How do we respond when God feels distant from us? Several versions of that question have come in recently from listeners on the topic of “spiritual desertion.” I can boil them down to three categories.
First, spiritual desertion is an experience of God hiding his face from the believer. But in the great text on contentment, and how to live free from the love of money, we are given a glorious promise — one we have repeated several times on APJ. We should cultivate material contentment in this life because God has promised us, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). So how does desertion relate to this promise that we will never be forsaken?
Second, does the Bible tell us why God deserts believers? Should we read into the experience of desertion something we have failed to do, or need to do? And what has his absence felt like to you?
And then third, in the famous desertion psalm, Psalm 22, we read that God does not hear the psalmist’s prayers and refuses to deliver him from his distress. Hence the felt desertion. And yet the psalmist still delights in God in verse 8. So what does it look like to delight in God in felt desertion?
So, Pastor John, there is a mix of questions for you under this label of “spiritual desertion.”
Well, just a word of caution to start: the term spiritual desertion doesn’t occur in the Bible, nor does the word desertion itself — at least not in the ESV. So, we have to be careful that when non-biblical words or terms are used to describe biblical realities, we don’t force any connotations of those non-biblical words onto the biblical reality.
I think what’s being asked in all of these concerns is not only about the objective circumstances that can be so painful in the lives of Christians — that it looks objectively like God is just no longer working for us. But probably more what’s being asked is about the subjective inner sense when we don’t feel the presence of God, and we don’t see the glory of God, and we don’t sense the sweetness of his fellowship. Whether he’s near or far, the question I think is mainly about how, subjectively, he feels far. It’s true that a Christian can have the experience of desertion in both of these senses. In the objective, it just looks like he’s gone. He doesn’t do anything for me anymore. And in the subjective, whether he’s near or far, I don’t feel, I don’t taste, I don’t sense. I think that’s the main concern.
Grace in Every Thorn
So, I won’t linger long over the first sense because that’s not the focus of these questions, I don’t think. And I’ve spoken about it so often. I’ll only say that Paul deals with the objective afflictions of Christians in Romans 8:35–38, and amazingly he does so by quoting the Psalms. He quotes Psalm 44:20–22, which says,
If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
And Paul explains that God’s face is hidden only in the sense that outward physical blessings are being withheld. But he protests strongly that in every loss and affliction for the Christian, we are “more than conquerors” (Romans 8:37). So Paul’s answer to the outward objective appearance of desertion is that God is present: he’s here, and he’s working through our troubles. And in that very teaching, Paul paradoxically shows that if we really understood what God was doing, we would know it was to help us see him more clearly — not less.
There’s this beautiful poem called “The Thorn” by Martha Nicholson, who died in 1953, that ends like this: “I learned He never gives a thorn without this added grace, / He takes the thorn to pin aside the veil which hides his face.”
“The thorns of life, which we think are God’s desertion, are in fact designed to pin back the veil of worldliness that hides God’s loving face.”
So, Paul’s answer to this first kind of objective desertion is that we need to learn the biblical truth that the thorns of life, which we think are God’s desertion, are in fact designed to pin back the veil of worldliness that hides God’s loving face. That’s a huge change in your mindset, but it’s crucial in order to understand how to respond to what appears to be objective absence of God but isn’t.
Fight to See and Savor
But the main thing, I think, being asked in these questions is about the inner sense of the Christian when we don’t feel the presence of God, and we don’t see or savor the glory of God, and we don’t sense the sweetness of his fellowship. So, let me give several texts from the New Testament that provide biblical categories that are Christian — Christian categories for this experience of more or less of this darkness, as if the Lord were absent, because you don’t see or savor his beauty or feel his fellowship.
1. First Corinthians 13:12: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” In other words, some measure of hiddenness is what we have to live with now, no matter how we live, until Jesus comes.
2. Ephesians 5:19: “Be filled with the Holy Spirit” — meaning that there are different measures of experience of the Holy Spirit’s fullness. And what does the Holy Spirit do but reveal the beauties of Christ and thus stir us up to joy and boldness? So, there’s more or less clarity of spiritual seeing and savoring depending on what degree of fullness we are enjoying.
3. In Ephesians 4:30, Paul says, “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” And in 1 Thessalonians 5:19, he says, “Do not quench the Spirit.” So, there are sinful attitudes and behaviors that do indeed grieve and quench the Spirit and thus draw a veil between us and the beauty of Christ, which the Spirit gives.
4. Paul prays in Ephesians 1:18 that “the eyes of your hearts” would be “enlightened,” so that you may know your calling, your inheritance, and the power of Christ in you. In other words, the eyes of our hearts see with greater or lesser clarity the glories of Christ.
5. And finally, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, Paul says that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” That’s the glory we long to see with steady, unveiled brightness.
But all of these texts imply that the Christian life is variable. It is a fight to the end. Just before he dies, Paul says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And it’s mainly a fight to see and savor the beauty of Christ right to the end.
Battle for His Presence
One of the questions that you read asks me personally what the absence of God has felt like to me. And I would answer like this: God has given me the grace not to think in terms of God’s absence, but only of my dullness, my disobedience. In other words, I believe that Jesus Christ, as my Savior, is always near,
- because he is omnipresent — “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3);
- because he promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20); and
- because he has put his Spirit within me as the down payment of my final redemption, and the Spirit does not come and go (Ephesians 1:14).
“God has given me the grace not to think in terms of God’s absence, but only of my dullness, my disobedience.”
Therefore, my experience is not of God’s absence but of my absence, my dullness, my faithlessness, my disobedience. I don’t fight to get God’s objective presence. It’s there. I fight to get his manifest presence, experienced presence. That’s my experience of his reality, which really means that the key changes have to happen in me — not in him. His location is not the issue. My faith, my sanctification, is the issue, and that’s the battle of my life every day.
He Will Hold You Fast
So finally, the last question is, What does it look like to delight in God in felt desertion? It’s a huge question, so let me just point to a passage for you to think about. Hebrews 12:2 says, “[Look] to Jesus, . . . who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” So, Jesus experienced a profound sense of desertion on the cross as he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And this text in Hebrews says he was able to endure that by the joy that was set before him.
Now I think that means that the faith of Jesus in his Father was able to hold on, was able to taste — by memory or by hope — some incremental measure of the anticipated joy with God. I think that’s what it looks like for us as well. For God’s elect, for his adopted children, God will hold us fast, as the song says. And the way he holds us is by preserving that mustard seed of remembered or anticipated joy at the Father’s right hand.