The following is the second post in a series of four posts on how one can respond when experiencing the absence of God. Read the first post, "How Should I Respond When I Don't Feel God?" here.
Many Christians experience changes in their sense of God’s presence with them. They call it the dark night of the soul, God going silent, the ministry of silence and God hiding himself. Our prayers seem to go nowhere. The sense of God we felt at earlier times has vanished. We feel no enthusiasm for religious actions that formerly gave us reassurance and joy. Reading the Bible is like attempting to eat sawdust. Israel also experienced the absence of God when no prophets were sent to them in the centuries before John the baptizer, and perhaps earlier during the centuries of enslavement in Egypt. The comfort of God’s nearness to groups and individuals by the sense of his presence and verbal communication makes his absence harder to bear. This is the second of five recommendations I offer to consider when we feel God has abandoned us or stopped engaging with us.
Remember that God Works in Us Constantly
God is always at work in us, even when we lose our sense of his presence (or even our mental capacities, such as in suffering Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia). We know that all kinds of troubles are God’s instruments to conform us to Jesus (Rom 8:28-29). The trouble of feeling abandoned by God is one tool in his workshop by which he renews us to resemble him more closely (Eph 2:10). God is one who does things backwards and opposite to the ways we think he should operate. He puts to death so he can make alive, he reverses positions of those who are the last with the first, he suffers his own wrath at evil, and he works good purposes through evil circumstances. Joseph was able to tell his brothers many years after their treachery toward him, “You meant to harm me, but God intended it for a good purpose” (Gen 50:20). How might God be at work for our progress in being like him through the trouble of feeling abandoned by God? One way is that we are made to identify with Jesus in his experience of abandonment at the cross. People also report several other goods by God’s work that came to them when God went silent on them.
First, when people experienced God’s departure, they focused more intensely on listening for God than they had before. When the volume is turned down, we must concentrate harder to hear what is being said or shown to us. Distractions of other noises and voices show up more intrusively when the voice we want to hear is dialed low. Instead of shouting at us so we will listen better, God often gets our attention by doing the opposite and going silent or very low in his volume. We gain the ability to be better listeners, and to ask for God to help us listen. We have ears to hear, but we often don’t use them to listen to God. His change to silence can motivate us to listen more intently to his word of Scripture and whatever we have earlier heard in our heart. Since God wants our attention, we may respond to his silence by giving him attention, being still in patience for him to speak or give us a sense of his nearness to us again. His silence gives us hunger and thirst for his presence.
Second, when Christians feel alone from God, they report later that God has worked in the silence to build out new capacities in them to engage with God. Just as hunger may drive us to try new foods, similarly the absence of God in familiar experiences of church involvement, singing Christian music and spiritual disciplines can drive us to hunt for God wherever we may be met by him (such as less religious activities of meditating on nature, enjoying literature or hobbies). As with Job who finally raged in honest distress before God finally met him (Job 30:16-23), people suffering God’s silence may resort to deeper levels of honesty with God. God has provoked them to leave off their piety of what is appropriate to say to God, and they give full vent to the truth.
Many Christians are religiously reluctant to tell God they are angry at him, or frustrated and disappointed with his inaction in their lives. The bitterness remains in them as a layer beneath the veneer of praise to God’s goodness (just as with Job’s initial responses to his devastations, Job 1:21). Silence from God sometimes provokes people to cast off the veneer of pretense so they honestly lay out their distress to God. They do so because they feel they no longer have anything to lose — it seems to them that God has already turned his back on them. Possibly it is the case that God waits to engage with us in honesty only after we have begun to be honest with him. Our pretense blocks us from authentic engagement person to person with God. If he has gone silent on us, then what more do we have to lose by venting our pain and resentment at him? Once we do dare to be honest, God can embrace us with the reassurance of his love, no longer blocked by our attempts to hold back because we know we are mad at him (but we refuse to admit it).
Along with honesty towards God, people may break out from other religious forms to desire more direct involvement from God. We were created for direct relationship with him, but we settle for far less in respectable religion and peaceful life with seemingly harmonious relationships. When we are distressed by a sense of God’s absence, prayer for our needs can become more insistent and focused on smaller items of personal concern. If God is already withdrawn from me, then it’s not my insistence or frequent prayer that will possibly drive him away. What do I have to lose by asking more than in the past?
Third, when God seems to abandon Christians, they experience God at work to strip them of illusions about who he is and how he operates. Since they have done nothing different in their diligence to know God, then his apparent departure is a sign that their diligence is not what makes them experience God. The illusion which must be stripped of every Christian is that my action is the basis of God’s involvement with me. God’s grace precedes human faith, absolutely. God only gives, so we can never be left with the illusion that his actions are a response to our actions. We do not deserve God’s presence or involvement with us. That we experience more of God as we do more church involvement or spiritual disciplines is still God’s gift. The illusion is that God engages with us by cause and effect (and we control the causes).
By withdrawing our sense of God when we are diligent, God attacks the illusion that my relationship with God is mostly in my hands. Like a parent loving one’s child, God has a relationship with us that precedes all our responses to him. Suffering his silence cuts off our illusion that our religion makes God show up for us. Instead of the illusion, we face the reality of God’s absoluteness in relationship with us — nothing we experience of him is under our control — since all that he does with us is his gift. Even our desire to experience God is a gift from God. This is the capacity of humility in total dependence upon God. When our attempts to maintain or regain an experience of God’s nearness fail deeply and persistently, we are able to abandon the pride of our religion (by which we attempt to make ourselves close to God), and the illusion that we can prioritize him for ourselves or make him the center of our lives. In the silence of God, we learn that we cannot do God’s works. This humility from knowing our abject inability extends to other pursuits in our lives so that we live by Jesus’s promise, “apart from me you can accomplish nothing” (John 15:5).
Additional posts in this series will be published over the course of the next month.