"My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus uttered these raw and soul-weary words as he hung dying on the cross. He was quoting David’s painfully honest prayer in Psalm 22, which goes on to say, “Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night I lift my voice, but I find no relief. . . . O LORD, do not stay far away!” (verses 1–2, 19).
Have you ever felt forsaken or abandoned by God? Has it ever seemed to you that he is far away, ignoring your heartfelt prayers? Have you ever felt spiritually alone?
Where Are You, God?
“A few years ago, I went through an experience that I can only describe as God’s silence,” Lesa Engelthaler explains. “It began with multiple nos in answer to my prayer requests. Then after some time, I could not feel his presence at all. Some might describe it as a dark night of the soul. It was definitely a time when God seemed far away. It broke my heart and shook my faith.” For Lesa, this period of spiritual struggle lasted several years.
Darcy Wiley had a similar experience while serving as a missionary in a country that is closed to the gospel. “I struggled with sadness about a broken relationship back home,” she describes. “My emails were going unanswered and my prayers seemed the same. Soon, it became difficult to concentrate on the love right in front of me: love from God, good friends, and the people I’d come to serve. I felt distant from God and unfit for ministry.” Darcy felt this way, she explains, even though, “I knew in my head that God was always near.”
Embracing God's Promises
Despite what we feel during periods of spiritual loneliness, God’s faithful presence with us is an unchanging and eternal reality. We are never alone. Every circumstance we walk through and every emotion we feel can be viewed through the lens of God’s truth: “Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” ().
Does this mean we never feel like God is far away? Certainly not. Throughout Scripture we see experiences of spiritual loneliness like Darcy’s or dark nights like Lesa’s for even the most earnest of believers. Dedicated faith doesn’t protect us from painful experiences like these and many other forms of suffering—but God’s powerful promise is that he is with us through and amid the torrent: “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you. When you go through rivers of difficulty, you will not drown” (, emphasis added). When life frightens us or gets us down—or when life seems like a war and we feel like we’re alone on the battlefield—we can take confidence in God’s promise to be with us.
Sometimes we reach after God with all we’ve got and feel we’re coming up empty-handed. But other times we may feel disconnected from God because we aren’t striving to connect with him—we’re too busy or distracted by the demands of life. Whatever the reason for your spiritual loneliness, here are five ways you can purposefully tune in when you need to reconnect with our faithful and present God.
1. Get outdoors. During her experience of spiritual loneliness, Darcy lived in a city canopied by heavily polluted clouds. But during a trip to the mountains, she was able to see a clear night sky. Darcy explains, “My science-buff friend pointed up to the deep cavern of stars. ‘Do you know how much a teaspoon of pulsar weighs?’ she asked. Then just as quickly she answered, ‘As much as a mountain.’ I gulped at the magnitude of what was over my head. It was easier to feel God’s presence when I ducked out from under the cover of man-made things—a good view of his handiwork and a corresponding lesson in astrophysics from my friend inspired awe and renewed connection.”
Similarly for Jo Saxton, a full-time ministry leader and TCW advisor, time in nature helped her connect with God during what she calls one of her “worst years.” During a rough ministry season that already left her feeling “incredibly desperate,” both her father and foster mother died within a five-week span. “For me I was just too numbed and bewildered by shock and grief to pray or to feel anything really,” Jo explains. “It was winter and I used to sit by a lake and stare at it—just stare at the barrenness of it all. And it was like God just sat with me. It’s not that I felt peace or calm or comfort. While some say grief is a gift, for me it felt like raw hell. But I was not alone. Somehow I knew he sat by the lake with me.”
Do you want to tune in to God’s presence? You can observe and love all around you when you spend some time in God’s created world.
2. Persistently pursue him. Remember The Little Engine that Could? That classic children’s book epitomizes a critical value for us as believers: being people who are determined and don’t give up, especially when it comes to essential practices of discipleship like prayer, Bible study, and worship. “Carving out time with him is essential,” says Christina Schofield, author of My Life and Lesser Catastrophes. Christina and her husband, Allen, were in a serious motorcycle accident in 2007. For the most part, Christina was okay afterward, but Allen suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury, radically changing life for both himself and Christina. This is a couple who knows a thing or two about determination.
“If I am not surrounding myself with God’s Word on my MP3 player, or note cards, or reading every time I get five minutes free, then I’m not thinking like Jesus,” Christina says. “That leaves me vulnerable to the nagging voice of doubt and disbelief. We have Scripture on literally every wall of our house! It is life to us.” As Christina has experienced, we encounter God’s presence in and through his Word; let’s be people who are steadfast and determined in pursuing him.
3. Choose quietness. Sometimes determination to meet God in prayer and Bible study still leaves one feeling alone, as Lesa experienced during her dark night of the soul. So Lesa tried something that she had never done before. “I went on a silent retreat at a Jesuit Center,” she says. “I figured if God was silent, maybe silence was what he wanted from me. The retreat was one of the most significant healing practices for me during that time. The rule of silence was something I had never experienced before, and it was freeing. I didn’t have to be ‘on,’ I could just be.”
In experiences of intentional silence and solitude, whether it’s a retreat like Lesa’s or simply a half-hour walk alone, we can quiet our clamoring hearts and busy minds. We can find a quiet that comes only in and through the presence of God.
4. Connect with others. Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster, explains one way she finds comfort when God has seemed distant and far away: “I call to mind the love of God I’ve experienced through others. . . . I have been most aware of God’s faithful presence through the love of my family and friends,” she says. “I almost always feel embraced by God through the love and hospitable presence of those who love him and love my family and me. In that way, I feel embraced by him.”
And, indeed, we do experience the embrace of God through the hugs of friends—we can experience his counsel through the wise words of others, his joy through the laughter we share with loved ones, his comfort through the presence of those who mourn with us. Whether it’s calling a friend to have a raw and honest conversation, or laughing hysterically during a night of fun, God can make his presence known to us through the good gift of friendship.
5. Keep up the conversation. One of the most powerful ways I’ve learned to be more aware of God’s faithful presence is the spiritual discipline called practicing the presence of God. Drawn from The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a French monk in the 17th century, this idea is profoundly simple: “That we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with [God], with freedom and in simplicity. That we need only to recognize God intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him in every moment.”
Brother Lawrence challenges me to realize that prayer isn’t just something we do in certain set-apart moments: it’s something I can do by speaking to God internally at any time. Rather than just stream-of-consciousness thoughts during a moment of boredom, I can be aware that God is with me sharing and listening to my thoughts. In a moment of stress, I can simply say, Help me, God. When I try to make a decision, I can invite God into my weighing of pros and cons.
Our omnipresent God is everywhere and he is “every-when.” In each moment of your life, whether you feel him or you don’t, whether you’re seeking him or you’re not, whether you’re aware of it or oblivious, God is there. There is no nook and cranny of space and time that he is absent from. He was and is and will ever be faithful to his promise: “I will be with you always.”