Q. Does God leave people even if they’re trying to be a good Christian, if they make mistakes but confess them afterwards and truly seek forgiveness? I personally do not feel anything of God in my life, but I try and try every day. I read the Bible and go to church every Sunday. I feel empty and have felt that way for a long time. I have forgiven people who’ve wounded me deeply. But my joy is gone. What’s going on?
Thank you for your question. I sympathize deeply with your situation. I can’t speak to it as knowledgeably as I’d like without knowing the specifics, but let me share some thoughts based on my 20 years’ experience as a pastor and my lifelong study of the Bible.
I can assure you that you’re not alone in your situation. I’ve counseled many other people who seemingly were doing everything they should (pursuing spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading and worship, asking and granting forgiveness, etc.) but somehow didn’t feel God’s presence or the joy of the Lord.
First, to answer your opening question directly, no, God never abandons a person who’s earnestly and sincerely seeking him. We do hear in the Bible about God withdrawing his presence from an individual or community, but this is always the last step in a long process of God trying to bring them back from unfaithfulness to obedience. This does not happen to people who are already seeking God. David recognized after his grave sins against Bathsheba and Uriah that he had put himself in danger of this, so he pleaded desperately, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” The prophet Nathan assured him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”
The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, speaking to people who are earnestly following God like you, reminds us, “God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’ So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.'”
So if God has not left you—and I feel confident assuring you of that, on biblical grounds—then, as you ask, “What’s going on?” Why don’t you feel God’s presence, if he really is present in your life, and why don’t you feel the joy that usually accompanies obedience, since you’re faithfully doing things such as asking and granting forgiveness, which require sincere willingness?
Let me suggest a couple of possibilities, which is the most I can do without knowing the particulars of your situation.
One possibility is that you might not be using the spiritual disciplines that are best for you, or not using the spiritual disciplines generally in the right way. As a rule, it’s good for us to build some structure into our lives to make sure that we invest in our relationship with God as we want to. For example, if our desire is to give regularly and appropriately to God’s work, then the discipline of tithing (giving 10% of our income) is a good way to make sure that happens.
However, the disciplines we often stress as the key to a close relationship with God—Bible reading, prayer, and church attendance—are actually only three of some three dozen disciplines that Jesus’ followers have honored and practiced over the centuries. Not every discipline works equally well for each person, and the ones that work for you can change at different points in your life.
I suspect that there are actually some disciplines you’re already practicing, without recognizing them as such, that would more effectively help you draw close to God than the ones you’re pursuing deliberately right now. For example, theologians have long spoken of the “two books” of God, Scripture and nature. Psalm 19 seems to speak of these two books because it begins by saying, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.” But in its second half, the psalm talks about how “the law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul; the statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.” Two books, nature and Scripture.
You may be one of those people who appreciates and learns about God when you are out in his creation; you might just not be recognizing this as just as valid a spiritual discipline as Bible study or church attendance. Or maybe that’s not one of the disciplines that does it for you, but some others might. I’d encourage you to read a book or books about the various spiritual disciplines in order to recognize the ones that will most effectively help you draw close to God. The most comprehensive discussion I know is in Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. You might start there, and once you identify some approaches that seem promising, investigate them further in books that discuss them in more detail.
But I also said you might be pursuing the disciplines in the wrong way. You said, “I try and try every day.” The effort is admirable, but I’d encourage you to see the spiritual disciplines as “means of grace,” that is, doors that we open in our lives for the grace of God, which is already waiting just outside, looking for a way to get in. In other words, God sends his grace to us first; we just need to open a door for it. Jeff van Vonderen discusses this distinction in his book Tired of Trying to Measure Up, which, he says, “is written for Christians who live under a deeply ingrained code of expectations and rules that shame them and drain them of spiritual strength.” If that rings any bells for you, I’d recommend you have a look at his book, or another one on the same theme.
But here’s one more thought. It’s also possible that your feeling of spiritual dryness is actually a sign of growth and strength. Many people reach a place where their experience of God has outstripped their beliefs about God. When this happens, people can often have doubts. They need to realize that they no longer believe in the God they once knew simply because now they know God better. A person in such a situation can also feel as if God is absent, but this is only because they can no longer feel close to the kind of God they don’t believe in any more.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t believe in God at all, or that God is truly absent. They just need to recognize that the God they now understand better is waiting there to meet them in their new place of maturity and wisdom. This is actually a process that can be repeated over and over again in our lives, because as finite creatures we are always learning more about the infinite God we love and serve.
It’s a bit like the process that takes place in a healthy marriage. As a pastor I often explained, in premarital counseling or wedding sermons, that marriage is “the process of getting to know the same person over and over again for the rest of your life.” Married couples can hit a “dry patch” and discover that they need to relate to one another differently, and start doing different kinds of things together, to get that spark back because they’ve both grown and changed. This is a healthy and inevitable process, and the same thing needs to happen in our relationship with God. (Although we’re the ones who’ve grown and changed, not God!)
I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I certainly wish you every blessing from God as you pursue the close relationship with him that you desire.