“The Lord has hidden himself from his people, but I trust him and place my hope in him.”Isaiah 8:17
God is as real as the Sun, even when we only sense His presence half the time. As caregivers for people suffering from mental illnesses, we all know it’s easier to worship when things are great.
I have had times, usually during or after a mental illness episode in my family, when I feel that God has abandoned me … or doesn’t exist at all.
In “The Purpose-Driven Life,” Rick Warren, whose son died from mental illness, tells us that the deepest level of worship is praising God while you are in pain. When you thank Him during a trial. Trust Him when tempted. Love Him when He seems distant.
God can … and does … mature our relationship with Him during periods of seeming separation, often called dark nights of the soul. When this happens, we have to decide to continue to love, obey and worship God.
David had one of the closest relationships with God recorded in the Bible. God called the shepherd/king “a man after my own heart.” But the Psalms that he wrote often contain his complaints about a dark night of the soul.
Psalm 10: 1 “Lord, why are you standing aloof and far away? Why do you hide when I need you the most?”
Psalm 22:1 “Why have you forsaken me? Why do you remain so distant? Why do you ignore my cries for help, Lord?”
Psalm 43:2 “Why have you abandoned me, God?”
No, God hasn’t abandoned us. But if a dark night of the soul was this hard for David … and for Mother Teresa … and for Therese of Liseux, it will be hard for us.
God has promised repeatedly, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5) But does God promise that we will always feel Him with us? No.
It comes on in many ways. One day you pray, and it feels off. You can’t sense God in your quiet time. You have your small group pray for you, but nothing changes. How long will it last? For Mother Teresa, it went on for roughly 50 years, with some breaks. And learning of this after her death in the writings she left behind … well, it shocked everyone who knew her.
Why would God want to distance Himself from Mother Teresa? Or David? Or you, especially as you struggle to deal with a loved one who has a mental illness?
Because He loves us and He wants us to deepen our faith. This dark night of the soul happens to most Christians, thankfully not usually for 50 years. But it may happen more than once.
When God seems gone, we have to make a choice. Either we say “I still believe. Help my unbelief” or we say “God is no good.”
Clearly Mother Teresa chose to stay faithful. That’s why no one knew about her suffering. (She even wanted the letters that contained this information burned at her death. But someone read them and kept them to share.)
You may think God is singling you out, punishing you. The dark night of the soul is no more your fault than the mental illness is. Sin does distance us from God, but this experience usually isn’t connected to any sin. Sometime’s it’s a test of faith.
In his book, “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality,” author Pete Scazzero calls these periods of distance from God “the wall.” He defines this as affiliated with “a crisis that turns our world upside down.” John of the Cross said these times can come to free us from our deepest sins, like pride, greed and envy.
But often experiencing this has nothing to do with sin. It is a test of faith to see if we will continue to love, trust, obey and worship God without a sense of his presence.
So what do you do?
Scazzero mostly suggests that you keep up your spiritual practices. Warren has four recommendations:
- Tell God exactly how you feel. Pour out your emotions.
- Focus on who God is – his unchanging nature. : good and loving, all-powerful, in control, notices every detail of my life.
- Trust God to keep his promises. Don’t be troubled by trouble. When you feel abandoned by God yet continue to trust him despite your feelings, you worship him in the deepest way.
- Remember what God has already done for you.
In the end, I’ve always ended up like Simon Peter. “To whom shall I go, Lord? You alone have words of eternal life.” But I find my prayer life and connection to God grows stronger after each one of these experiences.