When You Feel Far Away From God
In a life of faith, looks can be deceiving. by Dianne E. Butts
"If you feel far away from God, guess who moved!"
I read the one-liner in a magazine and chuckled. But later I questioned its wisdom.
How many times have I felt so close to God one day, but so far from Him the next? I wondered. I know sin erects barriers between us and God, but sometimes He seems distant even when I have not sinned. Why does God feel far away just when I need Him most -- when I'm in difficult circumstances or when my situation looks hopelessly impossible?
I never intend to move away from God, especially in tough times. Yet sometimes He feels so far away. What has happened?
Defeat after victory
I'm not the only one who has felt this shift.
In a dramatic display of God's power, the prophet Elijah witnessed God's nearness. He challenged the prophets of Baal to climb Mount Carmel for a contest: his God against theirs. After these false prophets spent most of the day pleading for their god to accept their sacrifice, Elijah prayed to the one true God. Immediately "the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil . . ." (1 Kings 18:38). Amazed by God's response, the people put the prophets of Baal to death.
When wicked Queen Jezebel heard what had happened to her prophets, she sent Elijah a message: "May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them" (19:2).
As a result, "Elijah was afraid and ran for his life" (v. 3).
Did Elijah feel the Lord had left him in the middle of this difficult situation? After watching God's defeat of Baal's prophets, did Elijah think God would not, or could not, help him?
I have fought similar thoughts and feelings as I've slipped into spiritual valleys, often following "mountain top" experiences. But I'm learning not to trust those feelings. Our feelings fluctuate with our circumstances and other factors, and often do not accurately portray our situation. For instance, just because I feel God is far away does not mean He is far away. We know He is the God who has promised "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5) and "Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
When we base our faith on feelings, our faith fluctuates with every high and low in life. But when we base our faith on what we know of the unchangeable God, our faith remains steady, even in tough times.
Also, our physical senses -- touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste -- can influence our internal or "gut" feelings. Elijah's successor, Elisha, was helping the king of Israel frustrate the efforts of an invading army. Enraged, the enemy king sent "a strong force" to capture Elisha.
When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. "Oh, my lord, what shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O Lord, open his eyes so he may see." Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire . . ." (2 Kings 6:15-17).
The servant saw the enemy army surrounding him and Elisha, and he felt their situation was hopeless. But his sight deceived him because he could not see all that surrounded them -- not until God allowed him a glimpse of the vast spiritual army present to protect them.
Martha, whose brother Lazarus had died, learned that her physical sense of smell did not necessarily tell the whole story of her seemingly impossible predicament. When Jesus instructed her to take the stone away from the tomb of her dead brother, she hesitated.
"But, Lord . . . by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then . . . Jesus . . . called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out . . . (John 11:39-41, 43, 44).
Do our physical perceptions always reflect our entire situation? Can our senses, like our internal feelings, deceive us? If we base our faith only on what our physical senses can perceive, we will fail to take into account the spiritual realm. But there is a spiritual realm, for "God is spirit" (John 4:24).
When we base our faith on spiritual realities, which are not governed by physical laws, our faith will not crumble when circumstances look hopeless or impossible, because we know "nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37).
Faith tough enough to withstand tough times must not be based on what we feel or even what we perceive with our physical senses, but on what we know about God.
David, a young shepherd boy, did this. When he told King Saul he would fight Goliath, Saul tried to discourage him; but David wouldn't listen.
"Your servant has been keeping his father's sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it . . . The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (1 Samuel 17:34, 35).
Had David based his faith only on his gut feelings, he might have felt as terrified as Saul and the other Israelites (v. 11). And if he had reacted only to what he saw, the sight of the armor-clad, nine-foot champion (v. 4) might have frightened him away. But David knew the Lord had helped him perform his shepherd duties in the ordinary days of his life when he fought the lion and the bear. He knew God would help him fight Goliath.
How can we know God as David did? We can experience Him on ordinary days by asking Him to help us with decisions and problems. We can study the Bible and the stories of people like Elijah, Elisha, Martha, and David.
As we get to know God better, we begin to base our faith on what we know, not on what we feel or perceive through our physical senses. That kind of faith grows as we grow in our knowledge and understanding of Him. And a growing relationship with God matures into a faith that stands the test of tough times.
After pondering that one-liner in the magazine, I think I'd be inclined to rewrite: "If you feel far away from God, quit relying on what you feel and start relying on what you know!"