96. When God seems distant

There’s a common Christian saying that goes something like this:“If God seems distant, guess who moved?” Have you heard this one?  It’s essentially saying: “When you don’t feel God’s presence, it’s your own fault.  Straighten up.”  In other words, it’s a rebuke.

This saying, by the way, is not found in the Bible.  It’s one of those bits of insight which Christians have generated and passed on over the years, in the same category as “The Lord helps those who help themselves.”  Now, like lots of common proverbial wisdom, there’s certainly some truth in it.  Isaiah 57:17, for instance, says: “I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger. “ And James 5:8 tells us: “ Come near to God and he will come near to you.”  We can certainly create a sense of distance between us and God by our sin and neglect.  In fact, often, when we’ve lost a sense of closeness with God it is our own fault.  That’s worth remembering. 

            But the saying, like a lot of proverbs, is only a generalization, and is not always true in particular situations.  In fact, sometimes it’s false. The critical word here is “seems”, which speaks to our own perception of God’s presence versus its actual reality. When we’ve lost our sense of emotional closeness with God it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve done something wrong or that He is actually distant. This leads to our first question:

Why should we be cautious about how we interpret a feeling that God is distant?

1.    We should be cautious when interpreting our “God sense” because an ebb and flow is a normal part in even a committed Christian’s life.

          Most of you who love the Lord know what I’m talking about. Our sense of God goes up and down and there’s often no clear correlation between how we live and how we feel. In Psalm 13:1, David moans: “How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?” Read honest accounts of the lives of the saints. Their experience of God fades in and out. This leads to the next point:

2.    We should be cautious when interpreting our “God sense” because we may create an unnecessary and unhelpful sense of guilt and failure

When we don’t feel close to God, it’s easy to automatically blame ourselves.  “I must be doing something wrong!” we think.  Now, maybe we are. If so, then deal with it. Repent.  But, as noted above, maybe we’re doing fine and just need to relax and trust that God will show us needed change. False guilt is one of the Enemy’s best tools for stressing people out spiritually, taking away their joy, and sometimes making them just give up.

3.    We should be cautious when interpreting our “God sense” because our emotional issues may get in the way

It’s easier to feel as though God is close when we feel good in general. He seems more distant during times of depression or anxiety.  Is He?  Does being a sincere follower of Christ guarantee an increasing amount of good feelings?  It certainly can help, but some folks, for any number of reasons, some not under their control, have to live with painful emotions (both Spurgeon and Luther had problems with depression).  Is it possible to be Spirit-filled and still wrestle with depression? It’s certainly not what any of us would prefer, but I believe it’s possible to be close to God no matter what mood besets us.

4.    We should be cautious when interpreting our “God sense” because allowing a sense of distance is one of God’s tools for building our faith                   

I can’t prove this biblically, but various believers have described what’s been called a “dark night of the soul.”  Sometimes, despite our best efforts – daily Bible reading, obedience, confession of sin, and so on, God still feels silent and distant.  This may go on for an extended period of time.  It’s not a sign of our failure, it’s simply a test.  Will we trust God even when we don’t feel His presence or gain any spiritual highs?  Will we keep on His path, though it seems to wander through a dark wilderness? If the answer is “yes”, then we can learn a good deal about perseverance and trust.  God is still there. He still cares very much about us even when we don’t sense Him.         

5.    We should be cautious about interpreting our “God sense” because sometimes our sense of God’s closeness is inappropriate

This is the flipside of the previous points.  I don’t want to make anyone paranoid, but sometimes people feel close to God when they shouldn’t.  They’re living in obviously unbiblical ways, yet “feel at peace” about it.  If you can ignore God’s commands and still feel close to Him, something’s wrong. Satan is a master at manipulating our emotions.   

            My purpose in making these points is not to discourage us from seeking to build a sense of closeness to God. This is a meaningful, wonderful desire and worth pursuing.  My concern, however, is that we’re not overly focused on our spiritual/emotional feelings as indicators of the quality of our relationship with God. So what do we focus most on in our relationship with God?

How can I maximize my closeness to God?

1.     I maximize my closeness to God primarily by making choices which keep me open me to Him.

Yet once again, I’m emphasizing our old friend will.  While there’s much we can’t directly control in our spiritual life, like our feelings of closeness, God gives us the ability to make many helpful choices which enhance the possibility of actually being  close to God whether we sense it or not.  I’ll list some of these below.

2.    I maximize my closeness to God through spending quality time with Him

Although we can interact with God throughout the day, it’s especially helpful to have regular extended quality time spent relaxing in His presence, praying, worshiping, etc. These moment protect, deepen, and reinforce our closeness to God.

3.    I maximize my closeness to God by living a holy life

Jesus said in John 14:21: “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.” Love is shown through obedience. Those who feel close to God, while deliberately living in sin, are just fooling themselves.

4.    I maximize my closeness to God by maintaining continual dialogue with Him

Our extended prayer times aren’t meant to be a “dose for the day” sort of deal; but more of a jump-start. The goal is to stay in touch all day long in conversation with our best friend. Often these will be fleeting thoughts or very short prayers, or perhaps, just listening for a moment for His voice.

5.    I maximize my closeness to God through continual praise and worship

An attitude of gratitude, expressed throughout the day, reinforces the real fact, easy to forget, that God is continually blessing us even in normal, predictable moments. This, in turn, enhances both our actual closeness and our sense of it.

6.    I maximize my closeness to God by focusing more on faith than on feelings

As I’ve already stressed, unless we’ve chosen to push Him back, God is close to us all the time, whether we feel it or not. Remind yourself of that.