John Crowe Ransom once observed how winter could be a season of the heart as much as a season of the year. Author and historian Martin Marty agreed. During and then after the death of his wife, Elsa, after a long illness, he experienced a “cry of absence.” The Divine was distant, the sense of the sacred was remote. An emptiness invaded his soul, for God felt removed and aloof. The bright warmth of summer spirituality became lost in the long nights of winter’s wasteland.
We have all experienced the winter of the soul—the felt distance of God. It does not matter who you are or where you stand in relation to spiritual development.
Consider a young woman, attempting to follow God in obedience, who walked the streets of the city she had just come to serve. She felt rejected by God, helpless and tempted to turn her back on her calling. Though she longed for God and desired to be used completely by Him, she felt unable to pray—abandoned by God at her time of greatest need. “They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of loss of God,” she wrote. “In my soul, I feel just the terrible pain of loss, of God not wanting me, of God not being God, of God not really existing.”
The young woman was Mother Teresa.
The Bible assures us, though, that God is near.
But you, O God, do see trouble and grief,
you consider it to take it in hand….
You hear, O LORD, the desire of the afflicted;
you encourage them, and you listen to their cry.
(Psalm 10: 14, 17)
Such verses give weight to the great theological doctrine of God’s immanence, His presence and activity within creation and history.
So why do we often feel such distance?
There is great complexity to any interpersonal relationship. The dynamics of intimacy are multifaceted and often exist well beneath our consciousness. The felt distance of God must be engaged in light of God’s immanence (He is indeed present), and His personal and relational nature. We can be physically present with someone and emotionally distant at the same time. God interacts with us in the context of an interpersonal relationship and He longs to shape who we are. God is always there, and yet the same God comes and goes in relation to the ongoing development of our soul. God can seem distant, but always for a reason.
Try this seemingly trivial but potentially enlightening exercise: Stop reading right now, and look for two things that contain the color green. Maybe the clothes someone near you is wearing, the paint on the ceiling, something on your desk, the carpet or tile on the floor—any two things that are green. What happened?
You changed how you looked at what was around you.
For lack of a better term, you created a “green mindset.” And when you created that green mindset, you began to see green in places you probably had not noticed the color before. The reason is simple: we tend to see what we sensitize ourselves to see.
There are countless ways in which God can seem distant, and sometimes He is distant. We have removed ourselves from intimacy with Him, or our sin has driven a wedge between us. Sometimes He has removed Himself as a gift—for our instruction or protection. But many times we just aren’t aware of Him. He’s there, but we’re going through a down-cycle in our spiritual or emotional life, and we don’t feel Him at our side—so we go with our feelings. Or we’re trying to save ourselves and we don’t open ourselves up to Him, though He is eager to lend a hand. Or we think we’re facing the world alone, unaware that the hills full of angels.
We must open our eyes, for “surely the Lord is in this place” (Genesis 28:16).
James Emery White
James Emery White, Wrestling with God: Loving the God We Don’t Understand. Want to read more? Get the eBook on Church & Culture HERE.
Martin Marty, A Cry of Absence.
Laurinda Keys, “Mother Teresa’s Spiritual Struggles,” The Charlotte Observer, September 15, 2001, p. 19A.
Roger von Oech, A Kick in the Seat of the Pants.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.