Your greatest enemy, undoubtedly, are you. That internal chatterbox that is always running its trap, speaking lies about you, discouraging you, and clouding your judgment, must not be allowed the freedom to go on talking. Instead, you must repent of your sin, remain steadfast until your experience improves, remind God of who He is and who you are, and then reign over yourself! Instead of listening to yourself, begin speaking to yourself! Command yourself to hope in God and believe that your experience of His presence will improve.
Why does God sometimes feel distant? Why are there times and seasons when it seems like God is either aloof or further away from us than at others? As a pastor, I have received various versions of this question over the years.
“Why does God feel distant from me? I know I am saved. I have assurance of that from Scripture. But, why do I go through periods of deadness and dryness? How is this true and why does it happen? I am really not changing anything about my routine. I have the same Bible plan. I dedicate the same time every morning to prayer. I am repenting and doing everything I know to do, pastor… And yet, sometimes God feels nearer to me while other time I feel like He has left me and I am all alone… Why is that?”
There are undoubtedly many reasons why this phenomenon may occur, such as our own sinfulness and rebellion, the quenching of His Spirit, or God’s chastening His children. When that happens, God will often withdraw the experience of His presence from us, which is meant to lead us to repentance. He does not, however, remove His presence entirely since there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Ro 8:1). Yet. At the same time, God is fully present with us through the Spirit’s indwelling and fully present in all places through His own omnipresence; there are times when He veils our capacity to comprehend His presence, allowing us to experience distance, darkness, and shadows.
As said above, this often occurs because of habitual, indwelling, and unrepented sin. But what happens when this is not the case? How do we explain other occasions when we are in the Word, repenting of our sin, praying, fasting, singing, mortifying, and doing everything we know to do, or when we feel like the absence of God is more palpable than His presence? How do we explain that?
These are questions that I have asked myself countless times before. Unfortunately, I was not given a Biblical reason from Scripture to account for these occasions. Instead, I was taught that my relationship with God was based on quid pro quo rules, which means If I repented of my sins and did the right things, then He would give me the joy of His presence.
This not only encouraged a performance-oriented faith where I believed my experience of God was wholly dependent upon me, but it also was not in accord with the men I saw in Scripture. Take Job as an example. The Bible tells us that he was a righteous man, exemplary among the men at that time. Yet, God allowed him to experience awful suffering and the diminishing of His presence. Take David, whose Psalms are riddled with pleadings that God would draw nigh to him, allowing Him to experience the joy of God’s nearness again. Finally, consider Jesus, who never sinned, but in the garden felt the agony of future distance from God.
How do we account for these things? To answer that question, I would like to share thirteen things I wish someone had shared with me that I have now learned. I will not be diving too deeply into “why God is distant” but discussing more about how to think about it and what to do about it. Sometimes, the why belongs to God and remains a mystery to us.
In the rest of this article, I offer 6 reflections to consider when you feel distant from God. I would also like to provide 7 Biblical remedies for you to employ should you ever experience this.
Part 1: Reflect on This
Reflect on His Rights:
The principle: God has every right and ability to give and take away the experience of His presence as He deems appropriate.
One of the grandest doctrines we often recoil from is the sovereignty of God. Sovereignty entails God has every right, ability, and power to accomplish whatever He wills. And since everything that occurs is what He has willed (Dan 4:35), then every pain, displeasure, and discomfort came about first by divine knowledge and permittance. Therefore, nothing happens outside of God’s will.
Job says this poignantly:
“It is God who has made my heart faint, And the Almighty who has dismayed me, – Job 23:16
Jeremiah, a man also acquainted with grief, heartily concurs. He said:
“He has driven me and made me walk In darkness and not in light… Even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer.” – Lam 3:2, 8
While these verses may rub the inner drama queen inside us the wrong way, do we really have cause to be angry? All of us, at some point, have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That includes Job and Jeremiah, and it also includes us. As such, God said that the punishment for our sins would be death. And yet look at how long we live. The very fact we are alive today means that God has been exceedingly generous to us. It means He has not given us what we are owed but has offered us unmerited mercies far beyond what we deserve.
Beyond this, if you are a Christian, you have received unfathomable grace! Grace is not only being spared from the punishment you earned but also receiving blessings, comforts, and joys that did not belong to you! In your sin, you and I should have suffered eternal torments and terrors forever. And yet, God sacrificed His Son to rescue you. Instead of us suffering, He watched His only Son undergo emotional, spiritual, and physical anguish to offer us grace. Our salvation, even if it were the only good thing that ever happened to us, would be infinitely more than we could ever ask for or expect.
But it is not the only good thing that has happened to you. Tell me, can you count all of the blessings and graces the Lord God has given you? All of the joys He has imparted through families, friends, children, or through a lineage and heritage. Has He given you wealth, food, wine, safety, or security? Has He answered any of your prayers? Has He given you oxygen to breathe or organs that work without your direct involvement or management? Has He given you a physical copy of the Bible? What about all the other blessings stacked on top of blessings that we forget to acknowledge?
When we add up the mountain of blessings we have received and compare it to the eternal torments and sufferings we deserve, it is shocking that we complain as much as we do. Think about this clearly, if we received nothing but our salvation from God, and if our temporal lives were filled with nothing but heartache, miseries, and unimaginable sufferings, and if we never once felt the comfort and nearness of His presence, we would still be inconceivably and unreservedly blessed.
Remembering this, we should not be surprised whenever God feels distant from us. We should actually be surprised that so frequently, He doesn’t. Instead, we should be shocked that such an immense and pure being would persist for so long with such petulant peasants. And if we should ever walk through a period like this, where God feels to us distant, our first reaction should not be that we have been slighted. Instead, we should remember that this same God, who is working out our salvation, is also working out this situation for good. Since He is sovereign over all things and perfectly good in all things, we can trust Him in all things. We can rest knowing we are more blessed than our minds can conceive, which will help us patiently wait for our experience to improve.
Reflect on Our Righteousness:
The principle: Our righteousness, obedience, and sanctification do not obligate God to give us experiences of His nearness.
The book of Job is predicated upon the fact that Job is a righteous man (Job 1:1). Throughout its pages, Job himself announces that he is blameless, guiltless, and righteous (see Job 27:6 as an example). Furthermore, God Himself agrees with this assessment, even saying it Himself at the beginning of the book (Job 1:8). The book is a fascinating thought experiment and a case study on how and why the righteous suffer and experience distance from God. And according to the book of Job, sometimes they experience this phenomenon, not because they lack righteousness, but because of it, which was a concept entirely foreign to that time and place.
At that time, the prevailing wisdom, especially among Job’s shoddy friends, was that good people obtain favor and blessings because of their goodness. At the same time, the wicked will suffer because of their wickedness. To that culture, the world operated along strict rules of reciprocity. Good people were rewarded; bad people were punished. The obvious conclusion from such a philosophy was: “If you are suffering, then you must be wicked,” which contradicts God’s own words about His servant, Job.
With that, the book invites us to explore why someone blameless, righteous, and even commended by God could undergo such a loss of intimacy with His creator. Notice how Job recounts his suffering. He does not describe it entirely as the loss of material wealth or physical health decline. Instead, he says:
“Oh that I knew where I might find Him, that I might come to His seat!… “Behold, I go forward but He is not there, And backward, but I cannot perceive Him; when He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him; He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.” – Job 23:3, 8-9
In addition to Job’s constant declarations of rightness and fairness, he also describes what he considers the brunt of his affliction. His righteousness did not secure for him the intimacy and fellowship with God he thought it would. Job is far less vexed over the loss of physical and material blessings. Instead, he is far more broken that God seemed like a million miles away from him. Job cannot conceive of a world where a man actively pursues righteous living, and God, who knows everything, would still withhold His presence from him. That was inconceivable to him, and that same complaint comprises the lion’s share of the book.
Just as Job had to learn at the end of the book, we, too, must expand our view of God. Like Job, we must understand that works of personal righteousness, individual obedience, and dedicated work in holiness cannot guarantee the experience of feeling near unto God. God does not operate in a quid pro quo, vending machine spirituality. He grants the awareness of nearness as He deems fit. This is not based on our schemes. There will be times when God will graciously allow us to experience an abundance of His presence. But there will also be times when He doesn’t, and we need to become acquainted with that.
Remember, God is sovereign over all these things. Recall that our sanctification and growth in righteous living do not render God indebted to us. Rest in the fact that God is using everything, even periods of perceived distance, for our good and for His glory!
“Though He slay me, yet I will hope in Him. – Job 13:15
Reflect on Past Records:
The principle: Just because God gave tremendous experiences of His presence in the past does not mean He is obligated to repeat them in the present.
Psalm 44 begins this way:
O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us the work that You did in their days, In the days of old… For by their own sword they did not possess the land, and their own arm did not save them, but Your right hand, and Your arm, and the light of Your presence, for You favored them. – Ps 44:1
The Psalmist is seeking to remind God of the days of old. Those were days when His presence went powerfully ahead of the people and delivered them safely into the land He had promised.