When God Seems Far Away
When I wake up in the morning, as a general rule, my temperature is 98.6. I expect this. I feel more or less entitled to it. If it's not the case, I figure something is going wrong, and I want it fixed.
What about my spiritual temperature?
Should I expect it to be as well-regulated? After all, the apostle Paul said, "Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." If I'm lacking, has somebody (me? my wife? my church? God?) messed up?
On the other hand, the same Paul said, "I face daily the pressure" of concern for all the churches. "Who is weak, and I do not feel weak?"
How do we reconcile fervor and weakness?
The psalmist says that the godly person is "like a tree planted by streams of water that yields fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither, who consistently prospers." But a few psalms later we hear: "My bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long? … I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears" (Ps. 6).
Every Christian wants a "normal" reading on their spiritual thermometer. We all want to feel spiritually vigorous, and we hurt when we don't. This pain is intensified for people who lead church ministries. You ask yourself the questions: "How am I to lead people to life when I feel dead inside? Is it even safe to try?"
How can we make sense of, and respond to, our fluctuating spiritual temperatures? Are we alone in this experience? And what does prayer look like during these times?
Nobody's Soul But Mine?
There is an old saying: "We tend to compare our insides with other people's outsides." Nowhere is this truer than in ministry. I see other ducks floating serenely on their ministry ponds, but the only furiously churning legs I'm aware of are my own.
Perhaps it's helpful to know how common soul struggles are. Consider the story of Agnes.
From the time she was a young girl, Agnes believed. Not just believed: she was on fire. She wanted to do great things for God. She said things such as she wanted to "love Jesus as he has never been loved before."
Agnes had an undeniable calling. She wrote in her journal that "my soul at present is in perfect peace and joy." She experienced a union with God that was so deep and so continual that it was to her a rapture. She left her home. She became a missionary. She gave him everything.
And then he left her.
At least that's how it felt to her. "Where is my faith?" She asked. "Deep down there is nothing but emptiness and darkness …. My God, how painful is this unknown pain … I have no faith."
She struggled to pray: "I utter words of community prayers—and try my utmost to get out of every word the sweetness it has to give. But my prayer of union is not there any longer. I no longer pray."
She still worked, still served, still smiled. But she spoke of that smile as her mask, "a cloak that covers everything."
This inner darkness continued on, year after year, with one brief respite, for nearly 50 years. God was just absent.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.