Spiritually numb: how do we cope when God is absent?
Many people talk about their times of suffering as the times they have known God closest. For me, it was the opposite; just when I most needed to know God's presence in my life, when my body, mind and spirit were taking a beating daily, I couldn't feel him at all. In the darkest moments I wondered if God had left me.
My prayers were short and desperate: "Please say something, God. Anything." But there was no response.
It helped to know that one of my heroes, Mother Teresa, experienced something similar. She wrote: "In my heart there is no faith, no love, no trust. There is so much pain, the pain of longing, the pain of not being wanted. I want God with all the powers of my soul and yet there between us is a terrible separation."
One of the most respected spiritual leaders of our lifetime reached a point where she struggled to have faith. I was inspired by the fact that she kept going, as I too was desperate to hang on to God no matter what. I started writing short prayers which often consisted of "God, why the distance?" God felt so far away and yet because I knew in my head that he is loving and kind, I was sure he was trying to whisper to me.
It's tempting to try and find answers for what was going on but the reality was I had none, and even with the advantage of hindsight now, I still don't have a clue. All I could do was cling on to the truth that though it didn't feel like God was with me, I knew that he still was.
I found myself watching an episode of Planet Earth that was all about deserts. I thought it would be deathly boring, presuming that nothing can live in such an unforgiving habitat, but the first words David Attenborough spoke grabbed my attention: "There isn't a desert in the world that doesn't have life in it."
Often as Christians we talk about the times when we don't know God's presence as "desert times". These seasons feel lonely, dry and barren but as David Attenborough reminded me, that doesn't mean there isn't growth and life. We often look for growth on the surface and seek obvious signs of God's presence and can miss what God is doing below the surface. I knew I was feeling lonely and dry but began to wonder if God would use this season to develop a deeper trust and a stronger friendship between us.
I started to think about the people we read about in the Bible who spent time in the desert.
Moses spent much of his life there and it was in the desert that he learnt to depend on God and not on his own gifts. The desert place often seems to be the place where we begin to depend on God in a whole new way, aware of our own inadequacies. Moses also found a real intimacy with God in the desert; he spoke face-to-face with God "as a man speaks with his friend" (Exodus 33:11).
Of course Jesus too spent 40 days in a desert. It was just after his baptism, which you would think would be the perfect time for him to get on with some miracles so people would know that his ministry had started. Instead he spent 40 days being tested and tempted. It sounds harrowing, but he didn't return burnt out and in need of a break but full of the power of the Holy Spirit and ready to begin his ministry. The desert was an absolutely essential part of his life.
These examples highlighted to me that God doesn't leave us alone in the desert. It can be hard to hold on to but the truth is that even when we don't feel God's presence, he is always with us. If we come to him, even in our doubt and confusion, he will use whatever we're going through to deepen our relationship with him. He will bring life to even the driest of deserts.
Patrick Regan is the chief executive of youth charity XLP. His book, When Faith Gets Shaken (Lion Hudson), is out now. whenfaithgetsshaken.com