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When God seems Miles Away
The passages below are taken from the book “The Purpose Driven Life” by Rick Warren. It was published in 2002.
The Lord has hidden himself from his people, but I trust him and place my hope in him. (Isaiah 8:17 TEV)
God is real, no matter how you feel
It is easy to worship God when things are going great in your life---when he has provided food, friends, family, health, and happy situations. But circumstances are not always pleasant. How do you worship God then? What do you do when God seems a million miles away?
The deepest level of worship is praising God in spite of pain, thanking God during a trial, trusting him when tempted, surrendering while suffering, and loving him when he seems distant.
Friendships are often tested by separation and silence; you are divided by physical distance or you are unable to talk. In your friendship with God, you won’t always feel close to him. Philip Yancey has wisely noted, “Any relationship involves times of closeness and times of distance, and in a relationship with God, no matter how intimate, the pendulum will swing from one side to the other.”1 That’s when worship gets difficult.
To mature your friendship, God will test it with periods of seeming separation---times when it feels as if he has abandoned or forgotten you. God feels a million miles away. St. John of the Cross referred to these days of spiritual dryness, doubt, and estrangement from God as “the dark night of the soul.” Henri Nouwen called them “the ministry of absence.” A. W. Tozer called them “the ministry of the night.” Others refer to “the winter of the heart.”
Besides Jesus, David probably had the closest friendship with God of anyone. God took pleasure in calling him “a man after my own heart.”2 Yet David frequently complained of God’s apparent absence: “Lord, why are you standing aloof and far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?”3 “Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help?”4 “Why have you abandoned me?”5
Of course, God hadn’t really left David, and he doesn’t leave you. He has promised repeatedly, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”6 But God has not promised “you will always feel my presence.” In fact, God admits that sometimes he hides his face from us.7 There are times when he appears to be MIA, missing-in-action, in your life.
Floyd McClung describes it: “You wake up one morning and all your spiritual feelings are gone. You pray, but nothing happens. You rebuke the devil, but it doesn’t change anything. You go through spiritual exercises . . . you have your friend pray for you. . . .you confess every sin you can imagine, then go around asking forgiveness of everyone you know. You fast. . . still nothing. You begin to wonder how long this spiritual gloom might last. Days? Weeks? Months? Will it ever end? . . . it feels as if your prayers simply bounce off the ceiling. In utter desperation, you cry out, ‘What’s the matter with me?’”8
The truth is, there’s nothing wrong with you! This is a normal part of the testing and maturing of your friendship with God. Every Christian goes through it at least once, and usually several times. It is painful and disconcerting, but it is absolutely vital for the development of your faith. Knowing this gave Job hope when he could not feel God’s presence in his life. He said, “I go east, but he is not there. I go west, but I cannot find him. I do not see him in the north, for he is hidden. I turn to the south, but I cannot find him. But he knows where I am going. And when he has tested me like gold in a fire, he will pronounce me innocent.”9
When God seems distant, you may feel that he is angry with you or is disciplining you for some sin. In fact, sin does disconnect us from intimate fellowship with God. We grieve God’s Spirit and quench our fellowship with him by disobedience, conflict with others, busyness, friendship with the world, and other sins.’10
But often this feeling of abandonment or estrangement from God has nothing to do with sin. It is a test of faith---one we all must face: Will you continue to love, trust, obey, and worship God, even when you have no sense of his presence or visible evidence of his work in your life?
The most common mistake Christians make in worship today is seeking an experience rather than seeking God. They look for a feeling, and if it happens, they conclude that they have worshiped. Wrong! In fact, God often removes our feelings so we won’t depend on them. Seeking a feeling, even the feeling of closeness to Christ, is not worship.
When you are a baby Christian, God gives you a lot of confirming emotions and often answers the most immature, self- centered prayers---so you’ll know he exists. But as you grow in faith, he will wean you of these dependencies.
God’s omnipresence and the manifestation of his presence are two different things. One is a fact; the other is often a feeling. God is always present, even when you are unaware of him, and his presence too profound to be measured by mere emotion.
Yes, he wants you to sense his presence, but he’s more concerned that you trust him than that you feel him. Faith, not feelings, pleases God.
The situations that will stretch your faith most will be those times when life falls apart and God is nowhere to be found. This happened to Job. On a single day he lost everything---his family, his business, his health, and everything he owned. Most discouraging---for thirty-seven chapters, God said nothing!
How do you praise God when you don’t understand what’s happening in your life and God is silent? How do you stay connected in a crisis without communication? How do you keep your eyes on Jesus when they’re full of tears? You do what Job did: “Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised.”11
Tell God exactly how you feel. Pour out your heart to God. Unload every emotion that you’re feeling. Job did this when he said, “I can’t be quiet! I am angry and bitter. I have to speak!”12 He cried out when God seemed distant: “Oh, for the days when I was in my prime, when God’s intimate friendship blessed my house.”13 God can handle your doubt, anger, fear, grief, confusion, and questions.
Did you know that admitting your hopelessness to God can be a statement of faith? Trusting God but feeling despair at the same time, David wrote, “I believed, so I said, ‘I am completely ruined!’”14 This sounds like a contradiction: I trust God, but I’m wiped out! David’s frankness actually reveals deep faith: First, he believed in God. Second, he believed God would listen to his prayer. Third, he believed God would let him say what he felt and still love him.
Focus on who God is---his unchanging nature. Regardless of circumstances and how you feel, hang on to God’s unchanging character. Remind yourself what you know to be eternally true about God: He is good, he loves me, he is with me, he knows what I’m going through, he cares, and he has a good plan for my life. V. Raymond Edman said, “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.”
When Job’s life fell apart, and God was silent, Job still found things he could praise God for:
• That he is good and loving.15
• That he is all-powerful.16
• That he notices every detail of my life.17
• That he is in control.18
• That he has a plan for my life.19
• That he will save me.20
Trust God to keep his promises.
During times of spiritual dryness you must patiently rely on the promises of God, not your emotions, and realize that he is taking you to a deeper level of maturity. A friendship based on emotion is shallow indeed.
So don’t be troubled by trouble. Circumstances cannot change the character of God. God’s grace is still in full force; he is still for you, even when you don’t feel it. In the absence of confirming circumstances, Job held on to God’s Word. He said, “I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.”21
This trust in God’s Word caused Job to remain faithful even though nothing made sense. His faith was strong in the midst of pain: “God may kill me, but still I will trust him.”22
When you feel abandoned by God yet continue to trust him in spite of your feelings, you worship him in the deepest way.
Remember what God has already done for you. If God never did anything else for you, he would still deserve your continual praise for the rest of your life because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. God’s Son died for you! This is the greatest reason for worship.
Unfortunately, we forget the cruel details of the agonizing sacrifice God made on our behalf. Familiarity breeds complacency. Even before his crucifixion, the Son of God was stripped naked, beaten until almost unrecognizable, whipped, scorned and mocked, crowned with thorns, and spit on contemptuously. Abused and ridiculed by heartless men, he was treated worse than an animal.
Then, nearly unconscious from blood loss, he was forced to drag a cumbersome cross up a hill, was nailed to it, and was left to die the slow, excruciating torture of death by crucifixion. While his lifeblood drained out, hecklers stood by and shouted insults, making fun of his pain and challenging his claim to be God.
Next, as Jesus took all of mankind’s sin and guilt on himself, God looked away from that ugly sight, and Jesus cried out in total desperation, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus could have saved himself---but then he could not have saved you.
Words cannot describe the darkness of that moment. Why did God allow and endure such ghastly, evil mistreatment? Why? So you could be spared from eternity in hell, and so you could share in his glory forever! The Bible says, “Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God.”23
Jesus gave up everything so you could have everything. He died so you could live forever. That alone is worthy of your continual thanks and praise. Never again should you wonder what you have to be thankful for. (107-113)
1. Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 242
2. 1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22
3. Psalm 10:1 (LB)
4. Psalm 22:1 (NLT)
5. Psalm 43:23 (TEV); see also Psalms 44:23 (TEV); 74:11 (TEVy); 88:14 (Msg); 89:49 (LB)
6. Deuteronomy 31:8; Psalm 37:28; John 14:16—18; Hebrews 13:5
7. Isaiah 45:15
8. Floyd McClung, Finding Friendship with God (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine Books, 1992), 186
9. Job 23:8—10 (NLT)
10. Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:29—30; 1 Thessalonians 5:19; Jeremiah 2:32; 1 Corinthians 8:12; James 4:4 (NLT)
11. Job 1:20—21 (NIV)
12. Job 7:11 (TEV)
13. Job 29:4 (NIV)
14. Psalm 116:10 (NCV)
15. Job 10:12
16. Job 42:2; 37:5, 23
17. Job 23:10; 31:4
18. Job 34:13
19. Job 23:14
20. Job 19:25
21. Job 23:12 (NIV)
22. Job 13:15 (CEV)
23. 2 Corinthians 5:21(TEV)
The Bible was originally written using 11,280 Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, but the typical English translation uses only around 6,000 words. Obviously, nuances and shades of meaning can be missed, so it is always helpful to compare translations.
AMP The Amplified Bible, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1965)
CEV Contemporary English Version, New York: American Bible Society (1995)
GWT God’s Word Translation, Grand Rapids: World Publishing, Inc. (1995)
KJV King James Version
LB Living Bible, Wheaton, II: Tyndale House Publishers (1979)
Msg The Message, Colorado Springs: Navpress (1993)
NAB New American Bible, Chicago: Catholic Press (1970)
NASB New American Standard Bible, Anaheim, CA: Foundation Press (1973)
NCV New Century Version, Dallas: Word Bibles (1991)
NIV New International Version, Colorado Springs: International Bible Society (1978, 1984)
NJB New Jerusalem Bible, Garden City, NY: Doubleday (1985)
NLT New Living Translation, Wheaton, II: Tyndale House Publishers (1996)
NRSV New Revised Standard Version, Grand Rapids: Zondervan (1990)
Ph New Testament in Modern English by J. B. Phillips, New York: Macmillan (1958)
TEV Today’s English Version, New York: American Bible Society (1992) (Also called Good News Translation)
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