When God Feels Distant (Ps 143)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached December 4th, 2022*

I came to faith when I was fourteen years old. At the time I was the only member of my family who was a Christian and so my choice to go to church, read my Bible, pray, etc. were all choices I self-consciously made in contrast with my family, and so I took them all very seriously. I was hungry and zealous for the Lord, and the Lord used the natural energy and emotional fervor that youth gives to feed my passion. And with my young faith there was a great deal of sensitivity to the Lord and–as hard as it is to put an exact definition on it–a profound awareness of His presence. I distinctly remember being 15 years old, walking down the hallways of my high school tearing up because I knew that most of the other students walking by me did not know Jesus. I can remember times where I felt such a nearness of the Lord that it felt like He was bodily sitting in the room with me.

But then, by the time I finished high school, something strange happened. I continued reading my Bible every day, praying every day, attending church every Sunday morning, youth group every Sunday night, my midweek small group every week, but I began slowly noticing a coolness slowly settle over my heart. The heat and fervor that had born me along like a wave mellowed and I felt adrift. This, of course, was terrifying to me. I prayed, I read books, I met with others, I memorized Scripture, but to no avail. Our church at the time was about to host a conference and I hoped that it would serve as a kind of spiritual jetpack to pull me out of numbness. When it didn’t work, and I still felt distant, I confided in my mentor at the time and asked him what I should do. And, for reasons that I still do not understand, he encouraged me to read through the book of Ecclesiastes—not exactly the most comforting book in the world. As I read about how meaningless life was and how I was going to die soon so nothing mattered, I had this terrifying thought: Is this my life now? Did the newlywed phase pass and now I am left to this complacent coolness? Will God feel distant forever?

What do Christians do when God feels distant? There are sweet moments in our faith when it feels like the warmth of the smile of God beams upon our face, and there are times when darkness veils His lovely face. Christmas is a season of joy, of celebration, but that can sometimes be painful when we don’t feel joy, but sorrow and apathy. Christmas is a time to remember that God is Immanuel, God with us, God come for us in the birth of Christ, but how do we celebrate that when we feel like God is not with us, that God is distant?

Turn with me to Psalm 143:

1 Hear my prayer, O LORD;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!
2 Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you.
3 For the enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.
4 Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.
5 I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all that you have done;
I ponder the work of your hands.
6 I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah
7 Answer me quickly, O LORD!
My spirit fails!
Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit.
8 Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust.
Make me know the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.
9 Deliver me from my enemies, O LORD!
I have fled to you for refuge.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God!
Let your good Spirit lead me
on level ground!
11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!
12 And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

–       Ps 143:1-12

The psalter is a helpful medicine cabinet to go to when looking for tonics to address Christians’ heart wounds. You can cut a psalm open and dissect it like a Pauline epistle (and sometimes you must), but often it does well to let the beauty of the prayer-as-poetry bear you along. My aim today is to let the simplicity of David’s trembling prayer here provide a heartfelt guide for saints who feel like God is distant and long for the light of His presence. So, what should a Christian do when God feels distant?

Pray

1 Hear my prayer, O LORD;
give ear to my pleas for mercy!
In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness!

One of the first causalities of a season where the Lord feels distant, is prayer. You may be able to continue to do a hundred other spiritual things, but to sit alone in the quiet and address the God who has seemed to go silent on you can be difficult. You feel like you are trying to force the wrong ends of two magnets together–there is something that just pushes you away. So maybe me telling you out of the gate to pray feels a little deflating, Yea, I know I should pray, but that’s the problem, I don’t feel like it when God feels distant. But notice the whole emphasis of this psalm: David is terrified and feels like God is absent from his problems, yet here he is praying! 

There is a way that you can pray when you don’t really feel like it that is wrong—that’s the prayers of the Pharisees who go out and pray ornate, elegant prayers—not because they love God, but because they want to impress other people. There isn’t an authentic, genuine desire to pray out of devotion, just vanity. But, the Bible doesn’t assume that all prayers that come from hearts that feel “inauthentic” are wrong. Commonly, the prayers of the psalms will address the psalmists’ own weary and downcast heart (eg. Ps 42). You may feel like if your heart isn’t “in it”, then prayer is pointless. Don’t cut yourself off from the means of grace because you feel cold–maybe prayer is the rope your heart needs to pull itself out of where it is and to where it should be. This is one of the benefits of praying through Scripture, it gives you a vocabulary and guide to pray, even if your mind lacks the creativity and fervor to supply your own. That’s what we are doing here with Psalm 143, so let’s look at how this psalm leads us to pray.

Pray with Boldness

Did you notice that David opens this psalm: God, hear me! Listen to my prayer! Answer me! David boldly insists on an audience with Yahweh. And, we find this not only here at the beginning, but all throughout the psalm. In fact, we find this all throughout the Psalter. God is not some distant benefactor who is meagerly doling out a pension to you, scandalized and offended by your insistence and boldness on more aid. Before Jesus tells His parable of the persistent widow, Luke tells us, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart,” (Luke 18:1).

What is our model of prayer? A persistent widow who pesters the unrighteous judge with her insistent requests. God says, be like that! If an unrighteous judge will answer, how much more will our righteous God give justice to His elect? He will not delay, He will give justice speedily. So cry out to Him with bold insistence. One of the provocative metaphors the puritan poet George Herbert used to describe prayer was a “Christ-side-piercing spear.” An aggressive thrust into the very heart of Christ.

Do you feel weary and cold? Lay hold of God. God is honored and pleased when we wrestle with Him like Jacob, refusing to let go till He speaks His blessing over you. God, help! Listen!

Notice that David is so bold in His prayers that He prays with specificity:

Answer me quickly, O LORD!
My spirit fails!

Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust. (vs. 6, 7)

He asks the Lord, “By morning, please have help arrive.” I wonder if we sometimes sell our prayers short by speaking in such generalities or with such qualifications that we are left without any objective markers to know if God has answered our prayers or not. God is not beholden to answer our prayers in the manner that we think He should. In fact, sometimes the most loving and gracious thing God can do is tell us, No. Because He knows what is best. And yet, would it not be better for us to err on the side of being too daring in our prayers? All things are in God’s hands, of course, we acknowledge that He knows what is best and that may not be what we are praying for, of course, but why not pray something like, “God, send relief by tomorrow morning, I don’t know if I can last much longer, You must show up with fresh energy, fresh resources, fresh help.” 

Pray with Honesty

Enter not into judgment with your servant,
for no one living is righteous before you. – Ps 143:2

The boldness of David’s prayers do not, however, come from an entitled, haughty spirit. This entire psalm begins and ends with David describing himself as a “servant” (143:12). David is under no illusion of his own greatness. He is the king of Israel, yet feels himself to be a servant, a servant to the truer and better King, Yahweh Himself.

Here, David has roused the attention of the righteous King, which immediately leads him to cry out for clemency. David asks God to withhold the judgment that his sins rightly deserve, for no one living is righteous before you. David has a deep sense of his own wretchedness. In fact, he has a deep sense of everyone’s wretchedness: no one is righteous. 

Maybe you think, why should God listen to me? Notice what David appeals to in verse 1: In your faithfulness answer me, in your righteousness! (vs. 1). It is God’s faithfulness and righteousness, the very character of God, that makes David confident his prayers will be answered, despite himself being a sinner, despite himself being merely a servant.

What king, what president, what emperor is there who concerns himself with the daily requests of his footmen and servants? No king does that! The whole reason that monarchs have servants is so they serve him, not the other way around. And especially if the servant acknowledges that he has broken the laws of the king and is liable to judgment. What then does this show us of the gentle and lowly heart of our King of kings who stoops down from His throne to listen to the prayers of sinful, simple servants like us? 

If your sin feels theoretical to you, then God’s grace will seem quaint, and your heart will be cool. But if your sin is a horror to you, then the overcoming grace of God that meets you in your sin will be stunning, and though your heart is shot through with pain, there will be mingled with it a savor and sweetness of the nearness of God. He who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47). Maybe what our hearts need is to be re-sensitized to the sin we have grown numb to.

But our sins isn’t where the honesty stops, it merely sets the tone of honesty for the rest of the prayer. Repeatedly, David is also honest about where his heart is at:

For the enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.
4 Therefore my spirit faints within me;
my heart within me is appalled.

I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.

–       Ps 143:3-4, 6

What does David feel like? Crushed. Dark. Dead. His spirit is exhausted and his heart is appalled within him. He is staggered at the circumstances of his life and the state of his heart. His soul feels like the dry, cracked ground of the desert, desperate for rain from heaven. If you feel despondent, weary, and overwhelmed, if you feel like you are scraping dry ground at the bottom of your spiritual well…what do you do? Tell God. Tell Him what it is like, how you feel, what you are experiencing. That’s what David is doing. David’s prayers are not the product of the mountaintop experience, but the darkness of the valley. He has no great tidal wave of blessing he is riding in the moment to bear him along, so he narrates his pain and desperation to God through prayer.

Consider doing what David is doing here in writing your prayer down. If you are struggling, it may help you to actually write down your prayer just as a way of requiring yourself to fully dislodge all the thoughts that are pent up in your heart. As you write, you may be surprised at what comes out.

Remember

You have an enemy

For the enemy has pursued my soul;
he has crushed my life to the ground;
he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.

Deliver me from my enemies, O LORD!
I have fled to you for refuge.

–       Ps 143:3, 9

We do not know the circumstances of David’s life that were specifically behind this psalm, but we know that David’s life was filled with enemies, real flesh and blood enemies. As we continue in our study of 1 Samuel we will see just how harrowing some of the stories are for David. You likely don’t have people in your life trying assassinate you. Maybe you have colleagues or friends who don’t like you, but probably not people who are prepared to enter into hand to hand combat with you. But that doesn’t mean that this has nothing to do with you. There is an Enemy behind David’s enemies that is your enemy too. The unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil have been the enemies of God’s people from before David’s time, till now. And they will continue to be an active force working to destroy the elect until Christ’s second coming where they will be finally destroyed. 

I fear that at times we may functionally act as if the supernatural realm didn’t exist and that our Christianity is just a religious form of self-betterment, a psychologically sophisticated method to have stable families, peace of mind, and good marriages. I think we can be really concerned at abuses we see of those who really emphasize the supernatural realm, find it strange, and just emphasize the more rational and moral elements of our faith. But Christianity is a supernatural religion. There is a God who exists outside of our world who hears our prayers and acts, and there is an Enemy who is actively working to ruin your life. 

Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. – 1 Pet 5:8

If I told you that after church, when you got home there was a wild lion hiding in your house somewhere, would you casually walk in, flop on the couch and turn on the TV? No, you would be watchful.

Remember What God Has Done

I remember the days of old;
I meditate on all that you have done;
I ponder the work of your hands.

–       Ps 143:5

The past is where we see God’s acts crystallized with perspective. The present is the time of decision, where we have responsibility, where we respond to what God has done. The future is where we must trust that God will be faithful. Each perspective has unique temptations, but the future is the most uncertain and therefore pregnant with the most temptation. And when you are walking through a season of spiritual depression, contemplating the future can be particularly bleak: is it always going to be like this? 

So, David shows us that we can find relief in returning to the past works of God. Remember and meditate on all that God has done, ponder the work of His hands. This includes your life, how God has acted and worked, but more importantly, the whole scope of what God has done. God’s works reveal God’s character, and God’s character—who He is—does not change. So for us to be able to meditate on what He has done for God’s people in the past reveals to us God’s heart for us today. Our God is the God of the Exodus, the God of Creation, the God of the Cross. 

You hold my eyelids open;
I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
5 I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
6 I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
7 “Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
8 Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
9 Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah

I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
What god is great like our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
you have made known your might among the peoples.
15 You with your arm redeemed your people,
the children of Jacob and Joseph. Selah

–       Ps 77:4-9, 12-15

Trust

Trust God for Guidance

Let me hear in the morning of your steadfast love,
for in you I trust.
Make me know the way I should go,
for to you I lift up my soul.
10 Teach me to do your will,
for you are my God!
Let your good Spirit lead me
on level ground!

–       Ps 143:8, 10

If we are praying honestly, if we remember we have an enemy and a faithful God who is listening to our prayers, we will naturally arrive at a place in our prayers like this: God, what do I do? Help me, show me what I am missing, guide me. David’s prayer to God is so intimate: I trust you! I lift up my soul to you, you are my God! He even asks that God’s own Spirit would lead him. Earlier, he confessed that his spirit was faint and weak (vs. 4). Here, he longs for a better Spirit, God’s good Spirit. David isn’t merely wanting a set of principles to follow, He isn’t looking for legal counsel from God. Woven into all of these prayers are those confessions of desire for God Himself. Which is why earlier, David emphasizes his desire for God Himself:

I stretch out my hands to you;
my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah
7 Answer me quickly, O LORD!
My spirit fails!
Hide not your face from me,
lest I be like those who go down to the pit.

–       Ps 143:6-7

God’s face is an anthropomorphism. God does not literally have a face, since He is a spiritual being. It is a kind of metaphor for the direct, unmediated presence of God. That’s what David desires, that’s what his soul thirsts for.

Ecstasy and delight are essential to the believer’s soul and they promote sanctification. We were not meant to live without spiritual exhilaration, and the Christian who goes for a long time without the experience of heart-warming will soon find himself tempted to have his emotions satisfied from earthly things and not, as he ought, from the Spirit of God….The believer is in spiritual danger if he allows himself to go for any length of time without tasting the love of Christ and savoring the felt comforts of a Savior’s presence. – Maurice Roberts, The Thought of God

Trust God for Deliverance

9 Deliver me from my enemies, O LORD!
I have fled to you for refuge.

–       Ps 143:9

Because we have an enemy, because we are not just broken people, but sinful guilty people, we need more than instruction. Instruction alone is helpful for the individual who has the strength and mind to marshal their resources, harness them, and fix the problem themselves. But the Bible doesn’t describe our predicament that way. Things are much more dire. We are not swimmers who need better coaches on our strokes; we are drowning, underwater, and in need of deliverance.

So David flees to God for hope in deliverance, confident that God will act, that God will preserve His soul. But notice what he banks his confidence on:

For your name’s sake, O LORD, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!
12 And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.

–       Ps 143:11-12

Again, David tunnels into who God is for confidence that He will answer His prayer. 

First, he banks on God’s commitment to His own glory in preserving his life. Here’s how it works: David knows that God has placed His name upon him, so he appeals to God’s desire to display the greatness of His glory through the preservation of David’s life. That is a prayer that God is always pleased with, a prayer He will always answer. God has so constituted this universe that God’s primary aim of glorifying His name and His aim in doing His people good are one and the same. God has placed His name upon us, so we can be confident that God’s jealousy for His name being seen and savored will result in our salvation. 

Second, he banks on God’s character. “In your righteousness…in your steadfast love…” The character of God makes David confident that God will ultimately and finally destroy all the enemies of his soul. God’s steadfast love and righteousness result in God’s people confidently resting assured that their enemies shall be destroyed. And, of course, we see that reach its culmination in the advent of Christ. John reminds us: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” 1 John 3:8b. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, the works of Satan have been destroyed, all of our greatest enemies have been put on the chopping block. We wait, it is true, for the final culmination of that demise when Christ comes again, but we wait with bold confidence, with peaceful certainty. And, we must remember, that God didn’t park the boat 2,000 years ago and stay there. The God of the resurrection is our God, here and now! The acts of God reveal the character of God, and it is the character of God that we need most when we feel weary and distant. We can trust Him and lean into Him, we can search for Him and cry out to Him. He will not abandon us, He will not leave us.

When you feel distant and cold from God…

–       Pray boldly and honestly. Tell God how you feel, plead with him.

–       Remember that you have an enemy who is prowling around, so be watchful and pray. But also remember everything that God has done to demonstrate who He is, so be confident and pray.

–       Trust that God will give you the guidance and help you need. Trust that God will deliver you.  

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