Does God Ever Withdraw His Presence from His Children?
Are there times in the Christian life when God chooses to withhold his presence from us, thus nullifying all hope that we would experience Godward affections? The Puritans seemed to operate from this assumption. If this is true, and God withdraws from the Christian at times, making joy in God impossible, doesn’t Christian Hedonism — the call to be happy in God — doesn’t that plea just heap more guilt on such a person?
I do believe that God will sometimes lift his hand from his children. Another image would be that he covers us with darkness at times. Nevertheless, I don’t think Christian Hedonism adds guilt. I think Christian Hedonism names guilt. In other words, it is proper to feel bad that we are not rejoicing in the Lord. That is part of what darkness is. We feel we can’t rejoice, and we feel bad because we know we should.
Christian Hedonism is not going to withdraw the biblical commands to rejoice always (1 Thessalonians 5:16; Philippians 4:4). It is not going not withdraw the biblical mandate to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) as though we could just change the Bible so you don’t feel bad in this moment. Instead, Christian Hedonism says, “I know what you are talking about.” This view of joy is not a naïve view of joy. It is not a view that assumes we don’t have seasons of horrible darkness.
“Gutsy Guilt” in the Fight for Joy
My favorite passage of Scripture regarding darkness and seasons of desertion is Micah 7:8-9, which I have preached once. Since then, I’ve used the phrase “gutsy guilt” to describe Micah’s experience in this passage. It goes like this:
Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. (Micah 7:8)
So he is confessing right there. I do sit in darkness. It is not bright right now. There are clouds. Then verse nine:
I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication. (Micah 7:9)
That is one of the most magnificent, realistic statements of what it means to be a justified sinner in darkness. It is an unbelievably gutsy experience of guilt. This is why I am resisting the statement that we shouldn’t feel guilty by acknowledging biblical truth. Rather, we embrace our guilt. When I am discouraged and defeated and dark and feel little joy, it is not going to help me to have a naïve view of my own sin and say, “Oh, I am not so guilty after all” or anything like that. I am guilty.
Piper: “What I want to say to the person in darkness is: keep holding on to the hope that God will vindicate you.”
Then the question is: What do you do with your guilt? Micah responds, “When I fall I shall rise.” When I sit in the darkness the Lord is still my light even though I can’t see it. I am going to bear this indignation because I have sinned against him until — notice that there is this lapse of time — he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me.
So what I want to say to the person in darkness, even lengthy darkness is: Keep holding on to the hope that God is going to vindicate you and bring you out to the light.
In the Pits with King David
The text that I have probably used most often with discouraged, disheartened saints, including myself, is Psalm 40. When I came to Bethlehem 32 years ago, one of the first sermons I preached, I think it was in the evening, Sunday evening, was called “In the Pits with the King,” based on Psalm 40:1-3 where it says, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.”
And I ask people when I quote that to them: How long do you think he waited for the Lord? “I waited for the Lord.” So David is saying, “I was in a pit. My feet were in muck. There was darkness over my head, and God wasn’t showing up.” He waited. And that is what I want to say is that we wait.
So Christian Hedonists affirm that we ought to be happy. We are not. That is bad. We acknowledge it is bad, and we are not going to despair because we are bad. We are looking away from ourselves in the darkness, looking away to Christ, and we are waiting for God’s timing to restore the joy of our salvation. And when he does it, then we realize there was a purpose for it because now people are seeing and putting their trust in the Lord.
For a fuller treatment of this issue, see Pastor John’s book When the Darkness Will Not Lift.