A few years ago, I found myself sitting in front of a sweet older woman who had been qualified by a well-known Christian university as a Spiritual Director. She had studied theology and worked with dozens of people who were seeking a deeper connection with God. She was kind, warm, and gentle – and she was reading a Psalm to me patiently while we sat in her backyard. Surrounded by a pond, flowers, and some beautiful trees with white blossoms floating down around us, I sat with my eyes closed and I waited.
We had tried talking through the doubts and the anger and the questions, but every attempt had left me feeling overwhelmed because I couldn’t seem to break through the heavy wall in my mind and heart. All the “right” answers kept hitting me in painful and tender places, and I was tired of getting bruised. But in spite of how furious I was, I couldn’t deny that I was simultaneously desperate for God. I couldn’t stop wanting Him, even when I tried.
So after observing my anguish, this angel of a woman said to me, “Why don’t I just read a Psalm to you, and you can listen? I’ll just keep reading it, and you can tell me when you want me to stop.”
I double over on the bench with my head in my hands, tears streaming down my face. And I waited.
She must have read the Psalm at least twelve times, and verse by verse, I waited. Finally, I couldn’t bear the silence any longer so I asked her to stop. She prayed for me with compassion in her eyes, and after a few minutes I left. I remember thinking, this is it. I’ve tried everything there is to try, and if He’s still not coming for me, then maybe He just doesn’t care much about whether we’re close after all.
For the millionth time that year, I was ready to abandon my search for intimacy with God. He just felt so incredibly far away. Every time I tried to pray, waves of anger would wash over me. What was the point? Was He even listening? I didn’t understand why my own resentment kept getting in the way of my relationship with Him – and ultimately, why He wouldn’t take it away so that we could be at peace again.
I tried everything. I read books, listened to podcasts, and went to prayer meetings. I wrote in my journal and met with Spiritual Directors and went on long, holy, solitary walks. But all my efforts were (seemingly) in vain, and I was just so tired.
I often wondered during that time if God actually loved me enough to make sure that our relationship was intimate and warm and real. Having spoken about it with various people over the last few years, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who’s experienced a deep sense of spiritual disillusionment. Theologians sometimes refer to this as a “dark night of the soul” – a period during which God seems distant and indifferent. A period during which questions and darkness abound – with no real signs of relief.
I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer for why it happens. It could be any combination of things – incorrect theology about God’s character, a chemical imbalance, a tragic loss, or spiritual warfare. All of our spiritual journeys are unique. But I think it’s safe to say that for all of us, at one point or another, there’s an occasional sense that God is just distant. Far away. Removed.
And yet, we know we need Him. We simultaneously long for Him and push Him away. We desperately hope that He will reveal Himself, and when He does, we struggle to accept His ways. We cry because we think we’re waiting for Him, when really – He is always waiting for us.
With patience and warmth, He waits for us to wrestle through our fears and our doubts and our insecurities. Instead of making them instantly disappear, He gently helps us break through the walls that we’ve put up – picking up the heavier pieces for us, letting us carry some on our own – and in the process, we start to bond more deeply with Him.
The walls start to crumble, and light trickles in. We start to realize that He is on our side after all. He fights with us and for us. And He always will, until the end of time.
In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen describes it this way:
"For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life--pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures--and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair.
Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not "How am I to find God?" but How am I to let myself be found by Him?" The question is not "How am I to know God?" but "How am I to let myself be known by God?" And, finally, the question is not "How am I to love God?" but "How am I to let myself be loved by God?" God is looking into the distance for me, trying to find me, and longing to bring me home."
Many months after I met with my Spiritual Director, I remember dragging my feet to church one evening and sitting on my own off to the side of the room. I braced myself for the familiar feeling of detachment that would come when everyone around me started singing. I was used to feeling like the only person in the room who wasn’t head-over-heels in love with God – but this time, something felt different.
I actually wanted to sing, and I didn’t want to stop.
The thing is, there wasn’t one specific moment that changed everything for me – but slowly and steadily, those moments of connection started to outweigh the moments of distance – and I gradually fell back into a place of tenderness and trust and warmth. My teammate even caught me listening to a worship song on repeat the other day at work. Who am I?!
On some days, I feel that distance creeping back in, but it scares me a little less now than it did before. I know He’s still here – and He always will be. If I can’t feel Him for a bit, it’s just because He’s working on another part of the wall – so I’ll keep working on breaking down the part that’s in front of me, and at some point we’ll run into each other again.
And we’ll just keep doing that, brick by brick - until someday, the whole thing comes crashing down. And all the light will come pouring in.