What To Do When God Feels Distant

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February 1, 2021

We had just moved to Nashville after being married for six months. My husband Garrett and I were eager and optimistic about this new chapter in Music City. After unpacking and settling into our new home, the excitement eventually wore off. I did not realize then that I was entering a dark and difficult season in my faith.

Initially, I attributed my feelings of loneliness and depression to being in a new environment and without community. While those were contributing factors to why I felt the way I did, years later, I look back at that season and identify something deeper was happening.

Faith has always been a big part of my life, and before that point, I always felt comforted by a strong sense of the Lord’s presence. I have journals filled with prayers from my teenage years documenting the incredible adoration I felt towards God as I saw Him working in my life. Those days were marked with what felt like mountain top moments that I tangibly felt the sweet presence of the Lord radiating over every aspect of my life. Worship was life-giving, and prayer was instinctual and felt two-sided. My faith was vibrant, alive, and unrelenting.

Years later, I was lost and confused as to why God seemed so distant. My attempts to experience what once felt like second nature only made me frustrated and disappointed. I was gradually becoming resentful and resistant towards all of it — prayer, worship, and even church. Disenchanted and tired, I started to wonder if I had done something wrong to deserve this or if God was there.

Many believers go through valleys where God feels distant. Even David describes the excruciation of what feels like being forgotten by God:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Psalm 13:1–2, ESV

I remember feeling ashamed of my doubt in God and was afraid to be honest about where my heart was at with others. Truthfully, I was scared if I shared my doubts and the state of my heart, I would be met with a prescription to pray more and put more trust in God, which only perpetuated my frustration because I had been trying to do just that! I wish I knew then what I know now and what I tell any brother or sister who finds themselves in a dark night of the soul.

Photo by Paola Chaaya on Unsplash

If you have ever found yourself in a season of spiritual dryness, perhaps you can relate to some of the things I went through. It can be a lonely and dark place that sometimes, like in my case, can lead to isolation. I want to encourage you that this not taboo, and there is tremendous hope for the soul who finds themselves wandering in what feels like a dark abyss.

The first time I heard about the term “dark night of the soul” was in college. While studying philosophies on spiritual development in one of my classes, I was immediately intrigued by the concept. Ancient Christian writers, such as St. John of the Cross, coined the term to describe how “[the] Spirit secretly does a deep work in the human spirit — a work that is so profound but feels so foreign to the Christian’s experience that it is often interpreted as the absence of God” (Coe, Musings on the Dark Night of the Soul).

Marked as the dark night of the senses or the Spirit, God uses these seasons to mature the believer through a sanctifying process that deepens their faith as they shift from being fueled by emotions to being anchored in trusting faith. If you look back at how I described my faith in the beginning paragraphs, you will notice a strong usage of the word “felt.” I was basing much of my faith on feelings and emotions, and God was now taking me on a journey deeper into the heart and intellect to strengthen my faith.

It is important to note that feelings and emotions are not bad. In fact, for a young believer, the Lord uses these experiences of consolation to encourage the soul to keep in the faith. But feelings alone cannot sustain our faith. Proverbs 3:4–5 says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Emotions are beautiful things, but they alone should not drive our faith.

Emotions are beautiful things, but they alone should not drive our faith

Can you recall ever being on a spiritual “high” after a worship service or a mission trip? People often notice that these “highs,” while exhilarating at the moment, are usually followed by dullness or apathy later. Why is this? I do not think it is fair to say the feelings of intense closeness to God are disingenuous in those moments. In fact, I think those moments are often beautiful gifts from our Maker that give us a glimpse of the fullness and joy we have yet to experience when we are ever before Him in eternity (Ps. 16:11).

It would be nice to be there and stay there, wouldn’t it? To experience His presence in a way that shakes any residue of doubt from our being, leaving nothing but pure bliss and devotion behind. Yet it is the experience of so many believers as they mature that God desires to deepen their faith and penetrate beneath the surface of emotions and into the heart, where circumstance cannot shake or manipulate.

Notice how the proverb said, “trust in the Lord with all your heart.” In Psalm 13 quoted earlier when David described the agony of feeling distant from God, he went on to say,

“But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me” (v. 5–6).

Ties to our own, finite understanding, our feelings alone can lead us astray. In this Psalm, David demonstrates how it is possible to long for God’s presence and even feel sorrow while simultaneously singing praises to the Lord because his faith was built on trust, not feelings. Yet he was not afraid to cry out to God about the pure longing of his soul to feel God’s presence, nor should we!

When I found myself in a dark night of the soul, it was a season of wrestling with what I believed. I cried out many times, “Where are you, God? How long will you hide your face from me?” I was sad, I was angry, and yes, I felt alone. But in that wrestling, I searched for Truth, and even though I wanted to give up so many times, I believe the Spirit helped me through even though I did not feel it or notice it. Looking back, I know God was with me and was working.

“It is the LORD who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deut. 31:8, ESV)

The darkness felt like it lasted ages, but eventually, the light broke through. I was blessed with a new perspective, deeper trust and understanding of God’s love, and peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7). At times, I still experience seasons of dryness, but I’ve also experienced seasons of great encouragement and consolation. Each season has shaped and refined different areas of my heart and paradigm, and I am grateful for each one. Even when I could not see Him at work or feel His presence, His fingerprints remain, renewing my hope and deepening my love.

What if I find myself in the dark night of the soul?

If you find yourself in a season of darkness, loneliness, and wondering if God is there, take heart. You are not alone, and no matter how dark things feel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Know that you do not have to hide or deny the pain you feel. You can boldly cry out to God, and He welcomes you into His presence. Above all, seek Truth. He is with you even when you do not feel it, and you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart (Jer. 29:13).