The Bible does not often report unanswered prayer; when it does, we should pay close attention. One such instance occurs in an unlikely place: the fallout of the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. In this story (2 Samuel 12), David is no hero, but a villain, and when he was rebuked by Nathan, the prophet tricked him into condemning his own actions. Only then did he repent, and even so the Lord condemned the child to be born, for Bathsheba had become pregnant with David’s son, to death. David then lay in sackcloth for seven days, fasting and praying for the child to be spared, and yet at the end of the week the baby died. To the bewilderment of his servants, David then got up, cleaned himself off, stopped fasting, and worshiped the Lord. Even though this awful situation was the result of David’s own sin, the divergence between David’s actions and his servants’ expectations, a disjuncture occasioned by unanswered prayer, spotlights the difference between faith and feeling in Christianity.
Why were David’s actions incomprehensible to his servants? They knew what grief looked like. Fasting often accompanies grief, in ancient Israelite culture as in many others. So when the newborn infant took ill, they saw David’s sackcloth and fasting as a form of grief, and they tried to comfort the king by encouraging him to take food (12:17). Food is often a great comfort, after all. But he refused to do so. This, they thought, was extreme grief, and they became worried when the child in fact died. If sickness had occasioned such strong feelings of grief, what extreme actions might be occasioned by the baby’s death? The servants quietly debated among themselves how to approach this topic delicately (12:18). Sure, David was doing religious actions like fasting and praying, and they understood these to be expressions of his emotional state.
And isn’t this how much of our society views religion? Whether in the antagonistic polemic of atheists who call religion “a crutch for the weak” or in the “feel-good” rhymes of Hallmark cards, religion is about how you feel. Religion is widely supposed to help people deal with difficult situations and feel better about themselves, much like therapy but usually cheaper. I’ve often heard non-religious people opine that they should like to be religious if they could, but they “just don’t feel it.” Many young Americans, even if they profess to believe in Christianity, do not go to church because they “don’t feel like it.” Western society has excluded religion from the realm of fact and relegated it to the domain of feelings, and it claims to understand religious actions only to the degree that they make you feel good. David’s servants looked at his religion from a similar perspective.
Yet to the surprise of his servants, David did not respond with more extreme grief. Instead, after guessing that the child had died, he dusted himself off and took a bath, went to the temple to worship the Lord, and then had his first good meal in seven days. What strange kind of grief was this? But David’s fasting, lying around in sackcloth, and prayer were not symptoms of his emotional disturbance over the severe illness and anticipated death of his newborn son. As he explained to the confused servants, these were actions in expectation, rooted in his unshaken belief that God is both mighty and merciful, and that God might see the depth of David’s remorse and decide to spare the child’s life (12:22). It was because he knew God’s character that he acted in the way he did. When God did not grant his request, there was nothing more to be done, other than to worship the Lord. David’s faith took God seriously and acted accordingly.
Contrary to the common image of religion as a special kind of feeling, among both religion’s opponents and many advocates, faith is not an emotion or something you feel. Instead, faith is a recognition of the reality of God’s existence and character, the reality of creation, the reality of Christ’s redemption and resurrection, as revealed by God, and the decision to act in accordance with these realities. Faith does not consist of feelings any more than physics consists of the joy at a successful experiment. Emotions are not the content of Christianity any more than wishful thinking can change an undesired past. There is a spiritual reality, and faith both recognizes that reality and prompts us to act accordingly. This is why faith-driven living is incomprehensible to those without Christian faith: they do not recognize the reality that alone makes it understandable. But since faith recognizes spiritual reality, anything else is wishful thinking.