Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

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.

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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).

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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.

Stepping Forward into 2020 with Focus

Emmaus RoadThis week, I am sharing some spiritual practices for reflecting on the previous year and stepping forward into the new year.

Stepping Forward with Focus

Just as we look back at the previous year gone by with thanksgiving, lament, and repentance, it is important to step forward into the coming year in a personally engaged and meaningful way.

First, let me encourage us to step forward into the new year with focus. Psalm 63 is a beloved psalm reflecting both our need for God and the power of right focus upon God.

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)

The psalmist is apparently in a difficult time, an important moment, but it is clear that the psalmist is stepping forward into that moment with focus on God.

Some will say that the most important thing we can do is to put “first things first.” As we step into this year, there is nothing more important – nothing that should more truly be a first thing – than God Himself. Our focus must be on Him.

Jesus also emphasized this when He said:

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

Entering into the new year, we must consider how to keep our focus on God. We need to consider what it looks like to prioritize relationship with God in the midst of all the relationships in our lives. We want to establish some specific ways to do that this year that more than a resolution, but is a prioritization of the Living God in our live.

A good question to ask ourselves is: what is one thing I will do to prioritize life with God this year?

Looking Back and Stepping Forward: a new year’s message

 

This past weekend at Eastbrook, I preached a message, “Looking Back and Stepping Forward,” which was a stand-alone message for the new year. I shared some practices – looking back at the past year and stepping forward into the new year – that have helped me most over the years to close out one year and begin another.

The message was rooted in the psalms, drawing three practices for reflection (giving thanks, lament, repentance) and three practices of anticipation (focus, dedication, praise) together as a rubric for standing at the threshold of changing calendar years.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with other sermon series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more resources or opportunities to connect.

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My Altar to You: a prayer

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You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek You;
I thirst for You,
my whole being longs for You
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1)

This morning is my altar to You, my God.
I burn the sacrifices of my attention,
the first fruits of my time and my energy.
Receive praise from my offering, my God,
even as I choose to rejoice in You above all.

My appointments are my altar to You, my God.
I lay before You each and every conversation,
the planned and unplanned,
the upbeat and the negative,
that everything I do and say might be
an offering unto Your service as worship.

My inner life is my altar to You, my God.
May the inner place where no words are uttered
but inner dialogue remains,
where no actions occur
but from which all action flows –
may it be the place where Your glory descends –
beyond words and actions –
to set the offering of my self ablaze
with Your glory.

Hungry for Peace

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No one wants to live feeling depleted and empty. We all want to live out of a place of abundance, satisfaction, and peace. We hunger to feel like our lives are on the right track and that everything is ‘right,’ in the best sense of the word. The biblical word for this is peace or, in Hebrew, shalom. Shalom means more than simply lack of conflict. Instead, it conveys a sense of completeness, success, welfare, and peace. A short definition for shalom is that all things are right in God’s world as they are supposed to be.

When Jesus begins His public ministry, he enters into an episode that would not be described as peaceful. Shortly after His baptism by John, “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry” (Luke 4:1-2). This temptation is a power encounter between the prince of this world, the devil, and the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Messiah. From start to finish, the three temptations of the devil are classic temptations of humanity, described by Henri Nouwen as the temptation to be relevant, popular, or powerful. Hungry and tired, Jesus experiences all the raging temptations of a peace-less world thrown at Him.

Jesus overcomes the temptations of the devil, however, and we realize that He is a new sort of king with a new sort of kingdom that will move in ways different from the ways of this world. When Isaiah the prophet describes the Messiah as “the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6), we know this is exactly what we need. We need true shalom in the midst of our hunger for peace because we cannot ultimately satisfy it ourselves. This realization does not come quickly. Sometimes we must intentionally step back from some things, even normal things like the eating of food, to realize exactly what is going on in our lives.

It is no wonder that immediately before ascending to the Father, some of Jesus’ final words to His disciples are: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). The Prince of Peace has come to bring us peace, and that is very good news for us.

RESPOND THIS WEEK:
Each week’s practice will feature some aspect of the process Paul describes for us in Ephesians 4:22-24, where we are to TAKE OFF something from our lives that has become corrupted or distracting and PUT ON in its place something God wants us to do.

Take Off: Fast from food (in some form), perhaps for one meal a day or for an entire day. If you are physically prevented from completely fasting due to some health concerns, consider if there is a particular food, drink or “treat” you can deny yourself this week. Use the space below to take note of your experience this week.

Put On:In the place of eating the food you are fasting from, take time with God in solitude and silence to experience the peace that God brings. Consider how He provides for you all you need. Use the space below to take note of your experience this week.

[This a devotional I wrote with Jim Caler as part of the Eastbrook Church Lenten devotional, “Hungry for God.”]