Worshipping When God Seems Absent
Have you ever felt like God has forgotten you? Turned his back on you?
If that describes you, it’s good to know that you are not alone. Charles Spurgeon, the great nineteenth-century preacher, once announced from the pulpit of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, “I am the subject of depressions of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever gets to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to.” This was not unusual for him. Ten years earlier, he had been honest and vulnerable as he introduced a sermon on Isaiah 41:14.
Periodical tornadoes and hurricanes will sweep o’er the Christian; he will be subjected to as many trials in his spirit as trials in his flesh. This much I know, if it be not so with all of you it is so with me. I have to speak to-day to myself; and whilst I shall be endeavoring to encourage those who are distressed and down-hearted, I shall be preaching, I trust to myself, for I need something which shall cheer my heart … my soul is cast down within me, I feel as if I had rather die than live.… I need your prayers; I need God’s Holy Spirit; and I felt that I could not preach to-day, unless I should preach in such a way as to encourage you and to encourage myself in the good work and labor of the Lord Jesus Christ.
If you have walked many miles with Christ, you know what he means. You have probably felt the same way at times. There are days when my prayers seem empty too, when my Bible is just letters on a page, when I feel like God is nowhere near me.
RESPONDING TO A sense of God’s absence. Many in today’s world live out of a sense of abandonment. The existential philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls this sense of loss of the divine the “condemnation of freedom,” because without God everything is permissible and nothing has any true significance or purpose. As a result, each human is “forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to.”
There are several possible responses to this sense of abandonment. Some assume that God has withdrawn or hidden himself because he doesn’t want to associate with me. This attitude assumes that I am the root cause of God’s apparent absence. Many today struggle with such feelings of unworthiness, believing that abandonment by parents or even active abuse is the result of some wrong within themselves rather than brokenness within the parents or abusers. The psalmist of Psalm 13 talks of wrestling with thoughts and experiencing daily sorrow in the heart. Such inner turmoil often grows out of self-condemnation and can lead to anger, paralysis, and despair.
Others respond to the hiddenness of God by denying his existence altogether. If God is out of the picture, then humans are left entirely to their own devices. The only avenue available is to rely on self-power and self-control. When God is removed, we are left to make our own way in the world.
The third possible response is that mirrored in Psalm 13: to “wait” on God as an acknowledgment of our own powerlessness and dependence on him. This need not be silent suffering, for both Job and our psalmist fill the void with their questions and appeals to God. And that is as it should be. The continuing conversation, even though one-sided, affirms the relationship—just as a father estranged from his son (or vice versa) continues to write letters even when no response is received.
The lessons the Psalter offers regarding divine absence include the following.
• The experience of divine abandonment is real and painful and is rightfully brought to God in laments and questions. God is not offended by our honest questions or even our heated complaints. Both confirm our desire for relationship and our faith that all is not as it should be.
• Divine absence need not be seen as the result of some failing within ourselves. Even the righteous suffer, and indeed suffering without divine intervention can be understood as one of the hallmarks of faithful living.
• Suffering the absence of God can be redemptive as others are brought to realize through our experience that the painful realities of life do not deny the existence, power, and compassionate concern of our God.
• God is worth holding on to faithfully even when we do not experience him as present.
•In your worship, in your prayer … express how you feel HONESTLY
Martina had suffered more terrible things than anyone I’ve ever known. She was married and in her mid-30s when she and her husband sought counsel for conflicts they were having about how to raise their children. We addressed those, but as her larger story also emerged, she made a profound impression on me. She had been sexually abused from childhood until she was rescued by the Department of Youth & Family Services (DYFS) in her teens. She had been used as a sexual receptacle by her father and older brothers. Her entire life, from age 4 to 15, was an Auschwitz of sexualized violence. It was all she ever knew.
•In your worship, in your prayer … ask God for what you NEED
•In your worship, in your prayer … ask God for what you NEED
•In your worship, in your prayer … Trust God to do for us what we CANNOT do for ourselves
“Salvation” in this sense means complete well-being. God will meet every need. David means more than knowing that his sins are forgiven, as wonderful as that is. He means complete salvation: comfort for his heart, quiet for his mind, healing for his body, complete safety, perfect peace. God is not just saving our souls: he is saving us body, mind, heart, soul, spirit, senses, eyes, hands, feet, thoughts, emotions, relationships—everything we are! God says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).
David had not yet received what God had promised. He looked forward and rejoiced to see God’s salvation in the distance. This is the way it has always been for God’s people. We look forward by faith for blessings that are to come. Peter puts it this way:
[P]reparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1:13)