When God Feels Distant

09/21/20

If you found this title intriguing enough to be here, I probably don’t need to explain to you what it feels like to be in a season of spiritual dryness. Maybe you’re in one right now, wondering how to interpret your feelings of isolation from God. What does it say about God that He could feel so far from me? What does it say about me as a Christian to feel this way? And is there anything I can do to make this season end? These are big questions, so let’s get into them.

What Your Feelings Don’t Mean.

The first thing we need to know is that, however we may feel, God is never far from us. David says this in Psalm 139:7-12:

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.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.

Even more, as new-covenant Christians, the Bible tells us that the Spirit of God literally dwells in us from the moment that we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:19, Ephesians 1:13). In these passages and others, it is clearly taught that we do not feel distant from God because He is distant. In both His nature and the gift of His Spirit, we have the presence of God around us and within us, at all times, in all places.

If that news is comforting to you, good! I’d encourage you to memorize these verses, write them down, post them around your house, or do whatever else will remind you of the truth of God’s closeness on a daily basis.

But I do recognize that to some, the knowledge that He is there makes the disconnect feel even worse. It’s one thing to feel out of touch with a friend who you know has been away and unavailable; it’s another to be in the same room as someone and to have nothing but silence between you. In the same way that it would be natural to question where you’re at in your relationship to the person in the latter situation, it’s natural for us to question where we’re at in our relationship with God when He feels distant from us.

You might be surprised to know that David – one that God would identify as “a man after [His] heart” (Acts 13:22) – struggled with these feelings in his own relationship with God. In Psalm 13, he even has the nerve to confront Him about it, saying, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Keep in mind that this is the same man who wrote of the nearness of God in every circumstance in Psalm 139. Clearly, for David, his intellectual knowledge did not keep at bay feelings of disconnect from God. And it is altogether possible – if not inevitable – that we will find ourselves in the same boat as David at some point in our Christian lives.

The important thing to recognize is that David’s sense of distance from God did not disqualify him from being identified as a man after God’s heart. In the same way, our position as redeemed children of God is secured, not by our feelings of closeness to Him, but by God’s own decree. His plan was for us to be made His through Jesus Christ, and not on the grounds of our own merit. So in the same way that we cannot depend on our feelings to tell us the truth of God’s proximity to us, we cannot depend on our feelings to assure us of our salvation. The Word of God is clear: feeling distant from God does not in any way mean that you are not a true Christian.

The Distance We Create

So far we’ve discussed what feeling distant does not mean: it does not mean that God is far, and it does not mean that we’ve lost our salvation. But that still leaves the question of what really is happening to make us feel that God is far from us.

In my mind, there are at least two possible reasons that a Christian would find themselves feeling disconnected from the Lord. The first – that I’ve drawn from my personal experience – is that I did something to make me feel unworthy or unprepared to relate to God. That “something” doesn’t necessarily have to be a scandalous sin, although it certainly could be. Most often for me, it’s the knowledge that I haven’t opened my Bible in a few days, and haven’t prayed for even longer. When I allow the guilt and shame of my failures to follow me into my times of quiet with God, the most I can think to pray is repetitive apologies for my lack of faithfulness and well-intended promises to try to get my act together. These sentiments aren’t exactly the making of a secure, fulfilling relationship.

Now, what I think I’m doing in these instances is revering God as holy, and being respectful of his high standard for me and my conduct. But it’s important that I understand that what I am really doing is belittling the sufficiency of Christ as my Saviour and failing to trust the promises of God to forgive me and extend to me His unfailing mercy. The belief that God needs me to get my act together before I can enjoy relationship with Him has no founding at all in God’s Word, much less His character.

Here are some reminders of how relationship with God actually works:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved…” // Ephesians 2:4-5

“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?… No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” // Romans 8:31-35, 37

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” // 1 John 1:9

Verses like these are some of the best weapons that we have against our feelings of distance from God. When we remind our hearts of how faithfully God loves us in spite of our sin, we will learn that the best place for us to run when we feel that we’re falling short is toward God; not away from Him.

An Alternative Purpose

I mentioned before that there might be a second reason for a Christian to feel distance from God. This thought is not mine, but is one I came across in A. W. Tozer’s book, The Root of Righteousness. In the chapter titled “Understanding Those Dry Spells”, Tozer writes:

“Normally we may expect some degree of spiritual joy to be present most of the time. Fellowship with God is so delightful that it cannot but provide a large measure of joy; but we are talking now about those times when our joy fades out and the presence of the Lord is felt feebly or not at all. Such times demand that we exercise faith. Moments of great spiritual delight do not require much faith; if we never come down from the mount of blessing we might easily come to trust in our own delights rather than in the unshakable character of God. It is necessary therefore that our watchful Heavenly Father withdraw His inward comforts from us sometimes to teach us that Christ alone is the Rock upon which we must repose our everlasting trust.”

As a lifelong Bible camp enthusiast, I find this idea absolutely groundbreaking. Every year, we are plagued with the problem of the post-camp slump, where campers leave what we call a “mountaintop experience” only to find that they struggle to sustain those feelings of spiritual enthusiasm in the weeks and months that follow. So often, this causes people to question the strength and authenticity of their faith and fall into ruts of the very same kind of spiritual dryness that we have been discussing. What Tozer proposes is that these discouraging experiences are not evidence of failure, but seasons of tremendous purpose. God is at work in the “spiritual lows”, striving to teach us that the goal for the mature Christian isn’t to be able to maintain a never-ending “spiritual high”, but to learn to navigate both the highs and lows with trust in the unchanging goodness of God. How exciting to think that He is as real, active, and intentional in the weeks that follow a rich spiritual experience as He was in the experience itself!

In Summary

The Bible is full of invaluable truths that we can use to guard ourselves from being crippled by seasons of feeling distant from God: we can be sure that our Father is never far from us, and that our position in Christ is secured by something so much greater than our own feelings. Even more than that, we can use Scripture to fight against the temptation to isolate ourselves from God because of our own sin or feelings of inadequacy or shame. And if after all of that we still can’t shake the feeling of spiritual disconnect, we can take comfort in knowing that God is behind the scenes working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).

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