Since, then, thou dost fill the heaven and earth, do they contain thee? Or, dost thou fill and overflow them, because they cannot contain thee? And where dost thou pour out what remains of thee after heaven and earth are full?. . . Or, is it not rather that thou are wholly present everywhere, yet in such a way that nothing contains thee wholly?
– St. Augustine, The Confessions (Book One, Chapter Three)
What does it mean to be close to God?
What does it mean to be far away from him?
We’ve all felt it. Sometimes I feel like God is my childhood best friend. The two of us talk constantly and we “get” each other in ways no one else understands. We tell and keep secrets, go on adventures, and even when we aren’t directly engaged with one another, we feel close. There is no one in the world I’d want to be with more. I know, beyond any doubt, that he loves and cares for me.
But we’ve all felt darker times, as well. Sometimes I feel like God is that friend who was closer than a brother– but abandoned me, either because of something I did or some reason I don’t even know. Like I’m pushing him further away with every thought, word, and action. Like my prayers bounce off the walls and my life is hurtling in the wrong direction. What I perceive as his absence brings deep, suffocating, heart-wrenching pain, because what is most precious to me has been ripped out of my hands.
We use the phrases “close to” or “far away from” in relation to God because that’s how we feel, not because of the actual distance between us and God (see above Augustine quote). If you are a follower of Christ, then not only is God always with you in the way he fills and encompasses everything, he is also always with you in an even greater way. His Spirit is very much alive inside of you. You have a special connection to you heavenly Father that can never be undone– like your spirit is tied to his in an impossible knot that can never be worked out, while his Spirit is constantly transforming yours.
Even David, who lived at a time when God’s Spirit did come and go from people, wrote this (Psalm 139:7-10, NKJV):
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
So why then do believers ever feel far away from God? And why do we feel closer to him at some times more than others? We know there are many obstacles that can “come between” us: sin, distractions, pride, flawed priorities, dreams, tough circumstances, desires. Sometimes hardship pushes us closer to God; sometimes it drives us away. And contentment is a similar player. Every situation, every season is different. And sometimes we just don’t know why.
While I do think that in some situations God allows us to go through times of feeling distant from him to grow us or show us something, I think that most of the time, it’s our choice. We decide whether to let the warmth of his love radiate throughout our spirits and lives, or whether to harden our hearts and try to freeze it out.
In The Reason for God, Tim Keller wrote, “All God does in the end with people is give them what they most want, including freedom from himself.” Though that quote more directly concerns salvation, I think it also applies here. As God’s children through the saving work of his son, we can be as close to God as we want to be.
I know that’s not as easy as it sounds. Sometimes, we do sincerely believe that our deepest desire is to be close to God, but we can’t seem to figure out what it is that is keeping us from feeling that warmth again. That’s when, though we feel like we’ve exhausted our tries, we must go even deeper in our soul-searching– through prayer, Bible study, intentional conversations with trusted Christians, and relentless worship that is not based on how we feel, but on what we know is real and true and good. There’s no exact formula, but there’s also no doubt that God is always right there behind you, waiting for you to turn back around.
COMMENT: When have you felt especially close to God? What do you do when you feel far away from God?
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy Like a Child, Look Where? (Guest Post), Digging Deep (Who Am I?), Immanuel: Jesus is God with us in his birth, life, death and resurrection, Immanuel II: Jesus is God with us when we have to work on Christmas Eve (and in the other tough things), and Immanuel III: Jesus is God with us always, wherever we are.