when god seems distant

Recently I was asked to speak on Psalm 139 for a youth worker’s spiritual retreat. Of course, Psalm 139 is such a familiar psalm (“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me… Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?… For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”). And I didn’t just want to offer clichés. Since it was a spiritual retreat, and the youth workers would be introduced to a variety of spiritual practices, I thought it might be helpful for me to approach the text the same way. So I spent some time approaching the Psalm with Lectio Divina, a wonderful process of reading the text slowly and prayerfully, inviting God to speak or nudge or prompt; and if or when a word or phrase catches your attention, to sit with that and ‘roll it around’ for a while, asking God to reveal what he wants to say to you about that particular idea.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting anything.

long country road

I read the Psalm slowly and prayerfully a few times from the NIV, and once from the RSV. Nuthin’. But then I read it slowly and prayerfully a couple times from The Message, and two phrases immediately jumped out at me. From verse 2: I’m an open book to you, even at a distance, you know what I’m thinking. And from verse 5: I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going.

In the midst of this gorgeous poetry about God’s presence were two little acknowledgements of God’s absence. Or God’s apparent distance. And while I’m pretty into God’s ‘comings’, I’m not such a fan of god’s ‘goings’.

The dark night of the soul
John of the Cross came up with this nifty little phrase we still use back in the mid-1500s. Some of his explanation works for me, some leaves me a bit cold. But, knowing that all of us, myself included, experience times when God seems very distant and/or silent, it struck me that some of these youth workers would be coming to a three-day spiritual retreat stuck in that place, with a palpable fear that God would remain distant and silent throughout the retreat. So I compiled a little ‘off the top of my head’ list of thoughts for spirituality during the dark night, built on my assumption that: When God seems distant, it’s rarely because he actually is. It’s usually because there’s something preventing us or blocking us from seeing or knowing his presence.

1. Hold firmly to the truth that faith is a choice.
I’m not talking about the free will/predestination debate here. I’m suggesting that almost everyone who goes through times of God’s distance or silence and comes out the other side, describes how formative it was in their own faith development. So in a time of God’s apparent distance, one of the most important disciplines we can exercise is to choose, each day, to be a person of faith. In times like this, faith has very little to do with emotion or feelings.

2. Hold two things in tension:
Release yourself from any guilt over being in this place (as if God is distant because you were bad), while being ruthless in looking for roadblocks that could be preventing you from seeing God.

3. Pray prayers of aspiration.
A church leader friend once shared how his church had struggled with reconciling their desire to be fully authentic and honest with the truth that they didn’t always, at every moment, believe everything in the creeds they wanted to be a part of their church life. They settled on something I have found extremely helpful: they consider the creeds to be statements of aspiration, statements of what they long for and want to believe. I have found this perspective way-helpful in terms of my own prayer life. When God feels distant, or when I’m struggling with doubts, I can pray with aspiration. I can pray Psalm 139 or the shield of St. Patrick with an attitude of hope and longing: this is what I desire to be true and real and my daily experience.

4. Break with the norm.
Find a spiritual director to help you spot God’s presence in your life. Re-arrange your daily schedule. Take a road-trip. Try some different approaches to prayer and scripture. Look for God in places you wouldn’t normally look (spiritual classics, nature, children, film, music).

5. Be more green.
So often we’ve been asked (by our churches and traditions) to focus exclusively on either God’s transcendence or God’s imminence: Evangelicals tend to chose transcendence, and our Christianity is primarily about living out a personal communion with a transcendent God. Our evangelism and worship and discipleship are all built around this. More liberal churches tend to chose imminence, and while cautious about God’s ability or interest in connecting with individual people, embrace the “agenda” of God–doing good works, caring for the earth, justice, and the present work of the Kingdom of God.

A friend of mine describes these two polarities as yellow (for transcendence) and blue (for imminence), and says all Christ-followers need constant nudging toward combining those colors to create green. It’s a beautiful metaphor. But the implication here is this: especially when we’re stuck in times when God seems distant or silent, pursuing the ‘other’ primary color than the one we’ve been steeped in from our tradition can open up new ways of seeing, hearing and experiencing God’s presence.

6. Wait. Be still. Slow down.
This is likely the most important. If John of the Cross’ reasoning is correct at all (that we primarily interact with God through our own images of God, and that God distances himself from us in order to move us beyond our limited images), the only path forward is to wait. Most of us are so uncomfortable with silence and slow. But it’s an essential component of a fully-lived Christian life. Create a pattern of slowing down.

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