God is still near
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1. ESV)
We Christians believe that God is omnipresent, meaning that “all of God is present everywhere at all times.” Just as God is not bounded by time or by matter or by finitude, so God is not bounded by space. As the Psalmist writes, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139:7-10, ESV)
The Scriptures also teach that God is with His people in a special sense – a covenantal and relational sense – when they faithfully engage in holy acts of worship, in particular when they worship together as a gathered community (Psa. 100:2, 4; 76:1-2; Heb. 12:18-24; Matt. 18:19-20; etc.). God in Christ graciously offers us His saving presence by the vehicles of Word and sacraments, and we receive the benefits of His presence by faith through prayer, praise, confession and reception of the sacraments.
But let us be honest: God does not always seem near. Our experience of God does not always seem to match up with what we confess to be true about God. Sometimes God seems far, far away, uninterested in us and our life circumstances, unresponsive to our pleas for help, deaf to our earnest prayers. God can seem especially distant and uninvolved in our lives when we face intense suffering or tragedy. A loved one is tragically killed in a car accident, or dies after a long and painful battle with cancer, and God seems distant. You lose your job and find yourself among the ranks of the permanently unemployed as you just can’t seem to find work in spite of your best efforts to do so, and God seems distant. Your neighborhood is becoming increasingly dangerous, with drugs and gangs and violence on the rise, and you fear for the safety of your family; and God seems distant. You are fighting an ongoing and seemingly losing battle with depression, and God seems distant. Your marriage is on the rocks and conflict in your home is escalating, and God seems distant. Your church is struggling with conflict, division and dissension, with animosity running high among believers who ought to be loving each other, and God seems distant.
We all face times in our lives when God seems distant, uninterested, uninvolved, even unreal. Such times try our faith, and sadly some who face such sufferings end up losing the faith they once professed. What are some things that we can do to keep from losing our faith when God seems distant? And how can we regain a sense of God’s presence at times in our lives when He seems particularly distant? Here are some suggestions:
(1) Remind yourself that God’s presence is an objective reality, even when you feel that He is distant.
Imagine how Joseph must have felt when his brothers – his own flesh and blood! – out of envy and with great cruelty sold him like a piece of property into slavery. What incredible emotional distress and horror of soul he must have felt as he was dragged off to Egypt to be sold into slavery, ripped away from the comforts and security of his family and familiar surroundings to face a future of bondage and degrading servitude. I suspect that Joseph felt that God was quite distant and uninterested as he went through that horrible experience. But, as the Joseph narrative in the Book of Genesis indicates, God had not abandoned Joseph in his distress. In fact, God was at work in Joseph’s life even through the unimaginably painful circumstances he faced, and ultimately God used these things for his good and for the good of His people. Likewise the Book of Job indicates that Job in his intense sufferings felt that God had abandoned him, but in hindsight we know that God was with him all along.
God’s nearness is an objective reality. HIs nearness and presence do not depend upon our feelings or our state of mind, nor does it depend upon the circumstances of our lives. God is still near, even when He “feels” far away, and even when our lives are surrounded by dark providences. Don’t depend on your feelings. Depend upon His trustworthy promise that He will never leave nor forsake you.
(2) In times of spiritual crisis when God seems far away, reflect upon those times in your past when you have experienced God’s comforting presence and nearness.
Scripture often encourages believers to remember God’s past acts of redemption and deliverance as a way of experiencing God’s nearness in the present. As the Israelites partook of the Passover, they entered into the reality of God’s salvation, and by remembering God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” in redeeming His people from slavery in Egypt in the exodus, they experienced afresh and in the present the reality of God as their own ever-present Deliverer and Redeemer. It is similar when we Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper. By faith we experience in the present what Christ did for us in the past by dying for our sins, and we commune with Him as His friends in the sacred meal. Through this act of remembrance we experience anew in the present the reality of what Christ did for us in the past, and through this we are assured that He is still with us as our “Immanuel” (“God with us”), the “Word made flesh” who continues to offer us His Body and Blood as food for the soul and who continues to dwell in our midst by the Holy Spirit.
What is true about the place of memory in the life of the church can also be true in your own personal life as a Christian. When God seems distant, think back to that time when God clearly answered a prayer. Or think back to those special times of spiritual renewal in your life, times when you couldn’t wait to read the Word and discover the deep riches of Scripture, times of worship and prayer and fellowship when God’s presence seemed powerfully real, times when God used you in a special way to touch the lives of others. Remembering God’s work in your life in the past can bring you encouragement when you are tempted to feel He has abandoned you in the present.
(3) Remember that you are not alone, and don’t try to go it alone.
The worst thing to do when God seems distant, or when you face a spiritual crisis, is to try to face it alone. We believers are united to Christ, and being united to Christ we are also united to one another as fellow brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Your experiences as an individual believer are not unique. Many other have faced the same kinds of doubts, trials, afflictions and crises of faith that you might be presently facing in your own life. Don’t let pride or self-sufficiency cause you to withdraw from fellowship. Talk to your pastor, your elders, or a trusted Christian friend about your struggles. God usually makes His presence known to us through others, and in the community of faith. Don’t cut yourself off from that source of encouragement. Though you might feel like it, you are not alone. Connecting with others who have faced similar struggles of faith can help you through your present crisis, and in the process of reaching out to others you might just rediscover that God is still near.
(4) Continue to diligently use God’s means of grace, even when you feel God is distant.
When you pray does it feel like God is not listening? Don’t give up. Keep praying. Has Bible reading and listening to sermons become dry, uninteresting, uninspiring? Don’t give up. Keep reading your Bible. Keep listening to sermons. Keep going to a faithful church that preaches the gospel. The Word, sacraments and prayer, used within the context of Christian fellowship in the church, are tools that God uses to nurture and strengthen our faith. When we diligently use those “tools” with hearts of faith in Christ, God uses them to build up our faith. This is true even at times when we don’t “feel” like anything is happening. During times of spiritual crisis Satan would love to have you give up using the means of grace. Resist him, and “keep on keeping on” in spite of how you feel, looking for a brighter day when God will once again send “showers of blessing” and bring you renewed spiritual refreshment through those means of grace.
Be encouraged, believer. God will not leave you nor forsake you. God is still near. The proof is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you. Believe the good news!