There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.
God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing. Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.
I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:
But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.
Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:
As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?
“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.
When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).
While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).
The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.