When God Keeps To Himself

In our present day church culture which tends to be preoccupied with creating strategies for success, there is a need to ponder those moments when it appears that God has moved out of range. Instead of a miracle every day or at least a deep sense of the Lord’s Presence, a day dawns when there is nothing. He is not around. The joy of the Lord is displaced by the long, dark night of the soul. Such darkness is often shattering, usually very depressing, often entirely unexpected.

The desert experience:

  • It is not too hard to get the lie of this tough, forbidding country. Where there was previously clarity of vision and purpose, there is now uncertainty.
  • Instead of the details falling into place as they once seemed to, there are endless reverses. One setback piggy backs the one before it.
  • Prayer becomes a chore; the Bible has no word for us.
  • We struggle to relate to others, particularly those who seem to be on top all the time.
  • This accumulation of difficulties produces a gut wrenching powerlessness with the call to ministry increasingly threadbare.
  • Even those not given to depression can begin to wonder if there is a way out of this dire, spiritual quagmire. Service is supplanted by survival with the outlook being grim. If there ever was a “honeymoon” period in the Lord’s service, it is now looking horribly like an impending divorce.

The truth is that there are times when it all seems too much. Serving Jesus is a peculiar mix of the mountain top, the valley and the desert. Most of us prefer the mountain top although we are prepared to plug away in the valley since that’s where much of the action really seems to be.

But the desert? The wilderness? That’s another story altogether. We are miserably prepared for the anxiety which so easily sneaks up on us without warning and so ably throws us into an unexpected spiritual tailspin. Effective church leaders have a plan for everything, we’re told. If you really love Jesus, you do not fall into crevasses like this. It all seems so untimely, so unfair, a dead end from which there is no seeming hope of return.

Why are we in the desert?

  • Even the causes for feeling down frequently escape us. Life would be a little more manageable if we could pin point the reasons for our darkness but this is so often beyond our reach. Indeed, we might identify weariness and general fatigue of the body, mind and spirit but we have met this combination before and handled it.
  • We stumble into new inner territory. There might be internal, personal fears and struggles which alarm us but we have coped previously through the grace of God. Perhaps there is more than the usual quota of difficult people, the critical and the unhelpful but we have handled them adequately in days gone by too.
  • May be it is a combination of all of these along with other nameless forces which render us vulnerable and depleted. Interestingly, we often forget we are in a spiritual battle and fail to reflect on the subterranean powers which are intent on making the way awkward and rugged. The idea of Satan orchestrating circumstances to thwart our great dreams for the Kingdom may even strike us as a trifle dramatic. He surely has greater victories to pull off than frustrating our feeble efforts for God!

However we may ponder these matters, there is a high likelihood that we will wonder about the location of God in these hard times. Where is He? How come He has not turned up to rescue us? Is our faith a misdirected exercise in altruism? Have we somehow fallen for a line that, at the end, has no inherent value or meaning? In short, have we been kidding ourselves about our call to service, our relationship with Him, our whole vocational orientation? In case you are curious, there are no easy answers when you are stifling in the loneliness of your own personal desert.        ,

Trying to find the causes

  • There is a way of reflecting which almost always leads to even greater spiritual decline (if that is possible). Even classic extroverts can become committed introverts if the situation is serious enough. This tendency to hunt around inside of our own being for answers is a risky business. It is possible to turn in on ourselves so that we become our own enemy. Our peculiar collection of weaknesses and failures represents a massive unworthiness which should really rule us out of a vocation which we have no right to aspire to. It is as if we have obtained a passport to a special land for which we have absolutely no right of entry.
  • If only others knew our own barrenness of soul and spirit, they would be alarmed and devastated. They would be further shocked if the record of our past misdemeanours was known to them. What makes this internal excursion even worse is that we look at our friends and colleagues and determine rapidly that they (unlike us) are worthy of the Lord’s call to them thereby enhancing our sense of isolation even more.
  • Once we have confirmed our own rampant disabilities, we are inclined then to turn on others. If only we had received more support from our family or friends, we would not be in this current mess. If our leaders had really understood what we were trying to achieve, they would not have been so intractable. If the church was really touched by the love of Jesus, there would never have been this conflict. Such a litany of lost hopes can go on for a long time. It rarely accomplishes anything and certainly never resolves the despair which engulfs us. Foolishly we imagine that the apportioning of blame may somehow relieve the anguish.

Where is the escape route?

So, is there a way out of this morass? Put simply, yes. Is there a quick exit from the wilderness? Probably, no.

  • While there are various principles and insights which may reduce some of the pain, these may not necessarily lift the cloud. It is true that Jesus experienced the wilderness. It is true that the call to serve always embraces the cross. These things we know in our brain but the life and death battle is not really being fought there. It is not a matter of the cerebral, of academic understanding or knowledge. We have the Bible, countless books, commentaries, sermons, the whole works to tell us of the reality of God’s Presence in the lonely times.
  • This fearing for our own sanity and survival cannot be resolved by some spiritual aspirin. Even others may not be able to help since we may have cleverly disguised our struggle so that they have no hint of the enormity of what is going on inside us. It is amazing how we can sustain the image of control and coping when we are collapsing internally. We may even be able to preach like an angel. It is all by the grace of God, of course, even in this abject poverty when He appears to be off somewhere else.
  • And this is our way forward. The passage from the desert to the valley with its green pastures and still waters is, like everything else, a gracious gift of God. In just the same way we arrived in the desert for no discernable reason, we begin to find steadier ground and greater purpose without any obvious equation or explanation being apparent. Perhaps we have at last revealed the vast extent of our need to this absent God on the off chance that He may catch a word or two as He attends to others. May be we have stopped trying to organise our own survival and have found the courage to level with a fellow traveller in the faith so that our desperation is even partly shared.
  • The journey into the heart of God is never without hair raising, life threatening encounters with ourselves and the world around us. We cannot enjoy the air at the mountain peak if we have not gasped for life in the valley of death. There is nothing to say about the grace of God unless it has finally reached down to us and mysteriously restored faith and trust. We do not map our own escape route from the desert. Rather, we are gently led forward by the God Who has a habit of looking for us in the odd, hard places.

The desert’s refining work….

  • In the wilderness? Do not be afraid. His grace is sufficient. He is not keeping to Himself.
  • Just biding His time while our life is being shaped by a new found humility, dependence and trust.
  • This is the unique refining work of the desert; it does not occur in the valley or on the mountain top. Besides, there are other lonely souls out there doing battle.
  • Their hope lies with those who have looked grief, depression and despair in the eye and who, in a fearful moment, have been surprised by God’s grace.
  • He heard the cry of His people in Egypt and delivered them; he went looking for Elijah in his moment of collapse, dusted him down and put him back on his feet. He will hear you and come to you too. The heavens are not made of brass; your prayers are being heard.
  • Wipe the sand out of your toes, put your sandals back on. It’s time to get moving. There is yet much to be accomplished. He has a few more things for you to do yet.

Rev John Simpson