There are times we have no sense of God being anywhere near us, no matter how faithfully we worship, no matter how fervently we pray. At times like these it is easy to say, “If only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak to me once, anything, one sentence, two words.
When we have such an experience as this, must we conclude that either God is missing or our faith is faulty? Perhaps there is something else, another option. For it seems that even those people of profound faith and spiritual insight have felt abandoned by God from time to time. Wasn’t this the case for Job and Jeremiah and even Jesus who cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Listen to the words of the Psalmist in the scripture Psalms 42. Here there is no sign of either a quiet yet confident spiritual serenity or of a handclapping religious jubilation. What we do find are words of faith. However, it is a faith that has no smile attached to it.
This faith is not bright, light-hearted or at peace. To the contrary, it is uncomforted, miserable and unsatisfied. It is a faith that has uncertainty in it; it is marked by shades of doubt. It is a faith that hungers and thirsts for God and yet remains empty. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.” But the Psalmist is not nourished by God. Instead he laments, “My tears have been my food day and night.”
The experience of the Psalmist stands out in sharp contrast to that of Elijah. Remember the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, to prove whether the pagan Baal gods or the God of Israel was the greatest? The prophets of Baal went through all manner of rituals in an attempt to get their gods to give a sign of power. Yet no matter how they tried to invoke their deities, it was to no avail. No amount of prayers, ceremonies or sacrifices made a bit of difference; the heavens remained silent and unmoved. Elijah taunted and mocked them for the impotence of their gods. And when his turn came to call upon the God of Israel to act, there was a prompt and overwhelming manifestation of divine power. No question about it, Elijah was the winner. His God was the one Living God. It was all so clear-cut.
But for the Psalmist and for us, the matter is not so obviously and decisively resolved. Unlike Elijah, this man found himself on the receiving end of the scorn and ridicule of his enemies. He writes, “As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?'” Unlike the great prophet, the Psalmist finds himself unable to call down fire from heaven in response to his unfriendly interrogators. Their tormenting questions aggravate the spiritual grief he already has and reinforce the anguished questions of his own heart. “When shall I come and behold the face of God? … I say to God, my rock: ‘Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?'” He finds his questions greeted with silence; the heavens do not stir.
We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence, for no nightmare of hostile objects could be as terrible as this void.” Indeed, and there is no void like that which is created by the silence of God. What can we do in the face of this distressing experience? Is any response possible and helpful? Perhaps we can take some clues from the Psalmist. First, it may be of some comfort to be mindful of the fact that the experience of the silence of God is a manifestation of faith, not unbelief. The Psalmist was a person with a deep yearning for God. The sense that God is far away is not a feeling reserved for rebels and reprobates. In fact it is often those who are most deeply religious who are the most sensitive to such experiences.
Though the Psalmist felt that God was distant and unresponsive, the very fact that he continued to pray was an affirmation of faith in the presence of God. It is important that we recognize that the feeling of the presence of God is not the same thing as the presence of God. The presence of God is not dependent upon our experience of this presence.
The feeling that God is absent may be the result of fatigue, depression, our emotional make-up or maybe just indigestion. Full void or empty void, these feelings actually tell us little or nothing about the real presence of God. We need to acknowledge that God is greater than our feelings. Like the Psalmist it is wise for us to keep addressing God in prayer, though we feel as if He is not near.
Third, while the Psalmist feels abandoned by God in the present, still he is able to recall the spiritual joy he experienced in the past and he sets his eyes forward in hope of a better future. He allows his memory to take him back to better days: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul; how I went with the congregation and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” This memory gives him assurance that God can be known and His presence can be experienced in joy and gratitude.
This memory enables the Psalmist to rebuke his own excessive distress and then express confidence in a future of renewed faith. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
This confession does not banish all gloom from the Psalmist’s life. In fact, in just a couple of verses he has a relapse of spiritual depression and must make his confession in hope once again. But the important thing is that he clings to God through his trials and inner struggles. And if we are to come through our dark and spiritually dry periods with our faith intact, it is important that we do the same.
We have no guarantee that we will never feel abandoned by God. But we do have a promise that God will be with us and we have the assurance that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Acts 8:39). Our feelings may not always reverberate with this truth, but thank God, our inconsistent feelings do not alter the truth. So in times of our distress let us say with the Psalmist, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”