffic jam or missing that exit on the highway saved us from the accident we would have had otherwise. Don’t be judgmental of God, because He’s always—always—doing what He’s doing in order to help us.

It’s the opposite of, say, the American prison system. I’m fully in favor of criminals’ going to jail to learn how to be better (and in order to keep dangerous ones away from us good guys!). But right now I’m reading a woman’s account of her year in a woman’s prison, and the prison system she describes is solely punitive, and doesn’t give the women in it direction or tools for being a better citizen once they emerge from behind bars. Even if God does “punish” us for our misdeeds, it’s with the intention of our taking the hit and learning from it to be better.

The Best Parent

Which brings me to your concern: “How can God love me if I’m not better than I was last year?” First of all, you might not realize that you actually are better than last year. Maybe your behavior in a certain area is “lower” than it was, but maybe you’re more aware of your misdeeds? Or maybe you approach your “failures” and “stumblings” with more maturity this year?

Even if it’s true that you are “worse” than you were last year, the most important idea to remember is this: God is The Best Parent In The World. Did you ever total your car? Did you ever come home past curfew? How did your parents react? How do you think Ideal Parents would have reacted?

God is The Ideal Parent. When His kids crash their cars, He is perfectly understanding and kind. He wants them to learn their lesson, but only because He loves them, not because He’s angry and has lost His temper. When His kids come home late, He reacts like my parents did. (Listen to how smart they were!) Instead of punishing me, they said, “Lauren, we were so worried! You’re 15 minutes past curfew, and we spent the entire 15 minutes worried about where you were and if you were safe. Please come on time next time so we won’t worry.” They showed me that the rules were for my safety and for their peace of mind. No senseless punishments necessary!

Nothing God does to us is senselessly punitive. Rather, He loves us unconditionally, no matter what we do, and He puts us into situations which will help make us better.

In my opinion, you have to give yourself the break that God already does. He loves you and wants what’s best for you. The next time you go to do whatever wrong thing you do, instead of thinking, “Oh no. God’s going to punish me now. Ugh. I feel so guilty…” which probably will not stop you from committing the wrong, perhaps try thinking this: “God loves me so much, and He is so good to me. I want to live up to my potential. I am a beloved child of The Loving, Gracious King of The World. I can do this!”

And I think you’ll have a much better chance at feeling “higher” next year at this time than you do now.