The following is the third 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?.” Read the second post, Experiencing the Absence of God Series: Remember that God Works in Us Constantly.”

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. I offer five recommendations to consider when we feel God has abandoned us or stopped engaging with us. Below are my third and fourth recommendations.

Find Reassurance in God’s Silence

When God goes dark on us, we may be reassured that we are in good company of most Christians since everyone experiences this strange work of God. It’s normal, and normally occurs for abnormally good people such as Job. Like persecution and the opposition of others that all Christians must experience as part of sharing in Jesus, so also is the experience of God’s temporary silence and a sense of his departure from us. Knowing this normalcy can help us refrain from attempting to bring back that loving feeling by our diligence in spiritual disciplines or church involvement. If God’s intention is that we feel his absence, then we will be striving against his purpose, which is futile activity (Job 42:2). Instead of being frustrated in futility, the assurance that God’s mode of operation is to withdraw our sense of his presence sometimes can help us to be still and wait in the dark with a bit less distress. We may be reassured to know that God’s temporary withdrawal is a normal way of God’s work with people, and we may be encouraged that his silence is unavoidable as a progression in sanctification.

Additionally, we may be reassured to know that feeling alone from God is often what Christians normally feel when they grieve a heavy loss. The grief can be occasion for feeling empty of purpose in life and adrift from God’s presence intermittently for many months and years, depending on the importance of the other person to us (whom we have lost). We can be sure that God is near, even when we don’t feel it because of our heavy grief. Other Christians who have experienced the temporary absence or silence of God in grief or without grief can be assurance to us that we are not alone from others or from God (2 Cor 1:3-4). Our assurance can also be in knowing that God is at work in productive, fruitful ways for us.

Stick with God Despite his Absence

Christians suffering God’s silence can stick with him in the dark and quiet by continuing to tell him our life as he told us to do so, casting our cares on him because he cares for us (1 Pet 5:7). Like eating and drinking when we have no appetite because of grief, we need the word of God that is always available in Scripture. So often God is in the position of calling to us when we do not listen or respond to him. We get to experience some of that from the other side by calling to God in the silence while we wait for him to respond to us. This is an opportunity for patience and being still, which is hard to do. Our assurance is that God is present even if silent to us. He is present by his word and present in the others around us. We experience our total inability to control God and our corresponding dependence upon him. Portions of the Bible can take on new nearness for us because they tell the experience of abandonment by God and suffering mysteriously: Psalm 22, Psalm 88, 2 Corinthians 12, Romans 8. We suffer for reasons we do not know, just as it was for Joseph in Egypt, or Job, and we find help to stick with God as they did by calling to God in their distress.

God has good reasons that we only may experience by going through the dark tunnel of feeling his departure. Our feelings, just as our thoughts and desires, are valuable secondaries to the deeper sense of God’s reality, our faith. We must know and experience God in a direct encounter that is not mediated by our perceptions. Why? Because feelings and perceptions can be manipulated by our circumstances and neurochemistry. Our confidence in God is best when based on God directly, and not on experience of God as reflected in feelings or cognitive awareness. A parallel to this intuition of knowing God in a way that is distinct from feelings and thoughts is in the way that we must respond to others with self-giving love regardless of our feelings about them. God can provide feelings, desires, or thoughts of sufficient strength as needed, and these are helpful; they are not ultimate or deepest to us in the way that God is, having joined himself to our essential being.

Faith as a sense for God includes thoughts and feelings, but God shows us the depth of faith when we wait in the darkness of his silence. For this reason, among others, we need to have times of waiting and being still while God works mysteriously to clear away clutter in our inner grasp of him. Martin Luther called this the alien (strange) work of God that is seemingly unfitting to God’s goodness. This form of God’s work is alien because it is devastation and affliction. The alien work is to prepare people for God’s proper work of filling and building them in the aspects of salvation that we prefer. When we feel plowed like a field of dry ground and God seems not to answer us at all, we may look to his past works in our lives and his word for hope that the blessing of his presence will come again, like rain to our dryness. We may be tempted to give up because we don’t feel God, but the witness of his past activity can be a way he bears us through the dryness until he sends the rain again. Believing God’s faithfulness as told in Scripture is common for people in times of well-being; doing the same when we feel afflicted by God’s absence is a miracle of faith produced by God in his trembling children. He does not ask us to like the ways he works on us with devastations. He only asks that we trust him. Never more do we have occasion to trust him than when our circumstances are dark because he seems to be away from us.

The final post of the series will be posted later this month.