Why do I feel so far away from God sometimes and so close at other times?
It’s been a couple weeks since I answered one of these questions, but here is another good one. A few weeks back we talked about dealing with questions and doubts in the Sunday service. We gave people in the service the opportunity to submit some questions, many of which I tried to answer in the message that day. And I have written a few blogs to answer a few others.
The question above is probably something that most people on the journey of faith have asked at one time or another. Most followers of Jesus, if they are to be honest, have had times when God felt close, where the reading of Scriptures and prayer felt like a real conversation, and worship deeply stirred the heart. Then, at other times, God feels distant, prayer is dry, Bible reading boring, and life seems completely disconnected from the divine. In the dry times, it becomes difficult to put doubt away.
The first answer, though, is that this is part of the Christian experience. The Bible has multiple examples of people whose lives experienced this ebb and flow of spiritual connection. Moses had times of doubt and feelings of discontent. David, the great king of Israel who wrote a large amount of the Psalms had times when his faith soared, and other times when he felt God had abandoned him (see Psalm 22:1-3). The story of Elijah in 1 Kings 18-19 is a classic example. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah boldly condemns the idolatry and Baal worship taking place in Israel. He challenges the priests of the false god Baal to a contest, that ends with God miraculously sending fire from heaven down on an altar in answer to Ellijah’s prayer, consuming the sacrifice in the presence all the people. The result is that the nation repents of idolatry and honors God. What a mountaintop! What a great experience for Elijah. Yet, the queen, a wicked lady named Jezebel who has made Baal her religion, is not happy with the results and vows to get Elijah. So he runs, and 1 Kings 19 is the story of his depression and feeling of abandonment.
This reality is not true only of Bible characters. This is also the testimony of great followers of Jesus throughout history. Recently, an article in Time Magazine about Mother Theresa told the story of her battle with doubt and the feeling of being abandoned by God in the midst of her ministry in Calcutta. One of the great preachers of all time, Charles Spurgeon, spent much of his life battling depression and the feeling that he was alone. Spurgeon pastored in London during the 1800’s, preaching to thousands, and seeing multitudes have their lives changed by the Gospel. Yet, his own life was wrought with pain, loneliness, and depression.
Yet, this doesn’t answer the question of why. So let me give some Biblical reasons people experience distance in their relationship with God.
1. Sin – Sometimes the silence of God is a result of unrepentant sin. Willful rebellion, personal idolatry, secret sins of the heart, and other acts of disobedience to God will create a separation between a person and God. (see Isaiah 59:1-2)
2. Broken human relationships – Jesus said that when a person fails to forgive others, the result is that he or she cannot know that they are forgiven by God (Matthew 6:14-15). We want to feel God’s closeness, but the closeness of God is only possible because of grace. We don’t deserve anything from Him, but when God gives Himself to us, it comes because He has forgiven. Yet, when we fail to love and forgive others, even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), this demonstrates a heart that has failed to understand the grace given. For many, this may mean that you need to offer forgiveness and love to a relationship that has hurt you. The pain may be all the way back to childhood. I know this is easy to write, but very difficult to do. But when we choose to love and forgive, it opens the door to worship. Jesus said that if we are in worship and remember that a brother or sister has something against you, “Leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come offer your gift (Matthew 5:23-24).”
3. To enhance our faith – Trusting God at times when his presence is very real is not too difficult. But in the times He seems silent, and prayers go unanswered, let’s just say, these are the times in life that our soul will begin to yearn and long for God. Psalm 42 is a wonderful prayer written by a person in this life state. The writer begins by saying, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my sould for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” During dry times, it can drive our soul to the depths and leave us with a deep longing for God. Often, out of our desperation and need, God instills in us a deeper faith and dependance for Him.
4. To help us in our search for God – Playing hide and seek with toddlers is a fun game. They hide in plain sight. It usually does not take much effort to find them. When my oldest son Andy was about three, we played hide and seek all the time. He would hide in a room, behind a chair and start giggling. I would seek after him, knowing full well where he was. I could even do it while taking care of other household chores. But one day he decided to hide, and didn’t tell me. And he found a really good place. After a few minutes of silence, I started to wonder where he was. I called out to him, with no answer. I then started searching, calling out his name, but no response. I checked his room, the living room, every room in the house. I went outside. I started to get frantic! I got Heidi involved in the search, and we started to have that sinking feeling in my soul. At this point, I was searching for him with all my heart. Finally, he crawled from out behind a piece of furniture in the corner of a room, “Here I am,” he said. I went over, grabbed the boy and hugged him passionately, as I reminded him that if he wanted to play hide and seek, he needed to tell me first. God doesn’t have to tell us when he is going to hide himself. But maybe this is what he had in mind when he said, “You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:13) It may be that the silence of God is His activity designed to drive us into a mode of deep searching and seeking after Him.
5. To expose our idols of the heart – John Calvin said that our hearts are idol factories. We will chase after anything in an effort to please our hearts. As long as God sustains us, those idols can co-exist in our hearts. But when he removes his revealed presence from our lives, the idols will be exposed.
The key thing for a follower of Jesus in these times is to remember the promises of God. He has promised never to leave or forsake us. Even if we do not feel his presence, He is with us, and the Holy Spirit is in our lives. We need to determine that we are going to trust His word, and not our feelings.