What to Do When God Feels Distant
Brandon writes in with a very common question: “What do we do when God has seemed silent for a really long time? I feel almost no joy. I go repeatedly to the Scriptures and most often walk away still discouraged and unhelped. I pray continuously and feel like I get no response. I am so cast down, Pastor John. What do I do?”
Brandon, I am sorry for the darkness and the distance that you feel. Your situation is so common to God’s people that many, many books have been written about this kind of experience of darkness and distance.
I know that doesn’t make it easier — that books have been written about your experience — but it might help you not doubt your standing with God just to realize that I and others — thousands of others — have shared seasons like that.
I wish I knew you better, Brandon, so that I could be sure you really do grasp the gospel of Jesus. That he died for sinners like us. He absorbed the wrath of God against his people. He covered our sins by paying the price of the suffering and death we deserved.
He rose from the dead to give invincible hope. He purchased a new-covenant promise never to let his people fall away into destruction. And he makes all of this available to us by faith alone, by seeing ourselves as helpless and receiving — receiving like a little child — all that God is for us in Christ and embracing him as our supreme treasure. That is the gospel.
So I want to make sure that you are resting there, embracing that even though you may be experiencing some feelings of distance from God right now. I hope you are casting yourself wholly on that. Even so, I know there are seasons of darkness. So I want to try to answer your question. You say, “What do I do?”
Let me point you to the biblical pattern in answer to that question. It is as if the Bible hears you ask the question and answers it. And the sum of the answer is: Seek him continually and wait for him. Seek him and wait for him. So here is the seek part from Psalm 27:8–9, “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, O Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me.”
“I and others — thousands of others — have shared seasons like this.”
So what does that seeking look like? The Psalms are so helpful here. They are just full of examples. Psalm 6:2–3 says, “Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing. Heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul is greatly troubled, but you, O Lord, how long?” Or consider Psalm 13:1–2, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Or Psalm 90:13–14, “Return, O Lord. How long? Have pity on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love.”
So there is a picture of people who don’t know how long this is going to last. God is seemingly gone away. They don’t presently experience much satisfaction in him. That is why they are crying out for it. So we are to seek the Lord by crying out to him continually like that to show up in power and reveal himself. So don’t stop seeking because it has been a long time.
And then comes that wait part. O, how many places and parts of the Bible tell us, “Wait! Wait!” Dozens of passages. Psalm 37:7 says, “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him. Fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way.” There are people who are going along just fine and leaving you behind. Don’t fret over that. Wait. Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the Lord. Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.”
Perhaps most encouraging of all for me is Psalm 40. I remember that, when I first came to Bethlehem, I wanted the people to know how I felt about these seasons of distance and darkness. So that summer — I think it was the summer of ’80 or ’81 — I preached Summer Psalms, I think I called them. And one of them was called In the Pits with the King from Psalm 40. Here is verse 1: “I waited patiently for the Lord.” No indication of how long. Just, “I waited.” “He inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog” (vv. 1–2).
So there is David for a season—we don’t know how long—in a pit and in a miry bog. And then he finally experiences God come and verse 2–3 say, “He 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 in those last words, you hear one of the purposes of God.
You might wonder, Why would he do this to David and to me? Why would he leave us languishing in such a pit as this? His answer is this: “Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord” (v. 3). It is a strange kind of evangelism. It really is. But take heart. That may be what he is doing in your life.
I mean, the world doesn’t just need chipper, successful people. The world needs people who have walked through darkness and come out at the other end in some measure and can empathize with what they are going through.
My own experience is that my sorrows and my struggles and my sense of God’s distance have made me a better pastor, a more effective pastor, not a less effective pastor. So I want to encourage folks who are tempted to think this is all just pointless.
“My own experience is that my sorrows and my struggles have made me a better pastor, not a less effective pastor.”
If you ask: How long? I don’t know. I just know you mustn’t let go. Don’t let go.
I had a friend who was seriously depressed for eight years, almost to the point of immobilization. If I described it, it would be way beyond what you are experiencing, I think. Then one day after years of memorizing Scripture and holding on and waiting and seeking, something happened. God broke in and broke my friend out of his depression.
I knew him till the day he died, and he never went back into it. He always chalked it up to the fact that he continued in the word, even when he didn’t feel much and could barely function. He continued in the word and sought the Lord.
So a book may not be helpful right now. Sometimes being told there is a book about your situation when you are dark doesn’t help. But if it does, if that sounds hopeful, I wrote a book, because, Brandon, I have been asked this question so many times about what if I don’t have joy — what if God feels distant? So I wrote a book called When I Don’t Desire God. I would send you there when you feel able. But let me pray for you that God would take this and help.
Father, I just want to close with a quick prayer for Brandon that you would work, that you would return to him. Open his eyes. Grant him to see, grant him to feel your preciousness and the love that you have for him. I pray this in Jesus’s name, Amen.