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There are some leaders and teachers in the Christian community who tell those wonderful stories of how the presence of God became so amazingly real in their experience of suffering and sickness (or, at least, in the experiences of someone they know). We listen with something bordering on a sense of awe as we hear how the sufferer was transported into new levels of intimacy with God. It almost makes us want to precipitate a negative experience just so we can have that greater sense of fellowship and intimacy with God! (Exaggeration for effect!!)

 There are times in my life when, if I had to write a book, it would not be titled “The Sense of God’s Presence”. It would probably be “The Sense of God’s Absence”.  Now, before you rush to tell me that there are many verses in the Bible that tell us that God has promised never to leave us or forsake us, I want to tell you that I, too, know those promises. I have preached about them, written about. I have used them in counselling situations. I have sung about them and I have prayed about them.  Not today. Because today it feels like God isn’t here.

Now, first of all, let me be clear about what I am NOT saying. I am NOT saying that God has abandoned us. I am NOT saying anything here to the effect that God withdraws His Spirit from us. I am NOT suggesting or implying that we can lose our salvation.

What I AM saying is that God may, from time to time, withdraw the sense of His presence. (Now, how do I explain that statement?) Let me put it this way: A believer in Jesus may lose the assurance of his/her salvation without losing the reality of their salvation. Likewise, a believer in Jesus may lose the sense of God’s presence without losing the reality of God’s presence.

Of course, the loss of the sense of God’s presence can be due to various reasons. Unresolved sin in a believer’s life can desensitise us to God’s presence.

But what I am referring to are those seasons in life where God seems to be somewhere else and we long for the sense of His presence. I think that is what the Psalmist seeks in Psalm 42

 As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? Psalm 42:1-2 (NASB)

We are familiar with what some have unkindly referred to as ‘glory stories’. They are accounts of events where God “showed up” and saved the day, like when the cavalry showed up and drove the Indians away from the wagon train and the good guys won! Such stories appeal greatly to us because we love to identify with winners. It’s important to us that right prevails. We must have hope; hope that we are on the right side. Glory stories put us in touch with such hope.

Are you familiar with the expression, “the dark night of the soul”? Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Hardly appealing. It is based upon a poem written by St. John of the Cross in the 16th century. It’s a term that has come to refer to those seasons of life when God seems far away, disinterested and unresponsive to our longing and desire for Him… the Psalmist for whom the sense of God’s presence was only a distant memory

My heart is breaking as I remember how it used to be: I walked among the crowds of worshipers, leading a great procession to the house of God, singing for joy and giving thanks amid the sound of a great celebration! Psalm 42:4 (NLT)

But why would God withdraw the sense of His presence from our lives and circumstances? Surely the ‘glory stories’ would stir faith, joy, celebration and action more so than the “dark night” stories? Who wants to sign up for that experience?

But the fact is that our growth as Christians involves width, height and depth – growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus. One of the great threats to growth in the Christian life is superficiality in the Church. Those “dark nights of the soul” are designed to confront superficiality and are, therefore, to be welcomed, not resisted. Listen to how James sees the purpose of ‘trials and tribulations.

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. James 1:2-4 (NLT)

Jesus used imagery to describe those processes of growth that “hurt”. In John 15 He talks about how God prunes our lives, cuts out the dead wood and thus enables us to become even more fruitful. Those pruning shears hurt!!

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