Purpose Driven Life

When God Seems Distant

Job 23:1-17; Mark 15:33-41

Are you sad this morning? SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of winter depression that affects an estimated half a million people every Winter between September and April, in particular during December, January and February, but is also known to break out during cold and wet Summers like this one appears to be. It is caused by a biochemical imbalance in the hypothalamus due to the shortening of daylight hours and the lack of sunlight in winter.

For many people SAD is a seriously disabling illness, preventing them from functioning normally without continuous medical treatment. For others, it is a mild but debilitating condition causing discomfort but not severe suffering. We call this subsyndromal SAD or 'winter blues.'

Here are some of the symptoms…

Sleep problems:

Usually desire to oversleep and difficulty staying awake but, in some cases, disturbed sleep and early morning wakening


Feeling of fatigue and inability to carry out normal routine


Craving for carbohydrates and sweet foods, usually resulting in weight gain


Feelings of misery, guilt and loss of self-esteem, sometimes hopelessness and despair, sometimes apathy and loss of feelings

Social problems:

Irritability and desire to avoid social contact


Tension and inability to tolerate stress

Loss of libido

Decreased interest in sex and physical contact

Mood changes

In some sufferers, extremes of mood and short periods of hypomania (overactivity) in spring and autumn.


If you are feeling any of these symptoms this morning then give yourself a break. When you get home check out the website of the SAD Association which is just for you - www.sada.org.uk  


But if your lows are not caused by the weather but perhaps by your working environment, your colleagues or boss, then I recommend another website I came across this week. Its called rather appropriately, www.despair.com


Dr E. L Kerston COO of Despair, Inc., says “For longer than most can remember, motivational speakers, authors and publishers have inspired and delighted us by championing the idea that within each person exists virtually unlimited potential. We agree wholeheartedly- and helping others to unleash their hidden potentials remains our singular obsession.”


Think about it- what hidden potentials exist within YOU? Perhaps you're a wholly reasonable person, with the potential to become an irrational fool?  Perhaps you're a team player, with a potentially argumentative loner lurking about inside you?  Or perhaps you're a dreamer, within whom lives a potentially disillusioned grouse, simply waiting to take flight on the wings of bitterness? For the first time, one company has stepped forth with tools for unleashing such hidden potentials. No matter who you are, you have the potential to be so very much less. And with the transformative powers of our Demotivators® products, you will be. "Whether you're a pessimist, underachiever or a chronic failure, I personally offer my unconditional* guarantee that Demotivators® will truly inspire you to new lows! Here are a few profound insights you might be able to identify with…

But maybe its not the weather that gets you down, or even those you have to work with. What if it is because God seems distant? (Then get hold of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life and read it this Summer).

Remember, the sun is still shining, even though it may be cloudy and wet down here. In the same way, Rick Warren says, “God is real, no matter how you feel.” Its easy to feel good when the sun is shining. Similarly, he says, “its easy to worship God when things are going great in your life - when he has provided food, friends, family, health, and happy situations. But circumstances are not always pleasant. How do you worship God then? What do you do when God seems a million miles away?” Rick Warren says “The deepest level of worship is praising God in spite of the pain, thanking God during a trial, trusting him when tempted, surrendering while suffering, and loving him when he seems distant.” He observes that, “Friendships are often tested by separation and silence; you are divided by physical distance or you are unable to talk. In your friendship with God, you won’t always feel close to him.”

A year after Joanna and I first met, we spent a whole year apart, working in different cities and only saw each other every few months. It helped to test the strength of our friendship.  In the same way, “To mature your friendship, God will test it with periods of seeming separation - [even] times when you feel as if he has abandoned or forgotten you.”  St John of the Cross lived in 16th Century Spain. Working in a hospital for plague victims, he went on to become a Carmelite monk, living in poverty and serving the poor. A threat to the established church he was imprisoned for a time in a tiny windowless cell. It was there that he wrote many of his mystical poems about God, and like King David, poured out his heart to a God that at times seemed far away. He died aged just 49. Amongst his most famous writings is “The Dark Night of the Soul”. Henri Nouwen described this same experience as “the ministry of absence” while A.W. Tozer called them “the ministry of the night.”  Rick Warren described it as if God had gone MIA -  “Missing in Action”.

This is how Floyd McClung, the senior pastor of Metro Church, Kansas described it: “You wake up one morning and all your spiritual feelings are gone. You pray, but nothing happens. You rebuke the devil, but it doesn’t change anything. You go through spiritual exercises … you have your friends pray for you … you confess every sin you can imagine, then go round asking forgiveness of everyone you know. You fast … still nothing. You begin to wonder how long this spiritual gloom might last. Days? Weeks? Months? Will it ever end? … it feels as if your prayers simply bounce off the ceiling. In your desperation, you cry out, “What’s the matter with me?” The answer is - absolutely nothing. These times of apparent separation are “a normal part of the testing and maturing of your friendship with God.” It may, as Warren says be “painful and disconcerting, but it is obviously vital for the development of your faith. God repeatedly promises in Scripture, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). But God has never promises we will necessarily “feel” his presence.

That’s the same mistake we sometimes make in our Sunday services. We seek an experience of God rather than seeking God. We look for a feeling, and if we get one, we conclude we have worshipped. “Wrong” says Warren. “In fact, God often removes our feelings so we won’t depend on them. Seeking a feeling, even the feeling of closeness to Christ, is not worship … God’s omnipresence [that is, his presence everywhere] and his manifestation of his presence are two different things. One is a fact, the other is often a feeling. God is always present, even when you are unaware of him, and his presence is too profound to be measured by mere emotion.”

I went straight from school to work in East London for was then called Social Security. I left my family and my rural home environment to live and work in one of the largest council estates in Britain - Dagenham where most people worked for Ford’s. I have to say that for someone who loves nature it was literally a soul destroying experience, and I was depressed for most of the time. God seemed very far away. But there was one place I felt I could talk to him and that was a park - between Dagenham and Ilford which I walked through each day on my way to work. He kept me going, even though he seemed so very far away.

“The situations that will stretch your faith most will be those times when life falls apart and God is nowhere to be found. This happened to Job. On a single day he lost everything - his family, his business, his health, and everything he owned.” But even more discouraging, no one else seemed to understand - even his own wife. Her advice was “curse God and die.” (Job 2:9). Maybe she was thinking of the insurance. But there was something even worse - “for thirty-seven chapters, God said nothing!” Rick Warren asks, “How do you praise God when you don’t understand what’s happening in your life and God is silent? How do you stay connected in a crisis without communication? How do you keep your eyes on Jesus when they are full of tears? You do what Job did,  

“Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised." (Job 1:20-21)


How could Job respond to such adversity in this way?

Our reading from chapter 23 highlights four principles that Job lived by and which might help you in similar circumstances.


1. Tell God exactly how you feel

"Even today my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. If only I knew where to find him; if only I could go to his dwelling! I would state my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would find out what he would answer me, and consider what he would say.” (Job 23:1-5)


“Pour out your heart to God. Unload every emotion you are feeling.” On another occasion Job did this when he said, “I can’t be quiet! I am angry and bitter. I have to speak.” (Job 7:11 TEV). God is big enough. “He can handle your doubt, anger, fear, grief, confusion, and questions. Did you know that admitting your hopelessness to God can be a statement of faith? Trusting God but feeling despair at the same time, David wrote, “I believed, so I said, ‘I am completely ruined.’ (Psalm 116:10 NCV). Although this sounds something of a cotradition its not. Think about it. David is saying in effect “I trust God but I am wiped out.”  Rick Warren observes, “David’s frankness actually reveals deep faith: First, he believe din God. Second, he believed God would listen to his prayer. Third, he believed God would let him say what he felt and still love him.”

So, first of all, tell God how you feel.


2. Focus on who God is - his unchanging nature

Would he oppose me with great power? No, he would not press charges against me. There an upright man could present his case before him, and I would be delivered for ever from my judge.” (Job 23:6-7)


Job knew enough of God’s character to know he would treat Job justly and fairly. When Job’s life literally fell apart, he recites what he knows is true of God despite his feelings or circumstances. Here is just a flavour mostly from our reading:

God is good and loving (Job 10:12)

God knows every detail of my life (Job 23:10a)

God is all-powerful (Job 23:13a)

God is in control (Job 23:13b)

God has a plan for my life (Job 23:14)

God will ultimately save me (Job 23:10b)

With the benefit of the New Testament and the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, I am sure you could make a much longer list of truths about God. Warren says, “Regardless of circumstances and how you feel, hang on to God’s unchanging character. Remind yourself what you know to be eternally true about God: He is good, he loves me, he is with me, he knows what I am going through, he cares, and he has a good plan for my life. V. Raymond Edman said, “Never doubt in the dark what God told you in the light.” So, tell God how you feel; and focus on who God is.


3. Trust God to keep his promises

  "But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come forth as gold.” (Job 23:8-10)


God does indeed want you to sense his presence, “but he is more concerned that you trust him than that you feel him. Faith not feelings, pleases God.” God is here whether you sense him or not. Warren says, “patiently rely on the promises of God, not your emotions, and realize that he [maybe taking you] to a deeper level of maturity.” Job trusted in the knowledge that he would be stronger for this testing and in his words, “come forth as gold” from the refiners fire.  “A friendship [only] based on emotion is shallow indeed. So don’t be troubled by trouble. Circumstances cannot change the character of God.”

In Job 13:15
Job affirms, “God may kill me, but still I will trust him.” Warren concludes, “When you feel abandoned by God yet continue to trust him in spite of your feelings, you worship him in the deepest way.”  So, tell God how you feel; Focus on who God is; Trust God to keep his promises.


4. Remain faithful to God’s Revelation in Jesus Christ

“My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside.  I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” (Job 23:11-12)


Like Job, when God feels far away, continue to treasure and obey his word. Hold onto the truths of his word. To Job, God’s word was more important than his daily bread, echoing our Lord’s words to Satan “Man shall not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)

We don’t know exactly when Job lived but we do know on the authority of Jesus that Abraham rejoiced at the though of seeing his Saviour Jesus (John 8:56). So in chapter 19:25 we get a glimpse of Job’s faith in his Lord and Saviour also: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” (Job 19:25-26)


Rick Warren insists, “If God never did anything else for you, he would still deserve your continual praise for the rest of your life because of what Jesus did for you on the cross. God’s son died for you! This is the greatest reason for worship.”

Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” caused some controversy because of the graphic way he portrayed the cruel execution of Jesus - “the agonizing sacrifice God made on your behalf. Familiarity breeds complacency.” We know from the eye-witness testimony of the gospels how Jesus had to endure a mock trial, how he was humiliated, beaten and tortured. How he had to drag his own cross to the place of public execution.

Having been nailed to it, he “was left to die the slow, excruciating torture of death by crucifixion. While his lifeblood drained out, hecklers stood by and shouted insults, making fun of his pain and challenging his claim to be God.” In that very moment of death, as Jesus took the sin of the world on himself, even God, it seemed, turned his back on Jesus. Echoing King David from Psalm 22, Jesus cries out in total desperation “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

Warren reflects, “Words cannot describe the darkness of that moment. Why did God allow and endure such ghastly, evil mistreatment? Why? So you [and I] could be spared from eternity in hell, and so you [and I] could share in his glory forever… Jesus gave up everything so you could have everything. He died so you could live forever.” That alone is worthy of your praise and adoration.  So when you feel God is distant, remember Job, remember above all our Lord Jesus Christ.  No, you are not alone.  Remember these four lessons: Tell God how you feel. Focus on who God is. Trust God to keep his promises. Remain faithful to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.

Then like Job you will be able to say, “Yet I am not silenced by the darkness, by the thick darkness that covers my face… I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” (Job 23:17, 19:25-26)


Let us pray.




This sermon was inspired by a variety of sources but primarily, Rick Warren’s, “When God seems distant” in The Purpose Driven Life, pp.107-113. Unless otherwise stated, quotations are taken from the book.