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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When God Seems Silent and Our Worship is Dry

Why does God seem so present at times and then all of a sudden so distant? According to Dr. John Coe, Director of the Institute for Spiritual Formation at Talbot Seminary and Rosemead School of Psychology, early church fathers traced these times in the lives of believers. They found that it was not uncommon that young believers would have times in which they could sense the presence of God in very deep ways, yet later on in their experience that feeling would plateau and then they would pass through times in which they felt the complete absence of God’s presence entirely. Contrary to what we might think would happen, our spiritual feelings do not necessarily correlate with our spiritual maturity. The more we grow in Christ, we do not always sense God’s presence in the same way we did earlier.  But, according to Coe is not necessarily because of sin [although it certainly could be]. This early sense of closeness may be a way that God is giving a taste of what fellowship will be and can  like. They are less the results of our own actions and more the gifts of God. Because of this, we may seek to repeat the sense of God’s presence by doing some of the same things we had done previously, but do not experience the same sense as we once did. Why, then, do we go through such time of desolation? Perhaps God is trying to wean us from depending so much on our feelings and wants us to learn to trust Him for who He is. These “dark nights of the soul,” as Coe calls them serve as times of purging from our dependence on feelings and at the same time are mirrors to show us what is really in our heart. During these times we might have difficult times focusing during our private devotional time with the Father. Rather than frustration over the lack of focus, we can thank God that He is showing us areas that do not conform to the image of His Son. God is revealing who we are so He can take us to a new place of neediness and dependence. This is not rejection on God’s part, but part of the process of bringing us to maturity. Rather than give up and claim that God has abandoned us, we need to reach out and accept what God is showing us of ourselves. We need to seek out someone to help us walk through the dark night, a spiritual mentor.

You might ask, “What does all this have to do with worship?”  That’s a great question. Let me attempt to make the connection. I really believe that the truths that Dr. Coe shares can be life changing in relation with how we worship God. There are so many parallels to our beginning walk with God and our early worship experiences that it should be fairly easy to see. Worship is fresh, God is so big, so real, so awesome, we can’t really take it in. We continue to walk with God and worship, but after a while worship doesn’t seem to do for us what it once did. At this point, some begin to seek for other churches, or worship services that will give us the feelings that we once had. If we do not get there, there is a possibility that we will give up on the whole thing and choose to walk out on God, since it seems that even though we were trying to seek Him, He walked out on us.  But if we will look at these times less as God’s abandonment, but more as times of God’s mirrors into our hearts to reveal the things from which He wants to purge us, we will enter into a new level of worship. Worship not dependent on feelings, but worship dependent on God alone.  We need to resist the temptation to try to “fix” the feelings, trying to regain them through the music or spiritual disciplines. God is reforming us to become less dependent on our feelings and more our trust in Him alone.

Think how this understanding might change how we look at worship, itself. The temptation is to measure a worship service by how deeply we “felt” the presence of God. While this is not bad, in and of itself, if it is the only measure by which we worship, then we are missing on learning what God is trying to teach us during the “dark nights.” If we are not careful, our desires will turn more toward the gift than the Giver; we will desire the feelings more than God, Himself. There are times when sin separates us from God and worship. I am not talking about these times, but times when we are doing what we should and God just seems silent.  Dark nights will come and go, and God is more concerned about remaking us into the image of His Son, than He is giving us warm feelings. Just as the relationship between a husband and wife matures past just the early romantic feelings to deep love and commitment, so our relationship with the Father deepen past just the emotions of those early days of knowing Him.

Many times believers will come into a worship service like judges for the Olympics, ready to give their evaluations of the service: “Well, it has been better, but I only felt like I made it to a 5.5 today. I guess the worship leader was having an ‘off’ day.” The biblical model of worship is not about how we feel as much as that recognition of who God is and our obedient response to Who He is. We must worship Him by faith, trusting that because He said He inhabits the praises of His people, He is there. That He has promised never to abandon us, that His Spirit lives in us, we can be assured that He has not left us, though we cannot “feel” His presence. We must live by faith in the truth that God has declared and not on our emotions. As we mature in Christ, the simple fact that God has promised His presence with us need be enough. Caution must be called for if the goal of our worship is to “feel” God’s presence, rather than acknowledge by faith what the reality of His Word has promised. Let’s commitment ourselves to trust Him in the dark night and reach out and help those who might be walking alone through it.


  1. Thanks for this word, Ed. During struggles I have had over the last year or so, a colleague friend of mine has reminded on occasions "my [God's] grace is sufficient for you" (II Cor. 12:9) -- Larry

  2. Thanks for the note, Larry. I attended a conference here at ETS with Kathy and heard Dr. Coe share these insights, and even had an opportunity to talk with him afterwards about their application to worship.