I am convinced that the Christian life is an increasing experience of union with God in Christ by the indwelling Holy Spirit. That we are not called to be doing Christian things for God, but to be participating in the life of God by his grace. In the Gospel we find that our Lord Jesus Christ describes himself as the bread of life, the sustenance for those who are hungry. I believe this is true, and I wish this to be the experience of all. That God is present and sustaining by his grace, lading us into union with Himself. Yet, there are many for whom the words of the Psalmist are an ever present experience.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
How can this be? If God desires a relationship of life and love with us, in an increasing union by the indwelling Holy Spirit, how can it be that some experience life as being isolated from God, and as lacking any sense of divine comfort? These words were spoken by our Lord Jesus on the cross, when the Fathers teach us that he was expressing that separation which mankind experiences from God because of the Fall, even though, as God himself, he could never be separated from the Father for a moment. It seems to me that there are a variety of reasons why we might find ourselves in such a condition. These are certainly not proposed by way of criticism or condemnation, since it is my firm belief that God does desire and will that each of us be transformed and transfigured in union with him. But it is only by diagnosing our condition that we are able to enter into the healing and renewal God offers us.
In the first place, our sense of God not being present to us, and I am speaking to Orthodox Christians here in particular, can be because of sin in our life. Sin is not so much a bad thing that is done, but a turning away from God in the heart and by the will. We all of us fall into sin many times, but especially when some sinful thought or behaviour or habit is convicted to us by the Holy Spirit, when we know that we have to change our lives, and we choose not to make any effort to do so, this is especially a time when it may seem that God has withdrawn from us. Indeed, it is rather that we have withdrawn from God, and having chosen the darkness, we should not be surprised that we find ourselves at last in a gloomy place. This is not always immediately apparent to us. The Prodigal Son had a great time while his inheritance lasted, but eventually it ran out, and he found himself alone, hungry and dirty in a pig sty.
We may make the mistake of thinking that we have not committed any great sin, or none worse than before. And we may consider in our heart that we are being unfairly punished by God, who seems to be ignoring us. But to choose sin is to reject God. If in his mercy he bears with us, eventually, for our salvation, he will allow us to experience what we have chosen. As we mature in the Christian faith, it is also the case that things which were less important will become more important. Perhaps we were a violent person. If we got into an argument with someone then it usually ended up with someone being punched or kicked. But by the grace of God, and our own effort, it might be that such violence was restrained, and the passions were expressed in violent and abusive words. Perhaps after some months and years, even this is restrained by spiritual growth, but we become frustrated and irritated by other drivers on the roads and use our horn to let them know how we feel. If we think that this is not really very important, because we have stopped hitting people, then we may well find ourselves in the state where God seems absent. It is because though we have dealt with some of the more manifest expressions of sin, we have made an accommodation with the root of sin in our heart. We have decided that some level of sin, some level of the rejection of God by the will, is OK. And that undermines all spiritual experience. When we decide that some level of darkness in the heart is acceptable then the heart will become increasingly darkened, even while we think that we have become holy enough.
There is no possibility of settling down in the Christian life and accepting a compromise with sin and death. When we stop moving forward with Christ, then we will find ourselves slipping back. The grace of God is received as we use what has been given. When we decide that we have walked far enough along the spiritual way, then the grace of God the energy of the indwelling Holy Spirit, ceases to well up in our heart, and we become dry and thirsty. It is by repentance, and a careful examination of our heart and our attitudes towards sin, that we are able to begin again on the journey towards life and into union with God. Feeling miserable for ourselves is not repentance. Getting up and setting off back to our Father’s house is true repentance. It means a change in our way of thinking, and adopting a zero tolerance for our sin, even while recognising that we must call out to God for mercy and the gift of grace to become holy and that we cannot achieve this on our own.
But this is not the only reason we might feel as the Psalmist describes. There are others who are experiencing a time of dryness in the spiritual life which is also for their salvation. Those who are not given over to known sin in their life but find themselves shaken because God seems absent, when he had been always present. It seems to me that God sends such seasons, or allows them in our experience, so that we might grow in faith. There are many who look to God as the giver of good things, of worldly gifts and presents, and their spiritual life is based around trying to do things that will please God, so that he gives us what we want. Those who are more mature in the Christian experience realise that such a perspective of God is not Christian, and is not how he wants us to live. But sometimes, even though we do not look to God for material things, as if he were a cosmic vending machine, we can come to expect spiritual experience to validate and affirm our faith. We don’t ask God to just give us good grades or a new car. But we might start expecting a warm sense of his presence and opportunities for service. Sometimes we come to desire God for these spiritual gifts, even if we no longer desire him for material things.
This can in fact be a obstacle to life with Christ. If we are still only seeking him for what he gives then we are only following him like the crowds who had been fed by the miraculous bread. Sometimes then, God withdraws the sense of his presence from us. Yet this is not punishment. It is an invitation and an opportunity to persevere and to choose God for himself and not for what he gives. If we continue on the spiritual way, because God deserves our worship and devotion for himself and not for the gifts he gives, then we will find grace to overcome our sense of loss, and in God’s own time he will renew in us the grace of his presence. How long will we persevere? How much do we love God for himself? Will we endure for a day? For a week? For a month? When we understand that these times of testing are for our salvation, and that God is no less present to us, and does not cease to give an unseen grace, then we are able to persevere, and our faith is brightened and sharpened by the experience, just as the frost is necessary to allow the growing plants to receive strength to endure all manner of weather that is to come. Just as repentance is necessary if we are distant from God because of sin, so perseverance is necessary if our faith and love of God is being proved.
But there are others who find themselves in a persistent state of anxiety, in which the expression of faith in God through prayer and worship, seems not to bring that peace which passes all understanding. How can it be that the one who says – Come to me all you who are heavily burdened, and I will give you peace – seems not to keep his promise? I believe that there are several things we might consider in such a case. It seems to me that we must become aware that our feelings do not always or often represent reality. This does not mean for a moment that they are easily dealt with or dismissed. They can overwhelm us. I am reminded of the servant of Elisha, who was terrified and filled with anxiety because the army of the Syrians had surrounded the Israelites. Elisha did not pray that God would make the Syrians disappear, instead, he asked God that his servant would be able to see the reality of things as he did. And we read in 2 Kings 6,
Elisha prayed: ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.’ So the Lord opened the eyes of the servant, and he saw; the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Often much of our anxiety and distress comes from a lack of spiritual sight. We cannot see the reality of God’s presence with us and so we rely on feelings and come to believe that he is absent. It is often the case that we cannot see God or sense his presence because the organs of spiritual sight are blinded by his glory and not yet prepared for the sight of him. What do I mean? It is that God is never absent, with all his spiritual host, but we may find our eyes are dimmed, just as Mary in the Garden of the Tomb saw the Lord Jesus, but her eyes were filled with tears, and the burden of her sorrow and she did not recognise him.
So then our feelings do not always or often reflect reality, not only in worldly things but in the spiritual also. What will we do? We must determine that we will act in a certain way because of faith and not because of sight. We must choose to act in faith even if it seems our prayers are not heard. This is required of us because faith demands such endurance. It is the sacrifice we offer to God when we are weak. He receives it with great joy. With greater joy than the easy prayers and praise of those for whom everything is going well. This is a time of confusion and even doubt. But we say with the Centurion – I believe, Lord help my unbelief.
This requires as much honesty as the Centurion had. We may make our own the prayer – Lord, I do not feel that you are close or even hear my prayers. But I believe that you do, whatever my feelings say. And in broken and stumbling faith I offer my prayers to you. Lord have mercy on me, and strengthen me by your grace and the indwelling Holy Spirit, for your glory and my salvation.
More is required of us, though. The Psalmist began to find hope and faith when he remembered what God had already done. He says,
In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.
I believe that this is also a necessary aspect of our recovery of the sight and knowledge of God. Are we often thinking about what God has already done. When we turn inward and find ourselves overwhelmed by our own feelings of anxiety and hopelessness it is easy to find our feelings magnified because there is nothing to put them into context. But the remembrance of what God has done puts them into some sort of proper context. We must read the Gospels, and the accounts of God’s saving actions for his people in the Old and New Testament, not so that they become familiar stories, but so that we are personally encouraged by them. It is not enough to rely on our Sunday School memories, but we need to read the Gospels as if they were medicine for our soul, finding in them the saving message of God for us and in our own circumstances. As we open the Scriptures we should pray, Lord, speak to me in my distress and save me by your word. And he will speak to us through the Scriptures if we ask him to, and truly desire that he does.
More than that, again as the Psalmist writes in this same psalm,
Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
He encourages himself and strengthens his confidence in God by remembering more than simply what God had done for others in the past, but what God has done for himself. This another important means of overcoming feelings of God’s absence. If we focus on what seems to be a problem, then of course this will seem bigger and bigger. That is how our mind works. But if we begin to consider what God has already done for us, and what he has already given us, then we start to see that he is always active in our life. Let me say that if you feel that God is distant then you need to spend time each day thanking him for his gifts to you. Reminding yourself how you have already been blessed. Let me urge you to find 10 or 20 things to thank God for each day before you begin to pray about the problems you are facing. Pray like this…
Lord I am not always grateful for the many gifts you have given me, and I feel as though you are not here with me, even when I am blessed in countless ways each day. I thank you for the gift of life in another day. I thank you for the gift of my relationship with you, even though I am filled with confusion. I thank you for the gift of my wife or husband. For the gift of my children. For the gift of my grandchildren. I thank you that I have a home to live in, and that I have employment that allows me to provide for my family. I thank you for the opportunity to serve in the Church though I know I am unworthy. I thank you for my friends. For all the natural gifts you have given me today, for water, food, warmth and clothing. I thank you that you have brought me to this day, and I pray that you will make yourself present to me in all that I do and say today.
When we are focused on a particular issue or feeling then it is important and necessary that we balance how we feel against what God has actually done for us and given us. But it also seems to me that when we feel like this we need to commit ourselves to spiritual habits despite our feelings. A farmer does not abandon the animals in his care simply because he does not feel full of positive energy, neither does a committed athlete give up his training if he has periods of feeling low, nor do we give up our work or career simply because of feelings however real these are. We are expected to turn up and do our best. This is also required of us in the spiritual life. We have put our hand to the plough and we cannot turn back but must press on, and God will give us strength if we ask, whatever our feelings.
For some of us, we grow attached to these feelings of anxiety, confusion and fear. That is no criticism. It is how we operate as human persons. We try and find a way of coping with even the most difficult circumstances. Sometimes this means that when our Lord says, Come to me all you who bear a heavy burden and I will replace it with my light one, we find it impossible to let go. We have become used to feeling as we do.
But what does St Cyril of Alexandria say that Christ means,
Draw near to me, so that you may become sharers of the divine nature and partakers of the Holy Spirit.
And another Father says,
Place my yoke upon you, and learn from me that I am gentle and humble of heart. Oh, what a very pleasing weight that strengthens even more those who carry it! For the weight of earthly masters gradually destroys the strength of their servants, but the weight of Christ rather helps the one who bears it, because we do not bear grace; grace bears us. It is not for us to help grace, but rather grace has been given to aid us.
How do we draw near to Christ, and how do we bear him even when we feel overwhelmed by our weakness? I think this applies to the other cases I have spoken of as well. There is a need for repentance from the sinner. Perseverance from the one being tested. Thankfulness and constancy in the one who is confused and anxious. But in all cases God desires that we draw close to him and receive grace, the indwelling Holy Spirit, who unites us with God. We experience this grace, this union with God by the Holy Spirit in the sacraments and in the life of prayer. These are indispensable to us. They are a heavenly medicine, the living and life giving bread. The Psalmist speaks of his own experience when he says in the same psalm,
The poor and afflicted shall eat and be satisfied. Those who seek the Lord will praise Him.
Those of us who bear this affliction, this poverty of the experience of God, we may eat and be satisfied. He gives himself to us on this altar. He is the living and heavenly bread that satisfies and renews and sustains. Do not say that he is distant, for he is among us, and will unite to himself those who receive him with faith and hope. How do we make this medicine effective when we have received it? It is by prayer, prayer as much and as often as we can manage by the grace of God. Prayer even when we feel nothing at all. Prayer is standing before God, it is communion with God, and by the grace of the Body and Blood of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist it brings about, slowly and certainly, that experience of union with God which we desire.
Do not be guided by emotions and feelings. They will deceive us. Whether we are repentant, persevering or enduring, what is required of us is faith and trust in God. We exercise these by committing ourselves to prayer however we feel, to offering thanks, and for giving praise to God. If you would seek God and find him then thank and praise him. But receive him in these Holy Mysteries and having received him, give yourself to prayer. Not for a moment here or there, but as much as you are able, for prayer is union with God, and the deeper and richer our experience of prayer, the greater our union and communion with God.
Take up the Agpeya and make the prayers there your own. Attend the Midnight Praises, and cry out with the others gathered together, My Lord Jesus Christ, help me. Intercede for others, all those known to you and those with whom you work and study, turn your thoughts outside of yourself and serve others by interceding for them. And make great use of the Jesus Prayer, as if your spiritual life depended on it – Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. Pour your feelings into this prayer if they are overwhelming you. But do not cease to offer it, however you feel. In God’s time he will visit you, as he visited the Apostles, hidden and confused after the crucifixion, and he will give his peace.
However we feel, let us cry out to God for grace and strength by the indwelling Holy Spirit, to persevere in this journey of faith into divine life, pressing onwards with Christ, until coming to the summit of this present and difficult ascent, we see before us more clearly the glorious destination set before us, and the one who walks with us. May the Lord sustain us by the gift of his own life in the Body and Blood, this bread of life which we will share, and in the indwelling Holy Spirit, and unite us to himself in increasing measure, as we repent, persevere and endure to the end in the grace of God.