We get this question a lot, perhaps more than any other question we hear: What do I do when it feels like God isn’t there?
Sometimes, the question sounds more like this: How can I get back to God when I feel so far away?
Whether you are a lifelong Jesus follower or are just looking into this whole Jesus thing, I think this is a common feeling that we’ve all experienced — this distance from God that can sometimes feel so overwhelming and isolating that we just don’t know what to do with it.
The good news is that you are in good company. If you’ve ever felt so far from God, know that there were moments in the lives of every single biblical hero — Jesus included — when God seemed to be distant, silent and frankly just far away. Absent, even.
We’re going to walk through what God says about these seasons, as well as what we can do to bridge that gap in seasons of quiet and seeming isolation.
You’re not the only one.
Let’s be very clear here, you are not the first — and you won’t be the last — person to experience a season of spiritual dryness, or a “spiritual desert” as some would call it. In some cases, this feeling of being far from God results after we ourselves have neglected our daily relationship with Jesus. That one is pretty self-explanatory. But sometimes, we enter this season of feeling distance right on the heels of a season of “soul on fire,” so to speak. That’s when this feeling of God’s distance really hits deep. Almost like abandonment. There are so many questions, and so many times that we feel like we did something wrong — or not enough — and that’s why we’re in the desert now.
God gives us a beautiful story of a similar situation in 1 Kings when Elisha is near one of his disciples, who is cutting down wood to build a meeting space. They are on the bank of the Jordan River, and the young protege has been hard at work, disciplined and active, to move toward the goal of building this new building.
As the story goes, midswing, the head of the ax flies off and lands at the bottom of the Jordan. The protege is distraught — not only has he lost his “cutting edge” (as Priscilla Shrirer calls it), but he also reveals that the ax had been borrowed from a close friend. With nothing left to do, he turns to Elisha in his distress, and Elisha is able to call up the ax from the bottom of the Jordan.
Now, you may be wondering what on earth this story has to do with feeling far from God. Let’s break this down a bit, shall we?
The protege who lost the ax head was doing God’s work. He was actively pursuing the action that God had directed, and then he suddenly lost his “cutting edge.” Does that sound familiar? Maybe it feels a bit like that right now, when you think to yourself, “Lord, I’ve done everything You’ve asked. Why do You still feel so far away?”
When the ax head sank to the bottom of the Jordan, it was about as far away as it could have been from the man. He had no idea how to get it back, and no idea what to do to move forward. He was simply lost.
There’s something really important that we need to note here: The ax was borrowed.
There was nothing that the man could do to summon the ax to him. He couldn’t dive to the bottom of the Jordan. He had lost something that was borrowed, and he couldn’t return it.
Here’s the parallel: Your faith is borrowed. As Paul clearly states, your faith is a gift from God. No amount of works is able to earn faith; it is simply a gift. Borrowed. And the only thing we can do when we feel like we have lost that connection of faith that tethers us to God is to call out to Him and ask for help.
In ancient Israel, prophets acted as spiritual representation of God’s nearness. The fact that Elisha was near the man when he lost the ax head is not a coincidence. The remarkable part of this story is not just that Elisha returned the ax head, but that the man turned to Elisha and asked him to do it.
Like the man chopping down the trees, sometimes we become so busy “doing” God’s will that we forget His nearness. Just like the loss of the ax head while Elisha silently stood by, God will sometimes silently stand by — still near — and wait for us to stop “doing” and turn to Him, remembering that our faith and our relationship with Him is not dependent on our works.
Fighting the urge to “do” when we feel so far from God
How often do we try to white knuckle getting back to God? We feel so far from God, so clearly we need to go back to our Sunday school checklist and make sure that we’re doing everything right, so God will be happy with us and want to be near to us.
That sounds absurd in a normal season, but how many times do we ALL fall into this pattern during seasons of spiritual silence? It’s arguably the gut reaction for the majority of us as Christians. But just like we talked about before with the ax head, there is nothing we can do to muster more faith outside of simply praying for it and seeking God daily.
In John 15:5-8 (NIV), Jesus addresses this universal urge to do more to somehow earn God’s closeness:
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
The key word here is “remain.” In fact, Jesus says the word “remain” 11 times in this one chapter. Remain in me. Remain in my love.
I think we can all agree that Jesus chose His words carefully. In fact, Proverbs 30:5 (NIV) says, “Every word of God is flawless.” So when Jesus chooses the word “remain” 11 times in one brief setting, that’s important. Imagine listening to a speaker who keeps repeating the same word in every other sentence. You’d probably take notice that the speaker is trying to drive a point home.
The word “remain” matters, because in seasons when we feel separated from God, we have a choice in what we can do. We can run to something else to fill that gap, or we can choose to remain faithful and trust that God’s word is true, that even when it feels like He is so far away, He never abandons us.
So resist. Resist the urge to white knuckle your to-do list to try to earn your way back to God’s nearness. He is always near. Sometimes in these stretches of spiritual silence, God is simply asking you to be faithful and “remain.” Honestly, in some seasons that’s all we have to give. When we’re worn out and exhausted and simply have nothing left to pour out, what a blessing it is that God simply asks us to remain. He will take care of the rest, whether we feel it or not. He is always near.