Is God Feeling Distant? How Faith Grows Stronger in Deserts than in Gardens

We can wonder if God is even there.

Because we long to feel God’s daily presence, it’s easy to mistake seasons of dryness, while we journey through arid lands, as signs of God’s absence. We wonder if God has left us, we wonder where it happened, we think back to what we must have done to cause this divine quiet.

Have you ever felt that? That no matter what you say or do, pray or read, God isn’t listening, that he’s not even there?

And how does that challenge your thinking?

What do you do?

  • Some of us get frantic, and try everything we can to reverse the trend. We read new books, listen to more sermon podcasts, keep busy.
  • Others get discouraged, and begin to wonder if everything we’ve ever experienced in the past was a mirage.
  • Frequently we award this feeling of disconnection from God with further acts of estrangement, failing to slow down, denying the dryness, acting as though everything is fine.
  • Or we walk away, thinking, “Okay, if God’s not going to speak or make me feel his presence, I’ll do my own thing.” We walk away from community, we stop serving in our local church, we neglect listening for God’s voice through his Word.

But the feeling that God is absent is real, and you are not the first follower of Jesus to experience that desolation. In fact, Jesus himself experienced it, and many others through the ages have, also.

Our ancient mothers and fathers evoked the harsh landscape of the desert to capture that feeling of loss and despair.

And in contrast, like oases in the sand, we can also experience beauty and joy and freedom in the midst of desolate places, marking times when God seems more palpably close.

Our forebearers told us to expect times of both desert and oasis in our life with Christ. St. Ignatius used the terms “desolation” and “consolation” to capture an aspect of this reality. We are to revel in the consolation, but also respect and respond within the aching difficulty of desolation, too, for we find that God is just as present within the aridity of desolation as he is within the verdancy  of consolation.

Or, to put it more simply, God is in the garden and God is in the desert. And while we may not see him or hear him as clearly in the sandstorm as in the jungle, he is no less present to us and no less loving in his care for us.

In my own experiences of the desert, and in my many conversations with fellow travelers who find themselves in hollow, windy places, I’ve found three practices helpful.

First: Self-examination and response.

The truth is, there does need to be an aspect of self-examination when we begin experiencing spiritual deserts. If God seems far away, I do need first to ask, “Have I moved away from God?”

  • Have I been ignoring the Spirit’s voice, convicting me of a sinful habit or the need to reconcile with someone I’m estranged from?
  • Are there patterns in my life which have contributed to this spiritual dryness–disconnection from Christian community, lack of prayer or Scripture, or a failure to slow down?
  • Am I physically sick? Or struggling with depression? Are there other circumstances which could be contributing to these feelings of malaise or distance?

We need to ask these questions, honestly and openly, and respond to what is revealed to us. God’s love is revealed even here, for it could be through this difficult time, we are finally able to see something we’ve been missing, and experience God’s grace and healing and freedom even now.

But I want to be careful here: The importance of self-examination is not meant to imply that spiritual difficulty or dryness is always a result of some failure on our part. While we need to ask the question, the answer could be that nothing is out of order. You have continued to serve. You are not aware of overt sin nor are you ignoring spiritual fundamentals such as Scripture, prayer and community.

We can often go one of two ways–either be too willing to blame ourselves for everything, or too eager to exempt ourselves from any responsibility. Let’s not fall prey to either temptation but willingly allow the Spirit to reveal truth to us, even if that truth is that you haven’t done anything wrong.

Second: Keep Traveling Together. 

More than any other temptation, when we find ourselves in desert places we must not give into isolation from each other. When I talk to people who are experiencing significant desolation, I almost always discover people who are withdrawing (or have already withdrawn) from community.

Nothing exacerbates desolation faster than isolation. We want to pull back from gathering to worship with fellow believers, we cease to connect with friends, we stop serving together. We forget that we are not the only ones who are experiencing times of dryness, nor are we unique in our trials.

It can be subtle, and the people around you may not even notice for a while. But if you withdraw, it will only contribute to and heighten your feeling of spiritual desolation.

Choose instead to connect. Keep traveling with others. Talk to them about your current struggle to hear God’s voice. Get raw about how you are feeling. Don’t hide. Don’t duck. Don’t isolate.

You’ll find that others are struggling, too. And your honesty and willingness to stay connected will not only serve you, it will be tremendously helpful to others. In times of discouragement and difficulty, we must run counter to our natural inclination to isolate ourselves. We must stick closer than brothers, closer than friends–we must stick together as children of our Father.

Third: Take Courage and Trust.

It may come as a shock to you, but we can grow more in faith during times when God seems silent than when God is more recognizably active.

Why is that? Because during times where God is identifiably moving, when you are hearing him speak and feeling him respond, it is relatively easy to stay on track. When the Scripture comes alive every time you crack the Bible, it’s easy to dig into the Word. When worship gatherings feel drenched in the Spirit, how hard is it to keep connecting as a church? When our prayers are being answered, our fears are being conquered and our witness is taking effect in other’s lives, what more encouragement to do we need? It’s pretty easy to keep focused and following Jesus with all that positive reinforcement.

And while I would never want to minimize the importance of these times of fruitfulness and vibrancy, faith is relatively easy to come by when we are there.

But fling us out into the sand, and it gets harder to taste and see the goodness of God. Stop up our ears so we cannot hear, cover over our eyes so we cannot see, and what do we have? Will we keep following God in the fog or the storm, when we cannot know what’s going on?

In other words, will we trust that God is present even when the signs of his presence are no longer as easy to discern?

Because that’s where our faith is built. It’s when we can’t see we have to believe that, in spite of our blindness, God is there.  It is during times when we feel abandoned by God that we must take courage from God’s prior revelation that he will never leave or forsake us, trusting that in spite of our feelings of alienation, God is present.

That’s where faith solidifies. When the roots drive down deep for recessive aquifers. When God invites us to love and listen and follow, even when we can’t feel or hear or see him.

It’s in the desert that we mature in our trusting relationship with the Father, so that whether we are in places where God seems more absent or more present, we are no longer swayed by either. We know, because God has shown himself true over and over, that what we experience in life doesn’t define God’s character or faithfulness to us. God said he would be with us, so he is with us, despite all feelings to the contrary. Jesus said we were to take heart because he had overcome the world, so we will take heart in his victory regardless of how we may be feeling defeated.

And so we trust. We know with a knowledge that surpasses knowledge that Jesus’ love is deeper, higher, longer and wider than our imagination and experience, established on the cross, confirmed by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

And we will grow, even when it’s windy, cold, dry and lifeless. We grow in storms or quiet, in desert or garden. We put out buds and produce fruit, maintaining our connection to the Father through the Spirit, in the community of his ever-expanding body of Christ.

We will grow because we know that God is near, and in the quiet times, the dry times, the desert places, he is still calling us to follow him. And as we do, we will discover something greater than we expected–that the God who seems silent is speaking still. He is always speaking, always wooing, always calling. Even in the silence, God speaks.

And as we learn to hear him in the silence, we will grow, mature, deepen, become all that he has desired for us, for our good, for his glory.