The old question is: “If God seems farther away than he used to—guess who moved?” The presumed answer is that we have moved; the blame is on our shoulders. We must look around, or look within, or look somewhere to find a remedy for the situation.

Unfortunately, this is where the analysis usually ends. The old saying does not go on to give any real help to us. While it may aptly describe the problem, it offers no solution.

Yet what this question points us toward is real enough for most Christians. The problem is the sense of the absence of the presence of God. Or to put it positively, the presence of the absence of God in our lives. For some, this difficulty never seems to arise. Their faces are always radiant and smiling; they seem always to be on a “spiritual high.” The Christian experience of these “sky-blue” believers reminds us of the old song, “Home on the Range,” for apparently their lives are ones where “seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day”!

But for many Christians the life of faith is more realistic, their quest for faith more of a struggle. There are times when we are vitally aware of God’s presence; but there are those other times when he seems agonizingly absent. Sudden sorrow or tragedy may rob us of faith for a time. Yet even when we are not facing such adversities, the flame of faith does not always bum brightly. Contemporary life itself with its baffling scientific, moral, and spiritual perplexities is often enough to keep our faith from sailing on an even keel. So the experience of the absence of the presence of God is often a real one. No wonder we identify with biblical people who knew the same thing: Job, the psalmist, even Jesus.

How do we understand and deal with the problem of finding God “absent”? Is the old answer right? If God seems far away now, have we been the ones to move?

One theologian who set his mind to this matter was William Perkins (1558–1602). His works, though once mainstays, no longer line the shelves of ministers’ studies. An English Puritan who sought the spiritual reformation of the Elizabethan church, Perkins was the leading theologian and preacher of his day. His influence was still powerfully felt through men such as John Cotton, the Mathers, and Thomas Hooker, long after his death. He followed Calvin in his theology and also drew on other Continental Reformed theologians.

In a six-page tract entitled, “A Declaration of Certaine Spirituall Desertions” (Works, I, 415–20) Perkins wrote about that troublesome spiritual experience when God seems far away. But instead of concentrating primarily on the human causes of God’s “absence,” Perkins viewed the situation from God’s perspective. He wrote of God’s desertion of his creatures. In fact, he saw this as one of God’s most “wonderfull” works! By God’s “desertion” Perkins meant God’s withdrawal of “the grace and operation of his Spirit from his creature.” God has a perfect right to do this since he is “sovereign Lord over all his works”; yet he would never forsake his creature against that creature’s will. In these times of “desertion” we ourselves are the ones choosing to be forsaken. We refuse God’s grace; therefore, we are the ones who must be blamed.

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When Perkins speaks of God’s desertion of his creatures, he speaks of it being of two sorts: eternal and temporary. Perkins was a strict predestinarian. He saw reprobates or unsaved as having been eternally forsaken by God since they do not receive his mercy or his Savior. Their separation from God is eternal, and in this life they experience particular desertions of both temporal and spiritual blessings.

But most of Perkins’s concern was with those who are God’s “elect,” those who are his children. He saw that these, too, commonly experienced God’s desertion. Though they experienced only partial and temporary desertions, these could produce painful spiritual agonies.

God used two means to “forsake his own servants.” One was “by taking away one grace, and putting another in the room,” and the second was “by hiding his grace as it were in a corner of the heart.” In the first, God accomplished his purpose in various ways. He might bereave his children of outward prosperity. He might give them crosses to bear. But through it all God would also give a good supply of patience to help in carrying those burdens. This was the experience of the Christian martyrs. They found that in the midst of violence and the persecution of tyrants they were “established by the power of the might of God.” When they were most weak, they were most strong.

Further, God may shorten the days of this life so that the full experience of life eternal might begin. Or, he may take away the feeling of his love and joy and put in its place “an earnest desire and thirsting with groans and crying unto heaven, to be in the former favor of God again.” God may also hold back his Spirit for a time—even though he is granting his servant the full range of the means of grace: preaching, prayer, sacraments.

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Or finally, God may give a man a strong desire to obey his will, but not success in obeying it. Perkins likened this to a prisoner who escapes from jail and wishes to run a thousand miles every hour. But the bolts on his legs prevent this. The prisoner can move only very slowly, galling and chafing his flesh as he goes. Soon he will fall into the hands of his keeper again. The prisoner has the will to obey his desires, but no success in doing it. Through all these cases, Perkins sees God removing one grace and putting another in its place. God has seemingly deserted his people; but still his hand is at work in another manner.

God may also hide his grace in his children. Perkins likened this to trees in winter, beaten with the wind and weather, bearing no leaves or fruit, and looking as if they are rotten and dead. Yet they appear such only because “the sap doth not spread itself, but lies hid in the root.” So also, God very often works in and by one way to produce a totally contrary result. Perkins wrote: “Clay and spittle tempered together in reason should put out a man’s eyes: but Christ used it as a means to give sight to the blind. Water in reason should put out fire: but Elijah when he would show that Jehovah was the true God, pours water on his sacrifice, and fills a trench therewith to make the sacrifice burn.”

Likewise, said Perkins, God’s servants may be so “overcarried with sorrow” that they “blaspheme God, and cry out that they are damned” as did Job (6:2–4; 13:24; 16:12) and David (Psalm 6:1–4). Yet this may still be just one of God’s ways of working. Perkins reminded his readers that God’s judgments were very secret; that their agonies can lead to repentance; and that none is able to comprehend the bottomless depths of grace and mercy which are in Christ. God can bring such marvelously bright results through even the darkest and most vexing means.

But if God deserts his people, Perkins wished to distinguish the kinds of desertion. Desertion may be in punishment or in sin. The first is when God does not lessen or remove some great cross or burden which we bear. Jesus experienced this on the cross when he took punishment on himself for the sin of the world: “My God! my God! why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

Desertion is sin in which God’s Spirit is said to be withdrawn and one falls into some actual and grievous sin. This happened with Noah’s drunkenness, David’s adultery, and Peter’s denial of Christ. The reasons for such desertions, according to Perkins, were so that believers might be healed of all inward, hidden, and spiritual pride. The desertions prevent God’s servants from desiring to be something in themselves apart from Christ. By saving them from the actual sin into which they’ve fallen, God declares his “wonderfull mercie” and also punctures pride, “that invincible monster of many heads, which would slay the soul.”

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Perkins said that God used these desertions for several reasons. One was so that people might search out the sins of their past life and be “heartily sorrowfull for them.” These desertions occur so that God’s servants might know themselves in their present condition and seek pardon. For just as “the beggar is always mending and piecing his garment, where he finds a breach: so the penitent and believing heart must always be exercised in repairing itself where it finds a want.”

Or again, God may use these times to revive and bring out the hidden graces of the heart. It is the “good husband-man” who “cuts the branches of the Vine, not that he hath a purpose to destroy them, but to make them bear more fruit (John 15:2).” Finally, God may use these times of his seeming “absence” to prevent further sin. This, according to Perkins, was the purpose of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. It prevented Paul from being “exalted out of measure” (2 Cor. 12:7).

What uses are believers to find from this study of God’s desertions? Perkins, who believed all theological doctrines should have some practical applications, listed four. First, those who are presently in a time of “outward rest,” a time when the joy of the Lord is real, should “not be highminded but fear,” as the Bible warns, “lest a forsaking follow,” says Perkins (Acts 9:31; Rom. 11:20).

Second, if believers are in a time of temptation, a time when they feel themselves forsaken, then let them remember “this wonderfull work of spiritual desertions which God exerciseth upon his own children very usually.” Understanding the workings of God in these matters can restore believing spirits as nothing else can do.

Third, Perkins urges believers to press forward and use such times as opportunities to draw near once again to God. Do this, Perkins advises, even as a person who shivers from a fever is always creeping near to the fire. But how does one do this when God seems far away? Perkins replies: by the use of his Word and prayer. Very simply: “by his word he speaks to thee, and by prayer thou speakest to him.” Even in the darkest hours these resources should not be spurned. They are still a means of grace.

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Finally, Perkins urged everyone to “try and search his ways, and ever be turning his feet to the ways of God’s commandments: let him endeavour to keep a good conscience before God and before all men, that so he may with David say, ‘Judge me, O Lord, for I have walked in mine innocency: my trust hath been always in the Lord; I shall not slide: prove me, O Lord, and try me. Examine my reins and my heart’ ” (“my heart and my mind,” RSV;Psalm 26:1–2). Fortified with such faith in the “desertions of God,” God’s servant can stand throughout the bitterest testings of God’s “absence.”

William Perkins believed God would not ultimately or finally forsake his servants. That’s why all apparent desertions are but partial or temporary. But they do have their positive purposes to play in the Christian’s experience. So, “if God seems farther away than he used to—guess who moved?” Perhaps we have. Or perhaps God has. Who knows? But the Christian knows that God can shape and take these times of his agonizing absence and use them for his good purposes in believers’ lives.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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