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When God Seems Far Away

Faith is our belief in God. Faith is our trust in God. When you trust anyone you have entered a relationship. But sometimes that relationship is hard to keep if you aren’t sure about the other party.

With the turmoil in our nation, world, and own lives, we can find it hard to trust God, to keep the faith. We wonder if God is around, does he care, why doesn’t he answer our prayers? Faith wavers.

The past three Sundays our sermons have hit some of the questions that challenge our faith. How do we keep the faith in all the heavy things that we are living through?

One time a man brought his disturbed son to the disciples for healing. His son had a spirit that kept him from speaking and that sent him into violent seizures. But Jesus’ disciples weren’t able to do anything. Jesus asked for the boy to be brought to him. Sure enough the boy fell to the ground and went into convulsions before the Lord.

The father pleaded with Jesus, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said, “If you are able! All things can be done for the one who believes.” And the father cried out to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”[1]

Isn’t that the cry of so many of us. We are a strange mixture of belief and unbelief. We are faithful doubters, unbelieving believers. We don’t think we have enough faith. Or we think we should have more, like this person or that person. Questioning our faith makes us feel inferior or unworthy.

Unfortunately we don’t say much about this to one another which is a shame because it is when we admit our struggles that we can often grow as Christians.[2] But I think we all have times when keeping the faith is hard.

Sometimes it’s when God seems far away. We don’t sense he is near. We don’t find evidence of his presence. It’s like he has left us.

I have been quoting C.S. Lewis a lot lately. Maybe because he is so quotable. Writing about the pain of losing his wife to cancer, Lewis wrote,

“Where is God?...Go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.”

People pray, weep, wait, and cry out to God and get nothing. Why is he so far away?

A couple of Sundays ago one of our Scripture readings was from Psalm 22, and we turn to it again this morning.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?”

So far. So far.

David, to whom Psalm 22 is attributed, wants to know why God is so far away. Psalm 22 is a struggle to keep the faith in God. It is a back and forth between wondering where God is and remembering that he has been able to be trusted in the past. And isn’t that how faith can be? One moment we are in touch with God and the next we have lost that touch.

Before we think God has moved away from us let’s make sure we have checked some things on our end.

First, do we have a relationship with the Lord? Do we know him and does he know us? Have we consciously made a commitment to trust him?

Second, have moved away from him? If we don’t sense his nearness because we aren’t seeking him or trying to live our lives for him, then we might want to look at that first.

Third, is there anything we have put in the way of us and the Lord? I am not talking about the daily stumblings and sins we all do. I am talking about larger offenses against the Lord – hatred, lying, rebellion, greed – that pushes God away from us. God might be saying, “I want to be near to you but not as long as you treat your family like garbage.”

Our Lord Jesus Christ uttered the very first words of Psalm 22 as he hung on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Are we surprised that one of Jesus’ final words is a question? Perhaps we would expect something more triumphant at the end of Jesus life. Maybe we would expect him to say something like, “Victory is God’s!” or “I love you, Father.” Or another of the great psalms, “The Lord is my shepherd” or “I fear no evil, for you are with me!” That’s not what Jesus said.

“My God, why have you forsaken me”?

In Jesus’ case, the Father did abandon him for a moment because he was paying the price of our sin which is separation from God. The broken communion between the Father and the Son was our atonement as Jesus took our death. Remember the Son moved away from the Father by coming into our world so that he could move closer to us. And for a moment all the evil of this world was placed upon him.

But even God the Son felt God the Father was far away. Which is why Jesus’ cry from the cross empowers us. It empowers us to question and to take our deepest and most heart-wrenching struggles to God.

As I’ve preached before, questioning God doesn’t show a lack of faith. Perhaps you have been told or thought it is wrong to question God. Or you have been told that doubt is bad and shows a lack of faith. Who are we kidding? Don’t we ask God “why” all the time?

Why my divorce? Why this illness? Why this tragedy? Why do I continue to struggle with this? Why, God? Why?

No one lives the life of faith and doesn’t question God. If you don’t ever wonder, you aren’t living by faith. Asking questions doesn’t mean we have lost faith. By asking God about God’s absence - by asking God “why”- Jesus teaches us about faith.

Part of faith is calling on God when our experience leads us to think that God is not there. Faith is looking to God even when we do not feel him. How can wondering and questioning be faith? Because Jesus’ question, which was first David’s question, is directed to the Father. “My God, my God…” He looks to God, the God who knows and belongs to. The Father seems far away, but it is to the Father that the Son looks. Jesus came not only giving us answers; he came asking our questions.[3]

It is exactly to God that our doubts, our questions, our struggle with understanding should be directed. If you are wondering about God you haven’t lost faith. You are very much keeping the faith because you are taking your feelings exactly where they need to be taken. It is when we no longer look to God that faith is lost.

Men and women of faith have always asked God “why?” Job didn’t call God into question because he didn’t have faith. Job called God into question because he trusted God, and wanted to know what the deal was. If we are going to complain, complain to God. If we are going to get mad, get mad at God. If we are going to hold someone responsible, hold God responsible. He’s big enough.

Only those who have great confidence in God can be disappointed when God seems distant.[4]

We can’t be disappointed in God if we don’t have any confidence in him in the first place.

On the cross, Jesus doesn’t ask for rescue. He cries for his Father’s presence. He wants to know why the Father isn’t there, or at least doesn’t seem to be there.

Are you there, God? Because I don’t feel you. I don’t sense you. I feel lonely and abandoned.

Sometimes in our suffering it isn’t an explanation we really need. We often know there is no simple explanation if there is an explanation at all. What we really want is to know that someone, especially God, is with us. Many a person has been able to go through tremendously hard things because they knew that God was with them. And most of the time that presence of God came through the love, support, and care of others.

By crying out to the Father on the cross, Jesus gives all followers who feel God is far from them permission to pray for help and question where God is. Jesus shows that faith includes holding the worst up to God.[5]

We think of Mother Teresa as someone of great faith who did a tremendous work for the Lord. Yet, when she died her letters and journal writings showed that for much of her life and ministry she felt abandoned by God. She felt God’s absence.

In one of her letters she wrote:

“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of your love – and now has become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want- and there is no One to answer…The darkness is so dark – and I am alone.”[6]

Many people interpreted this as her not really having that strong of a faith. But Teresa had great faith in God. In a case of great irony, the more she felt the distance of God the more she wanted to reach out to the poor and dying. The more she wanted to serve the Father, be faithful to him, love him and be used by him. She stubbornly sought God and held to him.

She led her followers to Jesus even as she lived in pain of not knowing his presence. She would say to those who worked with her when they were in difficult times, “Don’t give in to your feelings. God is permitting this.”[7]

The story of Job is well known. God allowed Job to lose everything and go into a period of great suffering. Job was mystified why this would happen, and questioned God, believing he had been given up by God. But Job had no idea that God was actually closer to him than he knew. Job just didn’t know what was happening behind the curtain, that God was allowing this but was also very near him. He was just quiet.

In those times we think God is far away, there is often more going on than we suspect. What we feel isn’t always what is real because we don’t see everything.

Let me give an illustration. The light spectrum is the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These wavelengths radiate from a light source. Think of a rainbow. But the human eye only sees 30% of the light spectrum. There is about 70% in colors that we don’t see. On the other hand, honey bees and homing pigeons can see ultraviolet rays that we can’t see.

The point is that in the supernatural realm our vision is even more limited. We don’t see all that God is doing. “Much more may be involved than we can ever dream. It requires faith to believe that, and faith to trust that we are never abandoned, no matter how distant God seems.”[8]

When Abraham’s son Isaac was in a time of conflict, the Lord came to him and told him he was with him.[9]

Before Israel began to take its long journey into the promised land the Lord said, “…it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”[10] The writer of Hebrews picks up this verse when writing to Christians under great stress, and tells them, “…for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.”[11]

In Isaiah the Lord says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you…”[12] I pray that for the people of Puerto Rico and Florida.

When the Lord called people to rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem, he sent the prophet Haggai saying to them “I am with you.”[13]

After Jesus rose from the dead and commissioned his disciples to go into all the world to make disciples, he said, “And remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.”[14]

Jesus told his disciples “I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” The Advocate he was speaking of was the Holy Spirit who is the presence of God with us now. He lives in our hearts. He testifies to us of God’s love, promises, and presence.

The promise of his presence is repeated again and again to those living for the Lord because we do sometimes feel he is far away. But, like Mother Teresa said, don’t give in to those feelings. The feeling is real, but there is a different reality. Faith acknowledges the feeling but doesn’t totally sign off on it. We know our vision can be limited and that truly the Lord is near.

If there were some practical things to move through a time of feeling God’s absence I would say:

1. Share the burden with someone else. Let the community of faith help carry and care for you. Finding trusted friends that will support us is very important.

2. Hang onto the promises of God. “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “I am with you always.”

3. Keep walking. It may be baby steps. It might be like walking in a dark closet.

4. Do things that will nurture your faith. Especially the easy things. Maybe you can’t do some of the faith practices you are used to but do the easy things that will nurture your faith. Things like coming to worship. And taking communion.

All we have to do when we come to this table is receive. We don’t have to work for it, earn it, or feel any particular way. We just take it with whatever faith we have. It’s about what God does for us, not what we do for him.

Jesus puts bread and the cup – tangible things that we can see, touch and taste - before all of his disciples to show us his presence. At this table, Jesus says, “I am here. I am with you.”

When you are down in the dumps, I am near.

When you can’t see me, I am near.

When you don’t feel me, I am near.

When everything seems against you, I am near.

When you are weighted with grief or fear, I am near.

When you feel no one loves you, I love you and am here.

Sometimes it is the job of a preacher to just proclaim what is true despite appearances. So I say to all of us this morning. God is here. And he is closer than we think or can even imagine.

Prayer: O Lord, thank you that you are near even when we think you are far. Open our eyes to know your love and grace in the journey of our life. Amen.

[1] Mark 9:24 [2] See Fleming Rutledge, “Help My Unbelief,” p.XI [3] Dale Bruner, The Christbook: Commentary on Matthew, p.1049 [4] Douglass Hare, Interpretation Commentary on Matthew, p.323 [5] James Mays, Interpretation Commentary, Psalms, p.106 [6] Come Be My Light, 186-187 [7] Come Be My Light, p.337 [8] Illustration and quote from Philip Yancey, Disappointment With God, p.233 [9] Gen. 26:24 [10] Deut. 31:6 [11] Hebrews 13:5 [12] Isaiah 43:2 [13] Haggai 1:13 [14] Matt. 28:20

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