When I was 18 my grandpa passed away. It was my first real taste of death and it hit me hard. During that following Christmas holidays, my brother and I had some of the young adults from our church over. In that group of visitors were a handful of young adults home for the holidays from Calgary where they were attending Bible college (it was not a cool group). Later in the evening, when we were having a group conversation, I confessed that I was struggling with my faith. Every year as a teenager I would have a short phase of questioning whether God existed, but with my grandpa’s death, it made me question it to a whole new level and for much longer than ever before. Two of the girls from Bible college got very angry at me…you know, what you expect when you bear your heart. The one even ended up on her feet screaming at me for questioning. It was very helpful… for teaching me not to be vulnerable around them. That night taught me that just because you love God enough to go to Bible school (or to love God enough to go to Bible school in hopes of meeting someone to marry who also loves God enough to go to Bible school… it was nicknamed Canadian Bridal College for a reason) doesn’t mean you really get how Christianity works… or that you’re even a decent person. I know I’ve made some dumb mistakes in my passion for my faith, but I’ve never screamed at someone who was grieving the loss of their grandpa and struggling with their faith. That’s a social mistake even I haven’t made… and I’ve made my share. Fortunately, after about six months of feeling very alone, I started to feel God again (an idea that might seem crazy to anyone who hasn’t experienced this). It was a long time of going to church and reading my Bible while feeling absolutely nothing. The reality is even the most faithful of believers will go through times of feeling God’s absence. Sometimes our pain can help us feel closer to God while other times the pain leaves us feeling very alone and questioning if what we thought we knew and felt had been all in our head.
Below is a list of reasons why God can seem absent. In retrospect, I believe I was in the third situation since this was right before I started a 13 year journey of being a volunteer in a youth group and then being a youth pastor, which was the best training I could’ve received for being a psychotherapist. This, of course, is how I want to see it because it gives this time meaning and helps me feel encouraged that God had a purpose for this experience. In the moment it was terrible and I wouldn’t have thought this, but hindsight really is helpful. It also proves that through perseverance a light is typically found, but we can only find the light at the end of the tunnel when we keep moving forward.
- We’re Not Doing Our Part: Years ago a friend said he wasn’t able to feel God. As the conversation continued, I asked him where he’s going to church, but he hadn’t been in a long time. I then asked him how his Bible or Christian writer reading was going, but he hadn’t done that in a long time either. I then asked if he was listening to any Christian music – no. Was he doing verse of the day emails – no. Prayer – no. Regularly meeting with influential Christians – no. In this situation, even if God wanted to speak to my friend, how could He if there wasn’t any attempt to listen? God typically speaks in whispers and nudges while we’re seeking Him, which means if we’re not doing our part, there’s no room for God to speak to us or if He is, we’re not listening anyway. Since then my friend has confirmed what I have said: If I do my part, God does His.
- God Trusts Us & Knows Our Strength: One of the things I’ve struggled with over the years is recognizing my own strength. In the past I would look to God to bail me out of something when He’s the parent on the sideline waving His hands to get me to focus on the task in front of me. I’m looking to Him to fix something that I’m capable of handling on my own, but I just don’t see my own abilities, so I cry for help. Too often Christians will take on this infantile approach to life wanting God to do everything for them, but God gave Adam and Eve the garden and said, “Take care of it,” and left them to it. He wanted them to try things and discover because that’s where a sense of accomplishment and excitement are. A parent doing everything for their child will prevent the child from growing, and God wants us to grow. He’s made us capable of living without Him, so we need to see the strength He’s already given us. God’s strength is really just a top up, or as I’ve heard it said, “An unfair advantage,” which is a saying that should give us even greater confidence.
- Desert Period: I wish this was the “dessert” period, but it’s the opposite. The desert period is rough because it’s a time where we’re prepared and tested for what’s about to come. This concept goes back to when Moses lived in the desert for 40 years. He went from living like a prince in Egypt to learning how to be a family man and shepherd as this was ultimately his time of preparation before God called him to lead the Jews out of Egypt – a job he asked God to give to someone else because he knew how big it was. About 1400 years later, Jesus also went through a desert period at the beginning of His ministry where He is said to have been in the desert for 40 days and nights and tempted three times by Satan. It’s not uncommon for people who end up in a ministry position to look back and have a time they would call their desert period as it prepared them for something special they were about to do and to have satan try to prevent it.
- God is Simply Absent: When Jesus was on the cross dying, He asked, “God, why have you forsaken me?” If you’re like me, you’ll be thinking, “Wow… what does ‘forsaken’ mean?” Turns out it means abandoned or deserted. Even Jesus felt that God had abandoned Him. Sometimes God doesn’t feel like He’s there because He’s not. One analogy Jesus uses is that God is like the shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in his herd who are safe to find the one that’s lost. I can’t help but wonder if this is ever at play – God has temporarily left us to save a lost lamb because we’re safe. Other times, it might just be such a dark period where it’s like after a bomb when you need the dust to settle before you can see anything.
- God Gives Us What We Want: If we don’t care about Him when times are good, we can’t expect Him to be at our beck and call when things get tough. God is not a servant or a tradesman for us to use when we need Him and then ignore Him later. It’s like calling someone to help us move when we never talked before: “Why are you asking for my help if I don’t know you?” God gives us what we want: If we want to spend time with Him, He’ll spend time with us.
- Suffering can be a Source of Pride: Paul wrote, “But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Rom 5:3-4) As strange as it may seem to our culture, suffering can be considered a gift as it’s a source for growth and a way to prove our faithfulness. After the Romans stopped throwing the Christians to the lions for their beliefs, an act that many believers at the time felt was an honorable way to die, there were those who looked for ways to demonstrate their faith through suffering. One such group was called the Dessert Fathers who ended up with many followers selling all their possessions to live as ascetics in the desert, which led to the formation of monasteries. Our culture is so afraid of suffering, but at one point, when life was generally uncomfortable, suffering for a reason was a goal.
This week may you consider whether your pain can have a greater purpose… it can be very encouraging.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)