Please turn to Job chapter 29. If you were able to answer "Yes," to any of these questions, if you have ever experienced anything like this, then be encouraged. For this has often been the case with God's people. Although God never truly abandons His people and although God never truly leaves us, nevertheless God's people have often struggled with the fear that God has deserted them. In the next few minutes we will examine two things:
- What is going on spiritually when we perceive that God has deserted us?
- How does God use these times when we feel deserted for our good?
First of all, we should note that there is physical desertion and there is spiritual desertion. Job experiences physical desertion in the loss of his children, his possessions, and his health. The God who has protected him in the past has withdrawn that protection.
There is also spiritual desertion. When this occurs, the gracious, comforting operations of the Holy Spirit upon the soul are removed. The Bible seems dry and lifeless. Prayer seems to be no more than a ritual. And the God who had once seemed so near seems to have hidden Himself.
Job experiences both. Having experienced both physical and spiritual desertion, Job mourns for the recent past. Hear what he says from Job 29:2-6,"Oh that I were as in months gone by, as in the days when God watched over me; when His lamp shone over my head, and by His light I walked through darkness; as I was in the prime of my days, when the friendship of God was over my tent; when the Almighty was yet with me, and my children were around me; when my steps were bathed in butter, and the rock poured out for me streams of oil!"The Contemporary English Version (CEV) translates this passage this way:I long for the past when God took care of me, and the light from his lamp showed me the way through the dark. I was in the prime of life, God All-Powerful was my closest friend, and all of my children were nearby. My herds gave enough milk to bathe my feet, and from my olive harvest flowed rivers of oil.
Let's identify the major points of these verses:
- God had watched over Job and protected him.
- God had showered Job with material blessings.
- God had blessed Job with many children.
- God's light had enabled Job to walk through darkness. There had been challenging, difficult times before, but God had always protected him.
- God's provision of good health had enabled Job to enjoy the prime of his life.
- God's friendship and support had brought happiness and joy to Job's soul.
These summarize the physical and spiritual blessings that Job had experienced. It is one thing to lose physical blessings and still have the spiritual blessing of the nearness of God. This is sufficient to keep the grieving soul from despair. But Job had lost both: the physical blessings were gone and there remained no experiential presence of God to sustain his soul.
It is this experiential presence that interests us now. This is what is referred to when Job says, "When the friendship of God was over my tent; when the Almighty was yet with me." Many commentators agree that Job had known the joy of sensible communion with God and that, now, that sensible communion was missing.
What do we mean when we speak of sensible communion with God? We speak of that manifestation of the presence of God that is sensed by the soul in a manner analogous to the five physical senses. This is how it is analogous to the five senses:
- We know when it is there, and we rejoice in the midst of it.
- We know when it is withdrawn, and we mourn for it.
There are several expressions that also convey the concept of sensible communion. They include sensible presence, felt presence, light of God's countenance, secret of God, and there are probably more. Depending on the context I will either speak of sensible communion or sensible presence.
There are several verses that express things that would come under the heading of sensible communion. One example is Proverbs 3:32 "For the crooked man is an abomination to the LORD; but He is intimate with the upright." This intimacy speaks of sensible communion. Psalm 4:6-8 speaks of the confidence and security that comes with sensible communion with God, "Many are saying, 'Who will show us any good?' Lift up the light of Thy countenance upon us, O LORD! Thou hast put gladness in my heart, more than when their grain and new wine abound. In peace I will both lie down and sleep, for Thou alone, O LORD, dost make me to dwell in safety."
To better understand what sensible presence is, let us first examine what it is not.
We certainly want to distinguish between the sensible presence of God and the way our own countenance might be affected by the health of our bodies. Sometimes a sad countenance can be traced to a physical source, for example: loss of sleep, deficient diet, various hormonal imbalances, and diseases of the brain. A person can easily misunderstand these things to mean a loss of the sensible communion of God. Similarly, a person might misinterpret something like the runner's high, where hormones are released in the body, creating a sense of euphoria. A person might misunderstand this to be a gracious token of the sensible communion of God.
We need to distinguish between sensible presence and the way our countenance might be affected by our environment. A grieving person might be especially vulnerable to changes in the weather. Cloudy days become almost unbearable. Evening twilight brings increased sadness, and God might seem very distant, even though nothing has changed.
We need to distinguish between sensible presence and the way our countenance might be affected by stress. Added stress during a time of intense grief can send the emotions reeling.
The experience of sensible communion is not restricted to a special class of so-called super Christians. It is not restricted to those who lay claim to second baptisms, second blessings, and second works of grace.
The experience of sensible communion is not tied to the psychological dynamics of a worship service. Many in our day use worship pep rallies, excessive sentiment, and psychologically manipulative music to create a sense and expectation of the presence of God. They come very close to mass hypnosis with excessive repetition of the same song lines. Thus, people who are sincerely seeking God are often left with nothing but man-centered, fleeting, and contrived emotional highs.
The experience of sensible communion is not part of the variety of spiritual experiences that people will claim outside of the gospel. One man might deny, via his beliefs and life, any evidence of conversion and any conformity to the law of Christ, and yet he might claim assurance from the comfort he received in a dream or from some kind of emotional experience. This is very dangerous. Let it be clear that the Bible reigns as the final authority for analyzing all spiritual experience. It is the Bible that describes the basis for assurance of salvation. And let us be warned, as it says in II Corinthians 11:13, that "Satan disguises himself as an angel of light."
So what is sensible communion with God. John Gill describes it as follows:The light of his countenance denotes sensible communion with him. The countenance of the Lord beholds the upright; always beholds them, whether they are sensible of it or not. But to have the light of God's countenance in a sensible manner, is, to know that God is their covenant God and Father, and that he smiles upon them, having loved them with an everlasting love. Now this is to be with God and to have God with us: in other words, to enjoy his presence. Thus he lifts up the light of his countenance, and indulges his people with communion with himself."
The key idea, here, is that we have sensible communion with God when God, who is always present, causes us to be able to enjoy that presence.
There are degrees of this experience. Jonathan Edwards speaks of a time when he was overwhelmed by the sensible presence of God for over an hour. However, during the more normal Christian experience, although the sensible presence is there, we don't notice it as much. These are times when life just ebbs and flows like the tide and when faith is sufficient to assure us of the favor of God. During these times the sensible presence works in a quieter way. We get used to the quiet operation of the Holy Spirit, comforting us, making the scriptures come alive to us, and assuring us that we are children of God.
For most of us, however, sooner or later darker days will come. Often during a time of bereavement, suffering, or tragedy, the comforting influences of the Holy Spirit are so diminished that it seems that God has removed Himself, even though he never truly leaves the Christian.
During times like these we learn to rely less on feelings and more on the Word of God. This is when the sun is hidden behind the clouds, when the grass is covered by the snow of winter, and when all joy seems to have blown away with the leaves of autumn -- we learn to walk by the light of the Word of God.
Through trusting the Word of God, we admit that there are limitations to our ability to perceive things. We learn to continue trusting God, even when He seems far away. We learn that nothing is more real than the eternal and unchanging faithfulness of God. And we learn to say with David, "Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become disturbed within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance, and my God." (Psalm 42:11)
Therefore, when I speak of God abandoning us, deserting us, or withdrawing Himself, I am speaking only of the human perception and experience of God. I do not want to confuse this sensible communion of God with other aspects of the presence of God. When I speak of God withdrawing Himself, I am not referring to:
- The general presence of God.
- The reconciliation of God with believers via our justification.
- The fatherly relationship with God.
- The unbreakable union of God with believers.
- The indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
The general presence of God.
The sensible presence is distinguished from the general presence of God, otherwise called omnipresence. The general presence is demonstrated in the way God fills heaven and earth, upholding it and supporting it according to His providential decrees, seeing all, knowing all, missing nothing, surprised by nothing.
The sensible presence of God has nothing to do with our justification. That forensic, legal, once-for-all act, whereby the believer was declared to be innocent by virtue of the Blood of Christ will stand for all time against all enemies and against all circumstances. There is nothing that the true believer can do to make God love him any more or any less.
Our fatherly relationship with God.
The removal of the sensible presence of God does not imply the loss of our relationship with God as our Father. To be justified is to be forever accepted by God as sons. Similarly, to be sanctified -- to experience on-going sanctification, to experience God creating holiness in us -- is to be disciplined by God as sons, for it is written that the parent that withholds the rod hates his child. Thus our Father God demonstrates His love for us through chastening. And though the disciplining hand of God be a firm hand, He is no less firm and determined in His love towards us.
Our unbreakable union with God.
This sensible presence is also to be distinguished from the unbreakable union with God that we have as a result of our salvation. For we have been spiritually joined and united to Christ, so that God is pleased to refer to us as the Bride of Christ. Further, we were given to Christ before we were even born. Indeed, before the first plant took root in the newly created earth, God was already looking forward to the day when the elect would be revealed.
The presence of the Holy Spirit.
This sensible presence is to be distinguished, also, from the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit never leaves the Christian. He is always there. As it is written in Romans 8:9, "... if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him." We receive the Holy Spirit at conversion, and those who do not have the Holy Spirit indwelling them are not Christians. The Holy Spirit may hide Himself, but He is always there.
So when we speak of desertion, when we speak of God hiding His face, we are not suggesting that God removes the Holy Spirit, and we are not suggesting that a person might lose his salvation. Rather, we are speaking of God removing the joy and the comfort of His presence.
Highly respected, Reformed theologians have written about the withdrawal of this sensible presence.
Section III. 3. of the Westminster Confession speaks of a variety of ways that a believer might lose his personal sense of the assurance of his salvation. One of these is, "God's temporary withdrawing of the light of His countenance."
Octavius Winslow, in his book Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, said this:He who knows God, who, with faith's eye, has discovered some of His glory, and by the power of the spirit has felt something of His love, will not be at a loss to distinguish between God's sensible presence and absence in the soul. Some professing people walk so much without communion, without fellowship, without daily filial and close intercourse with God; they are so immersed in the cares, and so lost in the fogs and mists of the world; the fine edge of their spiritual affection is blunted, and their love so frozen by contact with worldly influences and occupations, -- and no less so, with cold, formal professors, -- that the Sun of righteousness may cease to shine upon their soul, and they not know it! God may cease to visit them, and His absence not be felt! He may cease to speak, and the stillness of His voice not awaken an emotion of alarm!"
Another writer, the Puritan Thomas Watson, in his sermon A Divine Cordial, referred to a twofold divine desertion when he said that God might withdraw the ongoing activity of grace or the ongoing activity of comfort.There is a twofold withdrawing; either in regard of grace, when God suspends the influence of His Spirit and withholds the lively actings of grace. ... or a withdrawing in regard of comfort, when God withholds the sweet manifestations of His favour. He does not look with such a pleasant aspect, but veils His face and seems to be quite gone from the soul."
Understanding things hidden.
How painful it is when God seems to have hidden Himself. Our first experience of this sense of abandonment comes from the physical world. A baby, happily and contentedly playing in his crib, suddenly notices that "Mommy is gone." Mommy disappears behind a wall, and the baby cries out in terror. All attempts at comfort fail: the child screams and wails, inconsolable until Mommy returns. Eventually, the baby learns that just because Mommy is out of sight does not mean she is gone. Thus the child learns to rely on more than just the ability to see and learns to accept the reality of things hidden.
We experience similar things throughout our lives. One of the most glorious experiences for me is to ride in an airplane on a rainy day. When the plane first takes off the ride is rugged. Those prone to airsickness grab for bags as the plane bumps and jolts in the turbulence. Then that wonderful moment comes when the airplane pierces past the clouds, revealing a sky, blue and glorious, in the bright, unfiltered sunshine. Then we see, once again, that the sun was always there, just hidden.
When God is hidden.
Sometimes it seems like God has hidden Himself behind the clouds. The sensible presence, our sense of the joy of His presence, seems unfiltered when all is bright and gay. Or perhaps we are so much filled with other things that we do not miss Him. Then when tragedy comes, when the tide of prosperity turns against us, when faced with obstacles that we cannot scale and difficulties that we cannot surmount, we ask, "Where was God when this happened?" and "Why didn't God prevent it?"
Then, as our questions remain unanswered, we cry out, "Where is God now?"
Never has comfort been so needed. Never have we been so hungry for some personal sense of the presence of God. Never have we so thirsted for the light of His countenance.
The testing of faith.
When God seems distant, the believer enters that long clouded night where his faith is tested. The duration might be a few days; it could be months. During the ordeal of testing he sometimes cries out to God, but it all seems to be in vain. He lifts up his voice to God but feels like every word is bouncing off the walls. He looks for comfort in scripture, but finds himself struggling to continue believing, even what he has always believed in the past, while even his most basic beliefs are assaulted.
Like flaming darts, questions emerge to pierce his confidence and assurance: "How do you know there is a God? Even if there is a God, how do you know that He cares about you? What makes you so sure that the Bible is true? How can you be sure that you have understood it correctly with your modest intellectual abilities?"
Thus come the unrelenting assaults against the believer's faith. Perhaps he does well on his own for a few days. Then as the attacks continue, he gets tired. And from the threshold of despair he cries out, "Where is God now? Where is that so-called perfect peace, that peace that is beyond understanding? Where is that sense of God's presence and fellowship?"
The attacks escalate as forces both internal and external seek to neutralize one of the believer's most powerful weapons: his faith. Much is at stake. For if this faith can be crushed, the enemy can send the believer head-long into the miry swamp of bitterness and despair, his testimony destroyed, and the God he claimed to love, the recipient of hate and cursing.
A few days after Steve died, I was amazed at the nature of these spiritual attacks. Even my most basic Christian assumptions, beliefs that seemed impervious to assault, were subject to hour-by-hour, daily confrontation. Then, there were those especially hideous thoughts that kept coming back into my head like, "Why don't you go escape this pain and kill yourself." Even though such thoughts were quickly taken captive and dismissed as selfish and stupid, they kept coming back.
One day I had had enough. To get some relief, I let my mind wander back through some of my most precious memories with Steve, the Tallahassee days. I remembered something that he did when he was about eight years old after we had been outside playing catch.
Showdown at the park.
In those days, there were two things that I always looked forward to after returning home from my job in Tallahassee: Nan's smile and the sight of Steve expectantly waiting for me with a baseball glove or a basketball. Steve and I had just returned from a joyful late afternoon of playing catch when, in the midst of my own joy, I spontaneously started singing the song, "I Worship You, Almighty God, There is None Like You." Then something amazing happened: Steve started repeating and singing the words. To understand my surprise, it is important to realize that at this young age, Steve rarely sang. In fact, one of the first things he said to us, his parents, as a toddler, was "Stop songing." Now, I looked at him in amazement.
That was a big mistake, for when he saw me looking at him, he stopped singing. I pleaded, "Steve, that sounds great, please keep singing." But he wouldn't sing anymore; he was too embarrassed.
But what had transpired was the first fruit of something that I deeply longed for, that Steve would love God with all his heart, and that there would be that day when he would joyfully join Nan and me in heartfelt praises to our God.
As I remembered that event and as the merciless attacks against my faith continued, I knew what I had to do: I had to sing that song again. And I had to do it in, what was to me, the most sacred place in Hartsville, that place in the park where Steve crashed.
So I drove to the park and stopped the car in front of the wreath that marked the location of the crash. There, while the rain fell gently around me, I sang that song, "I Worship You, Almighty God, There is None Like You."
What a disappointment!
I sensed nothing; I felt nothing. When it was over, I felt just as alone as I had felt when I arrived. In fact, I felt stupid. I could imagine the powers of darkness saying, "So you've had your dramatic moment, so what? We're still here. And where is your God now? If he were real, would he leave you alone in a moment like this?"
I even questioned my motives for going to the park. Did I really have pure, God glorifying motives for doing this?
I do not know how pure my motives were. Really, what I wanted to do was this: I wanted to take the spiritual equivalent of a "fist full of spit" and rub it into the very face of Satan by glorifying God in spite of my pain in the very place where the pain began.
But this much I do know, that before that hidden world from where God watches, and before that unseen world from where Satan and his demons behold the acts of men, I had taken my stand, that in spite of what I felt on the inside, I would praise God; I would glorify God.
Nevertheless, as I returned home, the attacks against my faith continued.
Experience and theology.
Having described something from my own journey through grief, I must say that I do not believe in trying to derive theology from personal experience. The guidebook for our knowledge of God is the Bible. However, it is true that personal experience often serves as a kind of magnifying glass, drawing our attention to things in the Bible that we might not have noticed before. And as I have studied in recent days, I have learned that the sense of a distant God, the cry of "Where is God now," was often expressed in the Psalms.
We see this in Psalm 10:1,Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? Why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
We see it again in Psalm 13:1,How long wilt thou forget me O Lord? For ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
And in Psalm 42:9-11,I will say unto God my rock, Why hast thou forgotten me: why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy? As with a sword in my bones, mine enemies reproach me; while they say daily unto me, Where is thy God?
This time of testing is a time when intellectual knowledge is not enough. When grief, like a knife, has stabbed us at the very depths of our souls, we long for healing that reaches down into our deepest parts; we long for the personal touch of God.
Abandonment and hope.
But thanks be to God, the Psalmists do much more than express their feelings of abandonment. They reach down to the very depths of their faith and proclaim that God, though hidden from their sense, is nevertheless present, that He hears, even now, and that He will not withhold His comfort forever.
As we go down to verse 17 in Psalm 10 we find this hopeful thought,Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear:
Let us break out the parts here:
- "Lord, thou hast heard the desire of the humble"--God has heard.
- "Thou wilt prepare their heart"--God will prepare.
- "Thou wilt cause thine ear to hear"--God will cause.
I. God has heard.
When we do not immediately receive the comfort that we long for from God, especially when the emotions are raging, it is easy to despair and to imagine that God does not hear us. We become like that baby, crying for his mother, not realizing that from behind the wall, she is hearing every cry.
Yet this is the same God who promises to never "leave nor forsake us, rather, to be with us always, even to the end of the age." Surely if God never leaves us He must be the God who always sees and always hears.
For example, the book of Genesis reveals a wonderful story about the maid, Hagar, and how she learned about the God who sees and hears. Most of you know the story. God had promised a son to Abraham and Sarah but had delayed in delivering on this promise for so long that Abraham and Sarah were now very old. So Sarah convinced Abraham to take her maid, Hagar, and to have a son by her. However, after Hagar conceived there was much animosity between her and Sarah, so much that Hagar decided to run away. She wanted to hide herself from Sarah. But she was not hidden from God. In Genesis 16 the Angel of the Lord found Hagar, ordered her to return to Sarah and to submit to her, and then encouraged her regarding her future son, Ishmael. In amazement Hagar responded, "Thou art a God who sees!"
About fourteen years later, Isaac, the true child of promise, arrived, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent away. When they ran out of water, Ishmael cried pitifully, and Hagar put him under the shelter of a bush to die. Hagar walked to where she could not see Ishmael, and she lifted up her voice and wept.
Then in Genesis 21:17 we read, "And God heard the lad crying."
God graciously rescued Hagar and Ishmael, and Ishmael became a great nation, as had been promised. So it was that Hagar learned that the God who sees is also the God who hears.
Perhaps it was difficult for Hagar to raise Ishmael, for it had been promised that Ishmael would be a wild donkey of a man. Perhaps some of you could look at your own children and say, "Hey, I know all about wild donkeys." Perhaps there have been times when in the midst of great frustration you have wanted to cry out, "Where is God?" Brothers and sisters, let us remember this lesson from Hagar: our God sees and our God hears.
II. God will prepare.
While we wait, we are prone to be unaware of how and what the Holy Spirit is preparing and working in our hearts during these times of testing. We fight against doubt, little realizing how the Spirit of God within is prompting us to pray and to cry out. We think that this waiting is purposeless, not realizing that during the course of waiting, the Holy Spirit is creating a hunger and thirst for Christ. This hunger and thirst will not only glorify our Lord but it will protect our souls by bringing us to the point where nothing less than the fellowship of Jesus Christ can satisfy.
In his sermon, A Divine Cordial, Thomas Watson brings out several ways in which times of desertion work for the good of the godly, as paraphrased below:
- Desertion cures the soul of laziness. When we learn what it is like to keenly feel God's absence, we become more diligent to avoid grieving Him. We become less distracted during ordinances.
- Desertion cures excessive love for the world. We might think that the world satisfies as long as God gives depth to our enjoyment of temporal things. But when God is gone, we see the world's emptiness. We see its inability to truly satisfy the soul.
- Desertion makes us prize the sensible presence of God. We learn to not see God's sensible presence as a common thing. We stop taking it for granted.
- Desertion works to make sin repulsive to us. We see how sin can distance us from God, and we learn to hate it.
- Desertion makes us weep for the loss of God. It is good when the saints are made to treasure the presence of God and to weep for His absence, for their very weeping provides evidence of the regenerated heart.
- Desertion sets the soul to seeking after God, and God is worthy of this. For the soul will diligently pursue that which it treasures.
- Desertion puts the Christian upon inquiry. It encourages self-examination -- why has God left?
- Desertion works for good, as it makes us long for heaven and as it makes it easier for us to sever our ties with this world.
III. God will cause.
"God will cause His ear to hear." Now what could this mean, since we have already read earlier in that verse that God hears? The sense is this: not only will God listen, but God will listen carefully with a view towards action. The specific action in view, here, is the defense of the fatherless and the oppressed. Yet, no one feels more like a fatherless child, and no one feels more oppressed, than the one who is left mourning for sensible communion with God.O GOD, Thou art my GOD; I shall seek Thee earnestly; My soul thirsts for Thee, my flesh yearns for Thee, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalm 63:1)So rejoice, you that mourn after God. You will not be sad forever; God will cause you to rejoice again. Other verses speak more directly to this, for example Isaiah 54:7-8,For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the LORD thy Redeemer."
Again, from Psalm 42:8,Yet the Lord will command his loving kindness in the daytime, and in the night his song shall be with me, and my prayer unto the God of my life.
In chapter 12 of his book, Keeping the Heart, the Puritan John Flavel wrote about keeping the heart during times of doubting and spiritual darkness,"Do you rashly infer that the Lord has no love [for] you, because he has withdrawn the light of his countenance? Do you imagine your state to be hopeless, because it is dark and uncomfortable? Be not hasty in forming this conclusion. If any of the dispensations of God to his people will bear a favorable as well as a harsh construction, why should they not be construed in the best sense? And may not God have a design of love rather than of hatred in the dispensation under which you mourn? May he not depart for a season, without departing for ever? You are not the first that have mistaken the design of God in withdrawing himself. "Zion said, the Lord hath forsaken me, my Lord hath forgotten me." But was it so? What saith the answer of God? "Can a woman forget her sucking child?" &c.
The confidence that God will intervene, that God will remember those who presently walk with a sense of spiritual abandonment, is also reflected in one of Augustus Toplady's hymns. It alludes to Isaiah 50:10. You can find it on page 595 of the Old Trinity Hymnal. Note the message of verses four and five:When we in darkness walk, nor feel the heav'nly flame.
Then is the time to trust our God, and rest upon his Name.
Soon shall our doubts and fears, subside at his control.
His lovingkindness shall break through, the midnight of the soul.
Depending on your spiritual experience, ideas like midnight of the soul, spiritual desertion, and sensible presence and communion might seem strange to you. You might have many questions. Someone might raise a question like this one: "I think I knew what the sensible presence of God was like at my conversion, but I haven't felt anything like that since. Is something wrong?" Or one might say, "I know that I am a Christian, but I have never experienced anything that I would call a sensible presence of God. Should I concerned?"
To such as these, I would advise caution against the idolatry of chasing after spiritual experiences. We are not to pursue spiritual experiences; we are to pursue God. And we pursue God through faith, exercised through the Means of Grace. The Means of Grace include the ministry of the Word, private and corporate worship, the ordinances, reading the Word, meditating on the Word, and prayer. Those who practice the means of grace as mere ritual will receive little benefit from them. But when we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we look behind the means of grace to the One that makes the means of grace gracious -- we look to God. Then, although perhaps not always, something wonderful happens -- God looks towards us, and the light of His countenance is sensed and felt and enjoyed by our very souls.
In our nation we are seeing a comeback of that blessed, solid theology of Calvinism, and for this we are grateful. However, in many places, some Calvinists have emptied out all notions of sensible, spiritual experience, turning it into just a mental thing. The Puritans were different. They got it right. They embraced both the solid theology of Calvinism and the intimate, experiential, spiritual reality of sensible communion with God. They saw no conflict between the two. They were not like some of the mystics, who practiced a kind of mind-emptying, personality suicide. No, the Puritans pursued God with their minds fully engaged. Steadfast in their theology, they were not afraid to speak of intimacy with God. Let us not be afraid either. Rather, let us rejoice that our God is willing to give us a foretaste of heaven by blessing us with that greatest of all blessings, the sensible presence of Himself.
Therefore, if your experience is limited to mere, lifeless, ritual and formality, I would encourage you not to be content with that. For there is more: there is Jesus Christ Himself. Ask God to rekindle those flames of love that He placed in your soul. Seek the Lord with all your heart.
In the days since Stephen's death it has often been my privilege to enjoy that precious cordial of comfort that only God can give, to experience His comfort and presence in ways that words cannot express. However, in the midst of this there have been many times of intense grief, sorrow, and feeling of abandonment. On one such occasion I was extremely hungry, and my wife, Nan, was in the kitchen fixing pizza. I was so hungry that I could not stand to be in the house, and I walked outside and sat down on the front porch. At the same time, my grief was very intense. Indeed, I had been sinking lower and lower all day long. As I looked across the road I could see my neighbor's cows. Watching them, I thought about how much better a cow's life might be. They just kind of hang out and eat grass. They do grieve when a calf is removed, but usually this grief does not last very long. It does not devastate them. Then I looked down at my watch. It was March 8th and the time was 4:10 p.m. To the minute, it was exactly 25 months past the time when Stephen crashed and our lives were forever changed.
I bowed my head to pray and said this, "Lord, you teach us to avoid trying to find happiness in this world. You teach us that the only way we can find true happiness is in you. Yet, even after we learn this lesson, and even after we learn to find our joy in you, you still leave us hungry and thirsty."
Then it was that God seemed to put this thought into my mind, "Greg, think about how hungry you are right now, just for your supper. Sometimes I need to make you hungry."
Then an amazing thing happened: God lifted my countenance and my depression disappeared. It was that quick. I won't try to explain it; I can't.
Of course, no one should derive theology from my personal, subjective experience. However, passages like Hosea chapter two demonstrate that our God is a God who creates hunger and thirst, in order that He might be the One to satisfy it, and in order that we might be satisfied in Him.
Blessed be the God who causes us to hunger and thirst after Him.
Would I give up this grief? Would I give up that which drives me to Christ?
Blessed grief, blessed suffering, blessed Lord, who is worth all--anything we might have to experience that drives us into deeper and closer fellowship with Him.
What is there in my life that I would demand back at the expense of knowing God less? What is there that I would not give up in order to know Him more?
Psalm 40:1-3 sums up what we have to look forward to as we wait upon the Lord.I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. And he hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it, and fear, and shall trust in the LORD.
Oh Lord, may it be unto us as You have said. Amen.
Links to References:
- Keeping the Heart, by John Flavel
- The Presence of God, What it is, and the Means by Which it May be Enjoyed, by John Gill
- A Divine Cordial, by Thomas Watson