Thursday, 30 September 2010
When God Feels Distant
Tonight I want to speak about an issue which isn't often acknowledged in church, but is something that affects most Christians at some point in their lives, the experience of the absence or distance of God in their lives.
I want to explore why this happens, what the experience of the absence of God can feel like, and how we can respond to it.
MY OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
In 2009 I went through a period of several months where I suffered from depression. Although all the symptoms were there, I only recognised that I had been suffering from depression as I began to improve and emerged out of this long dark period.
During the time that I was depressed I felt as though God was distant from me, so much so that it almost felt like being abandoned. Although I carried on doing what was expected of me, getting up each day was a real struggle, and I often felt like running away. I felt like a failure, and started to question my relationship with God. Prayer during this time was difficult, as was reading the Bible.
I think my depression was comparatively mild by the standards of what some people experience, but I can understand why some people in this situation would find it quite easy to stop coming along to church – but for me this obviously wasn't an option! But going to church, singing worship songs that talk about how wonderful God is, and how much we love him, can actually make that feeling of isolation and alienation from God even more difficult to bear. When people around you seem to experience the closeness and intimacy of God, it can leave you wondering why God feels so distant from you.
In The Shack William P Young calls this 'The Great Sadness' – the ache of life not being as it should in some area or other. But for me it felt like being in a wilderness, a spiritual desert.
WHY DO WE HAVE TIMES WHEN GOD FEELS DISTANT?
If you have experienced something similar to this, it is important to know that you are not alone; most Christians will have an experience of God's distance at some point in their lives. What strikes me as I read the Bible is that many of the great heroes of faith also went through periods when God felt distant. For example in 1 Kings 18 Elijah witnesses the power of God at work when he defeats the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. After such an incredible experience of God at work, you would think Elijah would be full of faith and confidence, but in fact he is just the opposite. He becomes afraid for his life and flees into the desert and hides in a cave. It is whilst he is hiding that God appears to Elijah, and in the ensuing conversation Elijah pours out his heart to God, and complains that he is the only person in Israel who has remained faithful to God – which was not true. The point is that Elijah feels as though God had let him down and abandoned him.
In Psalm 22 the Psalmist cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." (Ps 22:1-2) These words will probably be familiar, because they were the same words that Jesus cried out when on the cross (Matthew 27:46)
So why do we go through these spiritually barren times in our lives?
There isn't a simple answer to this question. In my case it was depression, which triggered the feeling of being cut off from God's love. What didn't help me was that I started to neglect prayer and reading my Bible, and that actually compounded the sense of distance from God. During this time I focused more on my worries, concerns and dissatisfactions, than I did on God, and so it wasn't God abandoning me, but me drifting away from God. What helped me out of the depression was in part learning to try and focus on God, making an effort to pray and read my Bible even if I didn't always feel like it.
Sometimes sin causes a blockage in our relationship with God. In Isaiah, the prophet records these words from God. "Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right!" (Is 1:15-16)
In the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15), it was the son that left his father, and not the other way round. We need to recognise that it is our actions or attitudes that can take us away from God.
Neglecting our relationship with God
Another reason for that sense of God's distance is when we neglect prayer and worship, and when we cut ourselves off from God's family the church.
If I want a good and close relationship with my wife and children I need to work at it. I need to make time for them, speak to them, play with them, and I do this even if there are times when I don't always feel like it, because I recognise how important it is. If I decided not to talk to them anymore, or interact with them, even though we still lived under the same roof, we would soon become strangers and drift apart. The same is true with our relationship with God.
I was recently talking to someone who used to regularly attend church, but for various reasons had stopped going to church. I asked them if they were still praying regularly and reading their Bible, to which the response was no, they weren't. By not coming to church anymore, and worshipping with other Christians, they were drifting further and further from God, and not surprisingly with that came a feeling that God was far from them.
When there is no explanation
But there are times when there isn't any obvious explanation why God feels distant, and that is why it feels as though it is God who has abandoned us, rather than the other way round.
HOW TO RESPOND DURING TIMES OF SPIRITUAL DRYNESS
When we experience these times of spiritual barrenness, how should we respond?
The writer of Hebrews said "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another." (Hebrews 10:25).
When we feel as though God has abandoned us, and when we find it really difficult to pray or read our Bibles, there is a temptation to abandon worship altogether, and to neglect church. But if we do this, we will just end up drifting even further from God.
When you are ill and have no appetite, it is still important to try and eat something, because if you don't, you end up getting weaker rather than stronger. In the same way it is important to maintain the discipline of going to church and worshipping God, praying and reading our Bibles, even if we don't feel like it.
If you find prayer difficult then use set prayers, or say the Lord's Prayer, but also use the Psalms to aid prayer. Many of the psalms are songs of lament, and can help give voice to our own feelings of frustration and abandonment. For example in Psalm 10:1 David cries out "Why do You stand afar off, O LORD? Why do You hide in times of trouble?" God wants us to be honest with him, and so when we pray don't put on a front with God, tell him exactly what is on your heart.
I think we often misunderstand what worship is really about. You don't have to be full of joy to worship; in fact worship is not reliant on feelings at all. Worship is an affirmation of who God is, and that doesn't change whatever our circumstances. Worship was never intended to be for us, it is not meant to make us feel better, or to fit into our own personal tastes. Worship is about recognising and honouring who God is.
In one single day Job lost everything: his family, his business, his health, and everything he owned! And what is Job's response? "Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped. And he said: " Naked I came from my mother's womb, And naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; Blessed be the name of the LORD." (Job 1:20-21)
My own personal experience has taught me that coming to God in prayer and worship, even when this is difficult, helps me to discover that I haven't been abandoned, but that God is there with me. This is why the Apostle James said "Come near to God and he will come near to you." (James 4:8).
TRUST IN GOD
To have faith in God, means learning to love, trust and obey God even when we can't sense his presence. In times when God feels distant, it helps to focus on who God is, and his unchanging nature. Raymond Edman author of many devotional books said, "Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light." This is why it is so important to trust in God's loving faithfulness, and one way of doing this is to look back on the times when we have been aware of God's presence in our lives, and what God has already done for us.
When God feels distant, we can start to question our faith, but it is important to remember that our faith in not based on feelings, but on what God in Christ has done for us. This is important because God wants us to learn to trust him, rather than trusting our emotions. And although our emotions change, just as the weather changes and people change, God does not change, he remains rock solid, totally true and dependable forever.
What is striking about the psalms of lament is that they inevitably focus on that hope that is found in God, and upon God's faithfulness. For example in Psalm 22 just after the psalmist has cried out "why have you forsaken me?", he goes on to say "Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the praise of Israel. In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you delivered them. They cried to you and were saved; in you they trusted and were not disappointed." (Ps 22:3-5) The Psalmist looks back to what God has done in the past, and this gives him confidence for the future. And in Psalm 55, in which the Psalmist says "My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death assail me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me." (Ps 55:4-5) the psalm ends with the words "But as for me, I trust in you."
DRYNESS CAN LEAD TO GROWTH
Earlier I described the sense of God's distance, as being like a spiritual desert. My view of a desert used to be that it was a place devoid of life and hope, but this changed when I went to Israel ten years ago. The group that I was travelling with was asked by our guide to go and spend time sitting alone in the desert. As I sat in a small cave overlooking the dry valley, I slowly became aware that a place that I thought was devoid of life, was actually full of life.
I have also discovered that times of spiritual dryness and barrenness can be times of growth and life. A tree growing in an arid landscape needs to put down deep roots in order to reach water, in the same way periods of spiritual dryness can encourage us to develop deeper spiritual roots. But my experience is that we often only come to realise how we have grown after the time of spiritual dryness has passed.
It is often through our periods of suffering that we grow in our knowledge of the one who is able to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). We must remember, while 'weeping may remain for a night' we have the promise that 'rejoicing comes in the morning' (Psalm 30:5). So we need to trust ourselves to God in our pain, worshipping when we don't feel like it, in whatever way we feel able – in songs, reading psalms or in the silence of our own broken hearts – believing that ultimately, because of who he is, all will be well.