The film, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is parable about gaining faith. It helps us answer a question people sometimes surreptitiously ask: “What if I don’t feel God anymore?” What if I feel like a mundane Christian destined for mediocrity? What if what excited me doesn’t anymore? What if I am trying to feel God and it is not working?
Ewan McGregor’s development parable
In the film, Ewan McGregor plays a surly bureaucrat from the fish and game department who is unsatisfied with his life and his wife, and emotionally cut off from relationships with his colleagues. When his life is invaded by a charismatic, visionary sheik and the sheik’s wealth-managing, sexy assistant, things begin to transform. For one thing, Ewan’s love of salmon fishing ends up being a metaphor for his own change.
The movie is a somewhat odd story about getting salmon to thrive and reproduce in the Yemeni desert. At one crucial point, they have created a lake and a fish ladder and they have stocked the lake with farm-bred salmon (because the wild fish were too precious for enthusiasts to part with). The farm-bred fish are like Ewan McGregor: staid and stuck in a holding tank. Ewan has sat in his cubicle for a long time not really doing anything; he has sat in his depressing marriage not having children and not really making love. The question about these farm-bred salmon is: will they swim upstream, as salmon instinctively must do to reproduce?
As with all good parables, you are already asking the question: “Will I?” What about my development?
They tensely watch from the dam and are sure their whole, huge experiment is a bust. But right when they are ready to give up, one salmon leaps out of the water and soon all of them are turning around and getting up the ladder and up the stream. Excitement ensues.
But then something horrible happens. Just like Ewan experienced in the middle of his new project when his wife decided to leave him, some person who thinks the sheik is a liberal threat to Yemeni culture blows up the dam and most of the fish are left high and dry. Just a little creek is left of the water project. They are sure all is lost. Ewan does not know what to do. But as he despondently looks over the project, one lone, surviving fish leaps in the air. They were not all killed! A lot died, but something new hung on. Their previous idea for the water project was still in pieces, but a new and better result sprang up from ruins of their work.
Ewan felt like a dried up scientist destined for the mundane. He tried something new and it didn’t work just right and he did not know what to do. Something unexpected took place as a result of him taking some initiative. He endured the loss of what was and entered into what is next.
If you don’t feel God, that is probably what is happening to you.
First of all, no one can really answer the questions, “What if I don’t feel God anymore?” because you are precious you. One size does not fit all when it comes to faith.
Second of all, I have some ideas about what might be going on. Don’t give up!
1) Your childhood faith might be wearing out. It usually needs to move from head to heart.
I use the running the bases chart to talk about how we know God. It implies that we are always developing. That is a good thing, even though it includes feeling the uncertainty of moving further and the loss of standing safely on a base. The “game” is ongoing.
A lot of Christians only get to first base when it comes to understanding God. They have kind of a teenager faith. Many people come to faith when they are teenagers and they never get much farther than their original understanding. If you don’t experience the presence of God, maybe God moved on and you stopped following!
Old feelings pass away, but deeper feelings are in store. Spiritual “feelings” that are deeper than the reactions we learned in childhood are being developed in our much larger and deeper new eternal family.
2) You are going through a change of season and you need some new disciplines.
Just think about what is the center of having a “first base” faith in Jesus: knowing the Bible. It is quite a feat to achieve a basic understanding of what Jesus is talking about, much more to feel secure about the way you are going to do the word. It takes a lot of concentration to just get started. It might be tempting to stay on the first base of faith, or second, or wherever you are, even though that season of development is over.
In the case of reading the Bible, spiritual development can’t stay at the level of merely understanding concepts. For instance, the Bible leads us to the basic disciplines of meditation and prayer. From reading the Bible we gain a collection of basic approaches to laying a personal, spiritual foundation that must accompany our reading. Meditating on the Bible saturates us with the truth and love that is revealed. We’re not just reading the words, we are responding to God and forming our relationship.
If that relationship does not keep changing and growing, something is stuck. In a new season we are called to run the bases at a deeper level. Our original idea of what they meant, as good as it might have been, turns out to have something deeper behind it.
3) You are experiencing psychological development
In our relationships with God we are always working on basic trust. We develop in the Spirit a lot like children develop in their families. Rather than milk we need solid food. Eventually, we need to develop agency. We have to endure losses and become adult. What doesn’t kill us helps us grow, it is said, and that is mostly true.
If you are wondering why you don’t feel God, it could be depression or anxiety talking. These symptoms are “friends” that alert us to deeper things happening in our souls. They may not feel like friends, but they are signposts of change. The uncomfortable feelings we often prefer to avoid are actually important to our spiritual development. The destruction of dams we thought should never be blown up often results in something better we never could have predicted.
Close relationships and young marriages often go through a lot of anger and hurt as the partners push one another to develop. When children are added to a family they push people farther. Losing one’s job or losing a loved one calls us to become deeper, to trust God. We need to listen to our anger, listen to the sadness and other feelings behind it and find out what it developing. Let’s not merely fight, flee or freeze in a self-defeating way, our typical way, the old way. Jesus is a new way.
Thinking over a parable, reading this blog post, relating to what is said, trying to stay open to God (even if you think your relationship is in a holding tank that feels less than fresh), are all ways to start moving in a new direction. You have spiritual instincts that are always ready to kick in. Let them leap.
9 thoughts on “What if I don’t feel God anymore?: Ewan McGregor on spiritual development”
Rod, your writings always speak to me. Thanks.
As someone who has been finding myself a bit listless in my faith life, I find this very encouraging. Thanks, Rod! 🙂
Words worth passing on. Thanks Rod.
Really well said, Rod. I enjoyed the movie but you added some nice depth to the meanings in it. Thanks.
Thanks so much! miss you.
“I do not think that a lover of God strains after any special sensible consciousness of finding God, as if without some special reply..she was forsaken..unable to go forward. The special charisma of the saint is that she waits for nothing, for she is in the way, being in Christ- not a mere track, but a living way into the Holiest…she knows that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” That is enough certainly to travel by.” Father Congrave
Thanks for this Rod. I’m stuck with this verse: “”Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” Sometimes it’s not about feeling God’s presence, but feeling his absence– does that make sense? I remember asking for a sign at a truly desperate moment of indecision and nothing happening. It seems almost worse to feel that God is there, but choosing not to respond when you need him most.
That verse from Isaiah immediately follows the end of the previous word from the Lord that says, “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.” There are many levels of guidance, aren’t there? Jesus tells hard-of-hearing people who look for a sign that they already have plenty of evidence. Ahaz also has enough to act on in the verse you quote, but he won’t prove the Lord by listening to Isaiah. I think your last line is right on.
But feeling God’s absence is also a sign. I find it an unpleasant one that I often ignore as I steam along purely under my own steam.
thanks for wrestling through these questions and carving out some tips. Good post. helpful