I grew up wanting nothing to do with God. But one day, everything changed. God came into my life in an undeniable way. I started going to church and it was as though I sensed God everywhere I went. His presence was nearer to me than my closest friends. Suddenly, that stopped, and I no longer sense God the way I used to. What happened? Have I lost God for good? And what did I do to make him leave?
This is a story I’ve heard on repeat from dozens of Christians. God was close. He felt real. Now, he seems distant.
Maybe you can relate.
In my last book, Walking with a Limp, I point out that,
“It is often where we feel the most tension and anxiety that God is doing his deepest work. He is the grand weaver knitting together our life’s narrative, knowing what we can and cannot handle, inviting us to fully depend on him.” (p.12)
I believe this. But statements like these don’t resolve the question: Why does God remain silent when I want him to speak?
There are several answers we should consider.
Reason 1 | We've Fallen into Sin Appeasement Mode
This first one is obvious, yet subtle. By its very nature, sin separates. Most Christians get this. But I think we often overlook how pervasive sin can be.
Sin is all-encompassing.
Yeah, I know that sounds so elementary, but it’s critical to understand. Growing up with a background firmly anchored in the holiness of God, I understood from an early age that I couldn’t live a compartmentalized life.
My primary identity wasn't a “saved sinner,” it was a saint. I was set apart and called by God for a specific purpose.
This didn’t mean I never sinned (a fact my siblings can attest), but it did provide focus. I wasn’t my own. I was God’s. I couldn’t hold on to my secret sins and write them off as “well, everyone’s got their issues.” Every time I was confronted with an area of sin in my life, I had two options. I could repent and change, or I could continue living in sin. There was no middle ground.
I say this because I think many professing Christians are content to live in sin-appeasement mode. Don't believe me? Check Christian Twitter these days where condescension, spiritual one-upmanship, gossip, pride, jealousy, bitterness, hatred, lust, and envy are often on full display.
Sometimes, I shake my head at what I'll read from a professing Christian and say, how on earth could someone who claims to love Christ post that? The answer? Sin-appeasement mode. Sometimes we even take pride in our sinful behaviors, thinking this makes us more relatable to others.
Here is the reality. Whenever we excuse sin, distance occurs. It might be slow. It might take years. But it always happens. Do you feel distant from God? Ask yourself this tough question: Is there any area of sin in my life that I'm content to have?
If there is, repent. Spend an evening reading and re-reading 1 John.
Reason 2 | We Stop Pursuing God
The second reason God might remain silent is that we've moved away from his voice. We've stopped being like the deer that thirsts for water. Our thrill of God is gone.
Life has beaten us down and we've grown weary of doing the basics. As a result, we cut back on reading scripture, avoid prayer, and stop connecting with other believers. To fill the void, we veg out on Netflix.
It’s not that we’ve stopped believing in God. We’ve just replaced him with other things.
If you’ve grown up in the church, this lack of pursuit is a real challenge because familiarity often breeds complacency. Why read the Bible when you've already read it ten times? Why take a sermon seriously when you know what the pastor is going to say? Why make the same right decisions today that you've made for ten years?
Reasons 1 and 2 are clear. The onus is on you. You're the person who needs to change. These reasons are easy to grasp and they appear to be the answer to our problems. Stop sinning and you'll hear from God. Read your Bible and pray more and he'll speak.
But maybe it's not that simple. And this leads us to our third reason.
Reason 3 | God is Taking You to a New Level of Spiritual Maturity
Sin is real. Apathy is real. But if you are doing everything you know to do and are walking in all the spiritual light (understanding) you have been given, take heart.
Maybe God hasn't abandoned you because of something you've done. Instead, he might be growing you up.
Here is the challenge. When we do not sense God and we are doing all we know we should do, it’s tempting to resort to desperate measures to recreate our previous mountaintop experiences.
We remember those days we lived in sin and the release we felt when we confessed our faults to God. Maybe we prayed at a church altar or in the privacy of our homes. As we did, we recall the weight that came off our shoulders and say to ourselves, I need to experience that again!
And if we're not careful, we start to search for ways we have broken the rules and caused God's silence. We hone in on a minor offense we've committed and assume we are the ones responsible for God's apparent absence. When we go down this path, we go back to what we know. We confess, say we're sorry a thousand times, and work ourselves up into an emotional frenzy - hoping against hope that this act of contrition will earn us God's renewed favor.
Most Christians that do this think they've taken a step forward when they have actually taken a step back.
God grows his children in different ways. Sometimes this is when he holds us close, but often it's when he feels like we're being held at arm's length.
As a dad of three young kids with a fourth coming in September (Yes, that's breaking news), it's fun to watch their development. Part of their maturity is being able to do harder and harder things without Janan or me hovering overhead.
For example, our five-year-old Zoey has the task of taking care of our dogs and letting them in and out of our garage. This started out slow. On day one, it was, "Dad, I need help to open the door." "Dad, they won't go in their crates." "Dad, how much food?" Now, she's got it down to a science. And some of my proudest moments as a father are when I'll say in the evening, "Zoey, can you..." and she'll stop me and grin, "I know. I already let them in and fed them."
We've moved from I going to hold your hand on every step to you can do this and soon you're going to get to do more exciting stuff! (like picking up dog poop)
Some days we regress and Zoey will say, "Dad, I need your help." And sometimes I'll give her a hand. But most times, I'll say, "Zoey, you've got this." And she'll go back to the garage and finish the job.
Everyone likes someone to hold their hand. It's easier when you've got someone who is guiding your every move.
But like the master teacher he is, God knows there are some character-shaping moments that only happen as his children obey outside the umbrella of his manifest presence.
Some lessons are only learned in the valley. Because it's in those moments of isolation when we realize how helpless we are without him. And in the process, we lean into a new form of strength. One that is not dependent on warm feelings, but one that is anchored in the unchanging character of God's goodness and provision.
If you're someone who is doing everything you know you should do but struggles with thinking God has turned his back on you, here are a few choices I challenge you to make.
Exercise, eat well, and set aside meaningful time to hear from God. Make yourself available. Like the woman who kept knocking on the judge's door in Luke 18, be persistent. Keep calling out to God. Assume he loves you and enjoys being with you, because he does.
Several weeks ago we had Alan Fadling on the podcast. It was a fantastic exchange. And one of the points he made was that when we go to God in prayer, we should make a list of what we want him to do. Seriously, try this. Take out a sheet of paper and start writing. If you're like me, your first few statements might be a little selfish. "God, I want this" or, "I ask you to help me here." But after fifteen or twenty bullet points, you start to get to the heart of your desires.
It's OK to ask God to bring you out of a dry season. The psalmists did this many times. But in this desire to be lifted out, be careful not to miss what God is carrying you through. It might be God has you right where he wants you.
If you've sinned, repent. If you've grown apathetic, reignite your pursuit of God.
But if you are walking in the light, lift up your head. Lean into what God is doing through his silence, and trust his timing.