Is God distant because I messed up? Because I angered him? Because I made choices that made him mad at me? This line of questions is actually a surprisingly common email we get from people, especially when it feels like nothing in life is going their way. Today’s question comes from a listener named Kristen.
“Dear Pastor John, I am writing to you because I am very concerned that I have lost God forever. I have been very active in our church community, and about three years ago really experienced joy in Christ. I felt the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and I was talking and singing about God all the time. Later that year I met my now ex-boyfriend, who said being so happy and committed to my church was delusional, and that I should not go as much or listen so intently to what is taught at our community youth group. I was scared he would dump me, so I slowly stopped going to church and singing and praying as much because I didn’t want to lose the man I thought was to be my husband. While dating this man I turned away from the church.
“I felt God was upset with me and would not take me back anyway because I had sex before marriage. I was also very mad when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and I was having health issues of my own. Now I want to turn back to God, but I fear my heart is hardened. I feel a pain in my chest when I come to church. Am I lost? Is there any hope for my restoration again? I’m scared that I have squandered something precious that cannot be reclaimed.”
Kristen, I have a great hope for you — I think a well-grounded hope for you. But before I give you a reason for that hope and invite you into it, let me say something sobering, which at first might make you feel worse. I promise you that if you hear me all the way, it will be good news.
Following False Prophets
You say that the reason you doubt God would have you back is that you’ve messed up so badly. You had sex outside marriage, left the church, and got angry at God for your dad’s cancer and your own health issues. You’re right, that’s terrible that you did that. But you describe your previous condition as spiritually strong.
“God is aiming at a deep, strong, doctrinally sound, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, unshakable new you.”
You said you were active in your church community and experiencing joy in Christ. You said you were feeling the gifts of the Holy Spirit and talking and singing about God all the time.
Now what I want you to do is consider the possibility, which I think is probably the case, that your spiritual condition in those good years was not as good as you think it was. You were having many religious experiences — church, joy, gifts, and singing. But when it came to the actual obedience, where you had to choose the value of Christ over a boyfriend leading you away from Christ, you chose the boyfriend.
Your situation was like the Israelites. Moses says,
If a prophet [not to mention a boyfriend] arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods,” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet [or boyfriend] or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Deuteronomy 13:1–3)
In a sense, I’m making matters worse for you, right? This does not feel good, I’m sure. You failed that test. You chose the false prophet over Jesus.
A Beautiful Rescue
Let me tell you now why this may be really good news for you. You interpret the last years of your life as a terrible departure from a close walk with God, and I am suggesting that the Lord may be doing in your life something very different. I’m suggesting the Lord is not, in these years, allowing you to lose a close walk with God, but rescuing you from a phony walk with God. You might have to listen to what I just said over again.
I’m suggesting that, in the last months or years (I can’t remember how long you have in mind here), God’s not allowing you to lose a close walk with him, but rescuing you from a phony walk with him.
Your walk was very religious, but not real. If you loved Jesus so little that a boyfriend was more important than Jesus, you did not have a close walk with God. Whatever it was, God wrecked it, right? He wrecked it.
A Better Plan
Now, through the miseries of that wreckage, he has awakened in your heart a new desire for him. He’s not inviting you back to the old kind of joy and singing and church life. No.
“God is doing something far deeper and better than calling you back to a phony faith.”
He’s not calling you back to the kind of faith that concealed a heart that was ready to commit idolatry as soon as the boyfriend came along. He’s got something way better planned for you than that.
He’s rescuing you from that fake faith. God is not restoring something so weak and so superficial it couldn’t keep you out of an unbeliever’s arms. He wrecked that and then spared you. He spared you from marrying that man. What a gift.
Call to Be Tough
God is doing something far deeper and better than that. This is my interpretation of what he’s doing. You have to test this to see if it’s of God. He is aiming at a deep, strong, doctrinally sound, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated, unshakable new you. Not a return to the old religious you that sells Jesus like Judas for a thirty-pieces-of-silver boyfriend.
Kristen, I could hear you say, “Whoa, those are tough words, Pastor John.” I wrote them knowing they were tough, Kristen, because I want you to be tough.
I want you to be tough, unshakable, unbendable in your allegiance to Jesus as your supreme treasure. No loosey-goosey, churchy, emotional stuff anymore. I’m talking major, deep-down, unshakable, authentic allegiance to your King and supreme treasure. I’m not interested in making you feel soft right now. I want you to be tough.
That’s my hope-filled interpretation, Kristen, of what God is doing in your life.
Now, here are a couple biblical reasons why you should feel hope instead of despair. The pain in your chest at church will, I think, go away when you take hold of these truths and knock Satan over the head with them. I’m going to suggest that you read (and this is risky) Ezekiel 16. It’s very long — 63 verses.
It is a horrible depiction of unfaithfulness between Israel and her husband, God. It portrays God giving her over. He gives her over to terrible, horrible judgments. Don’t stop reading, Kristen, until you get to the last five verses. They come as a staggering, absolutely astonishing act of gracious forgiveness. I’ll read them to you:
I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall know that I am the Lord, that you may remember and be confounded, and never open your mouth again because of your shame, when I atone for you for all that you have done, declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 16:62–63)
Even more to the point, Kristen, consider why God saved the apostle Paul only after he had become a Christian-killer and a persecutor of the church. Here’s the reason Paul gives (you need to hear this for you): “I received mercy for this reason, that in me” — put your name in here, Kristen — “as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Kristen, God saved Paul from being the worst example of a legalistic, hateful Christian-killer so that you would feel Christ’s perfect patience and take heart to believe on him for eternal life. I will pray with you that God grants you to see this and feel this and happily come home.