The following is the first post in a series of four posts on how one can respond when experiencing the absence of God.
“How long, O Lord, will you continue to ignore me? How long will you pay no attention to me?” — Psalm 13:1 NET
“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? I groan in prayer, but help seems far away. My God, I cry out during the day, but you do not answer, and during the night my prayers do not let up.” — Psalm 22:1-2 NET
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.
Take Care Not to Blame Ourselves
Personal failure might be a cause of the change for us since we may have turned away from God. King Saul’s persistent refusal to do as Yahweh told him was cause for God to withdraw his Spirit from Saul. A similar thing happened to Samson, who gave up his secret about God’s empowering involvement with him as connected with keeping his hair uncut. Collectively, Israel experienced Yahweh’s departure after persistent refusal to trust him, having turned to false gods and the military support of allies instead. James warns that Christians must draw near to God if he is to draw near to them (James 4:8). The implication is that they experience distance from God because of their sin. Repentance is urged as the method for regaining God’s presence. This advice is like the counsel offered by Job’s friends: your sin has caused separation from God, so repent and he will return to you. Two observations are needed to clarify this counsel.
First, many Christians draw from these examples that the experience of God’s absence is always our fault for sin or some other failure to be diligent in our devotional life. People assume that relationship with God is something we must work on, so losing touch with God is soon fixed by resuming spiritual disciplines and church involvement. On the contrary, Job’s friends were rebuked by God for their misunderstanding of God’s work with Job, and many Christians have experienced God’s radio silence while they were highly devoted to him. God’s resumption of nearness and reassurance occurred on his own schedule, with no correlation to the Christian’s repentance from sin or increase in devotion or ministry. The experiences of many and the biblical witness of God’s work with Job suggest that something different than human failure is the reason for God’s apparent departure from the Christian.
A second observation is that the theology of blaming ourselves for God’s withdrawal depends upon a mistake about God’s involvement with human sin. The theological assumption is that God will not tolerate sin, so whenever a Christian sins, God will depart. Thus, if I feel abandoned by God, then it must be that I have done some evil to deserve his departure. God’s moral purity is usually counted as the reason for his aversion to human sin. An extension of this theology is that hell is the separation from God (since God cannot exist in the presence of evil). If God is present in me, and I commit sin, then God necessarily must depart, returning only when I repent and receive forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1:9). When faced with this theology, I think that many Christians would qualify the claim to degrees of seriousness of sins. For example, God will stick around when I do little sins, but the overt evils are going to make me uninhabitable for God, like the difference between a messy house (unpleasant but tolerable) and a house infested with rats, polluted with sewage, and termite-chewed to point of imminent collapse. I guess that overt sins are identified with sexual or substance abuse criminality, and lesser sins are the daily messiness of anger, pride, failure to love, coveting, ingratitude, etc.
The problem with this theology is that God can actually tolerate all evil and does not get pushed out of people or places when they generate sins. God is omnipresent, so he necessarily exists everywhere, whether places are polluted with evil or not. Even hell is God’s domain, having created it and posted angel-patrols to operate under his personal on-site supervision (Rev 14:10). This divine tolerance is not to say he likes evil (he does not), but that God is capable to bear with it and live in the mess people make by evil choices. We know this is true because Jesus bore all our sin in the cross, having made provision there to persist with us even when we commit serious evils. We should not think that our sins chase God away or repulse him from sticking with us. We do not control God’s nearness to us by our acts of evil or good. God has made himself an essential part of every Christian, living at their core (Ezek 36:25-27), and God has made every Christian an integral part of himself as he wants to be incarnate with a virtual body of human beings (the church is the body of Jesus who is our head, 1 Corinthians 12:27).
To sum up this first recommendation, be cautious about blaming yourself as the cause of God’s apparent departure because of our sin. People can deprive themselves of God’s goods by turning to evil options instead. We can obscure ourselves from him. If we are aware of having turned to evil and so feel distance from God (as in Isa 59:2), then we would do well to follow 1 John 1:9 to accept again that God accepts us in Jesus. If our evil acts are the problem causing us to feel distant from God, then we may embrace God’s solution that is always available to us in Jesus because he has not gone anywhere from us. Other times that Christians experience distance from God are for other reasons than our evil.
Additional posts in this series will be published over the course of the next month.