There are times in the Christian life when it seems like God is far away, when it doesn’t feel like the Lord is near. We know Jesus promised to be with us always, but sometimes it just doesn’t seem that way. To be sure, God’s people throughout history have experienced this. More than a few Psalms contain prayers of anguish like those in Psalm 13:1, “How long, LORD, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (NIV).
Sometimes we don’t know why the Lord seems far away. Sometimes the Lord seems far away because we’ve wandered from him or sinned against him. Whatever the case, when God seems distant we certainly need to pray to him, read his Word, and keep doing our Christian best to trust and obey him through it. When God seems distant, we must also continue to regularly join the other people of God in public worship. We cannot expect to experience the presence and nearness of God if we forsake the assembly where he speaks to his people! Skipping out on worship during those times in life when God feels far away will only make things worse. Here’s how Chris Nye explained this:
“If we desire to live close to God, we cannot ignore His family…. ‘Going to church’ is not the best description of what we’re actually doing. We are joining with brothers and sisters from all walks of life to hear God’s word, worship His great name, and practice humility together. We may fancy ourselves a better person than the pastor, but hopefully in attending church regularly the Spirit would work that pride out. We may not love the music, but in time He will teach us what the American church must learn: worship, by its very nature, is not about us at all.”
“Church attendance grows us, humbles us, and shapes us because we hear God’s word, worship, and partake in His supper…. Missing church isn’t just missing a sermon, it is missing an opportunity to rehear the gospel in a variety of formats, whether it be through music, prayer, preaching, communion, or a neighbor.”
Jesus said the first and greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37 NET). This commandment is echoed in the OT and in the NT. When discussing this great commandment, Charles Hodge related it to religion, morality, and Romans 1:18ff. I’ve put his comments on this below, although it’s longer than my usual post. However, it’s pretty easy to read and very insightful. I’ve edited the layout slightly:
The preëminence of this commandment is further evident from the fact that religion, or the duty we owe to God, is the foundation of morality. Without the former, the latter cannot exist.
This is plain, (1.) From the nature of the case. Morality is the conformity of an agent’s character and conduct to the moral law. But the moral law is the revealed will of God. If there be no God, there is no moral law; and if a man does not acknowledge or recognize God, there is no higher law than his own reason to which he can feel any obligation to be conformed. (2.) It is a principle of our nature that if a man disregard a higher obligation, he will not be controlled by a lower. This principle was recognized by our Lord when He said, “He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in much; and he that is unjust in the least, is unjust also in much.” (Luke 16:10.) This involves the converse: He that is unfaithful in much, is unfaithful in that which is least. (3.) It is the testimony of experience that where religion has lost its hold on the minds of the people, there the moral law is trampled under foot. The criminal and dangerous class in every community consists of those who have no fear of God before their eyes. (4.) It is the secret conviction of every man that his duty to God is his highest duty, as is evinced by the fact that the charge of atheism is one from which the human soul instinctively recoils. It is felt to be a charge of the utter degradation, or of the deadness of all that is highest and noblest in the nature of man. (5.) The most decisive and solemn evidence of this truth, however, is to be found in the revealed purpose of God to forsake those who forsake Him; to give up to the unconstrained control of their evil passions, those who cast off their allegiance to Him. The Apostle says of the heathen world that it was “Because that when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful, … God gave them up unto vile affections.” (Rom. 1:21, 26.) And again in ver. 28, “As they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, without understanding, covenant breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful.” Such are the natural, the actual, the inevitable, and the judicially ordained effects of men’s refusing to retain God in their knowledge.
Notwithstanding all this we see multitudes of men of whom it may be said that God is not in all their thoughts. They never think of Him. They do not recognize his providence. They do not refer to his will as a rule of conduct. They do not feel their responsibility to Him for what they think or do. They do not worship Him; nor thank Him for their mercies. They are without God in the world. Yet they think well of themselves. They are not aware of the dreadful guilt involved in thus forgetting God, in habitually failing to discharge the first and highest duty that rests on rational creatures. Self-respect or regard to public opinion often renders such men decorous in their lives. But they are really dead while they live; and they have no security against the powers of darkness.
It is painful also to see that scientific men and philosophers so often endeavour to invalidate the arguments for the existence of God, and advance opinions inconsistent with Theism; arguing, as they in many cases do, to prove either that there is no evidence of the existence of any power in the universe other than of physical force, or that no knowledge, consciousness, or voluntary action can be predicated of an infinite Being. This is done in apparent unconsciousness that they are undermining the foundations of all religion and morality; or that they are exhibiting a state of mind which the Scriptures pronounce worthy of reprobation.
While reading through Adam Mabry’s book, Stop Taking Sides, I came across a paragraph that really got me thinking. To be fair, there are other good parts of the book, but this one stuck out for me. It stuck out for me because I just finished Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self which talked about our therapeutic culture (among other things). Mabry’s comments on empathy overlap with Trueman’s comments on therapy/therapeutic:
Decades of Disney, pop psychology, and cultural Christianity have exalted empathy masquerading as a virtue. We think with our hearts. Empathy, a word added to the English language in 1909, has gone from academic obscurity to cultural supremacy. To ‘feel with’ others is important for compassion, of course; but it is totally irelevant for knowing what’s true. Truth-tempered empathy can be a powerful remedy. But truthless empathy breeds selective Christianity – one that picks sides by feelings instead of faith. Beware your empathetic heart. It can tell great lies (Jeremiah 17:9). Equally, beware your uncompassionate heart. Ignoring others, intentionally misrepresenting their views, and castigating one for whom Christ died is loveless. Love listens, thinks, learns, and still says when necessary, ‘But here is the truth, no matter how we feel.’
In a letter dated March 8, 1843, Robert Murray McCheyne was trying to console someone who was struggling with heart issues. I don’t mean medical issues. Instead, this person had some spiritual heart issues such as sinfulness, struggling under trials, and the fear of man. Speaking of the trials, here’s how McCheyne gave comforting words to encourage the person who was facing a trial:
…Stay your soul on God. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.” A few more trials, a few more tears, a few more days of darkness, and we shall be for ever with the Lord! “In this tabernacle we groan, being burdened.” All dark things shall yet be cleared up, all sufferings healed, all blanks supplied, and we shall find fulness of joy (not one drop lacking) in the smile and presence of our God. It is one of the laws of Christ’s kingdom, “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” We must not reckon upon a smooth road to glory, but it will be a short one. How glad I am that you have “received the word in much affliction, with joy of the Holy Spirit!” Cleave closely to Jesus, that you may not have to say in a little while, “Oh that I had affliction back again to quicken me in prayer, and make me lie at his feet!”
Trials make the promise sweet, Trials give new life to prayer; Trials bring me to his feet, Lay me low, and keep me there.
One of the major and most important things that the Westminster Assembly (1643-1653) did for the Church of England was reforming the pastoral ministry. During the first part of the 17th Century in many areas of England there was a shortage of good biblical preaching. In fact, there was a shortage of preaching in general. It’s a bigger discussion, but suffice it to say that preaching and the pastoral ministry in were quite weak and lacking during these years in England. The Westminster Assembly addressed this situation and worked to strengthen the pastoral ministry and the preaching in England.
The Westminster Standards, of course, addressed preaching more than a few times. For one example, WLC says that “the Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners…” (etc. Q/A 155). Preaching was also discussed in more detail in the Assembly’s “Directory for the Publick Worship of God.” Here’s one section of the part of the DPW that addresses preaching. As a pastor in a Presbyterian church, I appreciate these words and give an “amen” to them. I believe these words will be fitting and helpful for pastors in other Christian churches as well:
Preaching of the word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel, should be so performed, that the workman need not be ashamed, but may save himself, and those that hear him.
It is presupposed, (according to the rules for ordination,) that the minister of Christ is in some good measure gifted for so weighty a service, by his skill in the original languages, and in such arts and sciences as are handmaid unto divinity; by his Knowledge in the whole body of theology, but most of all in the holy scriptures, having his senses and heart exercised in them above the common sort of believers; and by the illumination of God’s Spirit, and other gifts of edification, which (together with reading and studying of the word) he ought still to seek by prayer, and an humble heart, resolving to admit and receive any truth not yet attained, whenever God shall make it known unto him. All which he is to make use of, and improve, in his private preparations, before he deliver in public what he hath provided (i.e. prepared).