When God Feels Absent

silhouette of woman during dawn

Photo by Murilo Folgosi on Pexels.com

You may remember what shock came over the world after Mother Teresa’s death in 1999 when some of her writings were divulged to the public. She wrote not of the inner bliss of peace and joy during her many years of service, as we might expect, but of her inner struggles of “dryness… darkness… loneliness” and often feeling far and distant from God.

If we’re honest, I think most of us can identify with Mother Teresa, to varying degrees. But what I want to bring to our attention is not so much the struggle itself, but the hunger for God that emerged in the midst of her struggle. She wrote that the pain of feeling God’s absence caused her to long for him evermore “with all the powers” of her soul.

Is there perhaps a link between pain and panting after God?

Take a look at Psalm 42. The author begins: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.” Just like Mother Teresa, the soul pants, but not for the God that feels near, or the God who feels present, but the God who is seemingly absent. The psalmist is experiencing intense inner and outer turmoil. His soul is “downcast” and “disturbed” (v. 5). Feeling forgotten by God, he is in a state of “mourning” and “oppression” (v. 9) and suffers physical “mortal agony” as he is taunted by his foes (v. 10). His panting for God comes in the midst of his pain.

We will all hit rough patches with God from time to time, but we need not become discouraged. We can draw on three tips offered in Psalm 42 that will help increase or revive our hunger for God when He seems most absent:

  1. Desperation. In verse 3 it says, “My tears have been my food day and night.” When the author realizes he feels far from God, he doesn’t continue on in his regular rhythms of life. His tears become his food as he weeps for God to show up. When was the last time you wept over missing closeness with God?
  2. Intimacy. In verse 9, the author talks to God as a close friend, holding nothing back from God, “Why have you forgotten me?” Expressing the depths of our hearts to God helps breed trust and intimacy. When was the last time you poured out your heart to God?
  3. Remembrance. The psalmist describes a time when he used to worship God “with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng” (v. 4). He is recalling when God felt close and near. When we do this in our own lives, it can help quicken our desire for God again. When was a specific time you remember feeling closest to God?

These are three simple yet profound things we can do during times when we may lose for a while, the freshness or vitality of our relationship with God. Be encouraged that it is often in the most painful or difficult of circumstances that we find our souls panting most poignantly after God. And panting is the surest sign that God is there with you and has been all along.

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Four Ways to Prepare [Spiritually] for Christmas

I was delightfully reading a new little Advent devotional (by John Piper) I was sampling on my Kindle when I was hit with these words:

“Don’t let Christmas find you unprepared. I mean spiritually unprepared.”

Yikes. I went from delightfully reading to desperately panicking in seconds: what does it mean to be spiritually prepared for Christmas? I did a quick inventory: my gifts were bought (well, almost), the tree was up, the lights were hung (check, check, check). I even dutifully wore my Advent purple to church on Sunday (does that count?). But I realized I hadn’t really given much thought to preparing, really preparing, spiritually for Christmas.

Am I the only one? How about you (don’t worry, no one is forcing you to make a public confession)?

Thankfully, as I read on, Piper provided some helpful tips for preparing spiritually for Christmas, and I’d like to share them here, while adding some of my own comments to each.

Four Ways to Prepare Spiritually for Christmas:

  1. Meditate on the fact that we need a Savior. My friend recently confessed that in growing up in a Christian home, she has never really understood the depth of her need for a Savior. Another friend, on the other hand, after battling with addiction for years, knows and relies daily on her desperate need for her Savior, the very giver of her sanity, health and life. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between. Spend time time this Advent asking God to deepen your awareness of your need for Him. Piper says, Christmas will not have its intended effect until “we feel desperately the need for a Savior.”
  2. Engage in sober self-examination. This does not mean checking how many moles are on your back or how many wrinkles have appeared around your eyes (though there is a time and place for this kind of examination!). Rather, this is a deep internal examination of how we are doing spiritually. Piper says, “Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter.” Thus there should be time for honest self-reflection, where we invite the Holy Spirit in to show us where we need His help and healing most. As the Psalmist cried out, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” Preparing spiritually for Christmas means allowing God to come in and do heart surgery where needed.
  3. Build God-centered anticipation and expectancy into your home–especially for the children. I confess the most exciting thing about Christmas growing up was the anticipation of not knowing what might show up under the tree Christmas morning! How do we get excited about Christmas beyond material things? How do we get our kids excited about our King’s arrival? This may take some imagination and creativity, but surely there are ways. My children are young, so I would appreciate suggestions here!
  4. Be much in the Scriptures (and memorize the great passages!). I am always amazed at how when I enter back into the Scriptures (yes, after a certain unintended time away), it brings life, light, hope and healing into my soul. Piper says, “Gather around that fire this Advent season. It is warm. It is sparkling with colors of grace. It is healing for a thousand hurts. It is light for dark nights.” Amen.

I pray these four suggestions may help you and me on our way to preparing spiritually for Christmas. Are there any others you would add? Please share them here. For as Piper says of Christmas,

“It’s joy and impact will be so much greater if you are ready!”

A Prayer {for the Brokenhearted} this Advent

broken heart

As I stood at the podium ready to serve as the prayer liturgist at my church on Sunday, not only was I frazzled and out of breath from racing to the front just in time to pass off my 18-month-old daughter to my husband, but as I began the prayer I was unexpectedly (and slightly embarrassingly) overcome with emotion. Even though I can blame it, at least partially, on the Holy Spirit (yes, he is known to flood me with tears in the most inopportune times!), the emotions came in a moment when praying for those for whom this time of year is difficult. Suddenly, I could’t hold back the tears, as I had to face the hard truth: I was one of those people. I literally had to give myself a silent pep talk as I was trying to regain composure, “Pull it together, Ali!”

I suppose I have always understood (in theory) that Christmas is a difficult time for many. But I haven’t really understood it on a personal or experiential level until this year, as my family continues to grieve the loss of our beloved mom, Becky. She went home to be with the Lord in January of this year and our hearts are still broken over the hole her loving and vibrant personality left in our family, our home community and our world. She is deeply missed. My heart literally hurts when I think about it.

Here, I simply wanted to share the heartfelt and (unexpected) emotion-filled prayer from Sunday. It is a simple prayer, but it reminded me that God’s heart really is so tender and soft towards the brokenhearted. As Psalm 34:18 puts it:

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

May you be a recipient of the close and tender care of our Lord, as I have been, and experience His deep and abiding comfort in whatever you are facing this Advent season.

Heavenly Father, we thank you that today marks the beginning of Advent, a time of waiting, watching, preparing, reflecting, remembering, anticipating, and hoping. A time when we look back in celebration of Your first coming…while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation of Your coming again.

Father, we desire to enter fully into this season of Advent, focused and unfettered. We want to slow down to reflect, pray and ponder who You are and what You have done for us in sending Your Son to us. And yet, we confess our inability to do so on our own accord, on our own strength. We confess our weakness, our short attention spans, our selfishness, our sin and our succumbing to the pull of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. We ask for Your forgiveness, Lord, in all the ways we fall short… and for Your help this Advent, in keeping You at the center of our waiting and our wanting.

Father, we also bring before you all of those for whom this time of year is difficult. Please be especially near to those in our midst who are battling sickness, grieving the loss of a loved one, are alone, struggling to provide for their family or to rebuild their lives after recent natural disasters. Bring Your healing Presence and Your hope-filled touch to all who are beaten down and broken, we pray.

Finally Lord, I ask that today and in the weeks ahead, that You would renew us, refill us, and reveal to us a deeper sense of what Advent, the coming of Your Son, means. For Jesus is Immanuel–God with us–the greatest gift we all can receive this Christmas. In Jesus name I pray, amen.

What Keeps You from Praying for Healing?

Barriers

I was once talking to a friend who began telling me about this strange rash she had developed over night. She woke up and was alarmed at the hive-looking red patches covering her body. The first question out of my mouth was, “Oh my gosh, did you go to the doctor?”

“Well…” she paused. “It turns out I didn’t need to after all.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I laid my hands over my rash and prayed, ‘Lord, You say in your Word that by Jesus’ stripes I am healed… so please heal this rash, in Jesus’ name, amen.’”

“And…??” I squirmed with anticipation at what she might say.

“And then I went back to sleep and when I woke up…” she said, “the rashes had vanished completely. And I mean completely!”

Part of me was rejoicing on the other end of the line. But I must confess, the other part of me was skeptical and wanted to say, “Are you sure it was God? How do you know?”

My friend was challenging my healing paradigm. She was suggesting we go straight to the Source of Life and ask for healing first–-before anything or anyone else. She prayed with a sort of holy boldness that asks God for healing and expects something will happen when we do. I was a committed Christian, but I wasn’t sure I was totally onboard with this kind of approach.

But then I realized I needed to reflect a little further on this: What is it that holds me back from praying for healing? What is it that holds you back?

For one, maybe we are the ones who hold back. I’ll be the first to admit it. Whenever the thought crosses my mind to pray for healing, I am quick to either: a) ignore it, or b) make up some excuse as to why I shouldn’t do it: They’ll think I am crazy… I don’t want to make them uncomfortable… What if they think I am a nutcase? Bottom line, it is counter-cultural to believe that Jesus can actually heal us in the way he healed people during His time on earth, let alone to actually act on it. But Jesus is quite clear, that doing the things he did is part of our mandate as Christians:

“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing,and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:12-14)

When you really think about it, what do we have to lose? And what are we so afraid of anyway?

I don’t know about you, but as I think on these things, I feel a stirring from deep inside. I want to start praying for and expecting God’s healing touch in my life and the lives around me.

Here are three things that may help us overcome barriers as we begin to pray for healing:

1. Believe it is Possible. From Exodus to Isaiah to the Psalms and Proverbs, the Bible is rich with verses of God healing His people:

  • He said, “…for I am the Lord who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)
  • Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he sent out his word and healed them…” (Psalm 107:19-20)
  • “You shall worship the Lord your God, and I will bless your bread and your water; and I will take sickness away from among you. (Exodus 23:25)
  • “O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” (Psalm 30:2)
  • “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits–who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…” (Psalm 103:2-3)

Our God is a God who heals, whether it is physical, emotional, spiritual or relational. This can be a real challenge when our circumstances look hopeless. But whether His ultimate healing will come to us in this life or the next, we can and are encouraged to ask for it now.

2. Step Out in Faith. When we believe it is God’s desire to heal His people, He may want to use us to parter with Him and His Spirit to bring that healing. We see in the Book of Acts (among other places in the Bible) how God performed miraculous signs and wonders through the Apostles. Peter had such a strong healing anointing that “Crowds gathered… bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed” (Acts 5:16). God also did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them (Acts 19:12). Wow.

We might think that these were specially anointed individuals born in a completely different time period. While this might be true, God is still looking for people who are willing to be vessels used for His noble purposes, through whom He can share His love through the power of the Holy Spirit. Even if we are unsure of ourselves (which is totally normal), we can ask God for the courage to step out in faith, trusting that His power will be working through us as we lay hands on those around us, asking for healing, wholeness and restoration in Jesus name.

#3 Trust God with the Outcome. There will be times when God heals in an instant (as with my friend’s rash), and times when God takes us through a process of healing (which may involve professional doctors and/or therapists), but there will also be times when the healing we’re asking for doesn’t happen. This is where we are called to surrender our need to understand everything and allow God to work the way He chooses, even if it doesn’t turn out exactly how we want it to. We have to embrace the mystery of it all. I personally found this a very challenging thing to do after my mom wasn’t healed from cancer. We prayed and prayed and asked and asked for God to perform a miracle and heal her. And…well, even though He brought her into the fulness of His healing presence in Heaven, He didn’t heal her here on earth as we wanted. It won’t always be easy, but He will give us the grace to trust Him even when we don’t understand.

Where are you at? Take some time to reflect on the following questions:

  1. What is your healing paradigm? Do you believe it is possible for God to heal people today as Jesus healed people when he was on earth? Review the verses above and ask God to reveal to you His perspective on the matter.
  2. Have you ever experienced healing from God? Was it instantaneous or miraculous? Was it physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual? Did you ask God for it or did it just come?
  3. Next time you or a loved one feels an ache or pain, lay hands over the infected area and pray, asking God for His healing touch. Who knows, maybe God will bring His miraculous healing touch.

*Here is a sample template (adapted from Christian Healing Ministries) of a prayer for physical healing, to help guide you in your own praying:

Lord Jesus, we come to you with _________, filled with belief in your love and goodness. We know that you love ________and that you came into this world to save us from our sicknesses and infirmities that weigh us down. So now we ask you to send your healing power and your life into this body. [Here specify what you are asking God to heal, such as the heart or a sprained ankle]. Jesus, we ask you to restore _______ body to the way that you created it to function. Take the sickness out of this person’s body and replace it with your life, your love, your health. Restore the motion and flexibility [or whatever is relevant] so that it can once again move with the freedom and strength you meant it to have when you created it.

If there are unhealthy cells (such as cancer), we ask you to remove them: if there is any infection, we ask you take it out of this body and replace it with your health, your love, your life. If there are also any spirits of infirmity causing or attached to this sickness, we command the Infirmity to leave and go to Jesus Christ for him to remove and dispose of in his wisdom and mercy.

We also ask you, Lord, to take away the pain that is weighing down _______. Let him/her experience your presence, comfort and companionship. Fill ________ with the joy of your presence and let him/her experience the power of your Holy Spirit and become fully alive. Glory be to the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Three Keys to Accessing More of God’s Power

I am going through a healing prayer course at my church and the last two weeks have been on the power of the Holy Spirit, so I thought I’d post some thoughts on the topic here.

Francis MacNutt, from Christian Healing Ministries, summarizes  2 Timothy 3, where Paul says,

“In the last days they will maintain the form of religion, but will have left out the real power of it.”

And in 1 Corinthians 4:20 Paul makes a similar point, saying:

“For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by God’s power.”

What does it mean to live by God’s power?

The Holy Spirit is given to anoint us and give us the power needed to do the very things Jesus did – preach the gospel, heal the sick, set the captives free. It is to bring people out of the Kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of light. It is to expand the Kingdom of God!

Okay, yeah, we might think. I get that. But then why aren’t I seeing and experiencing more of God’s power being manifest in my daily life?

I think many of us have this question and this niggling feeling that ‘there’s gotta be more to the Christian life than this.’ I definitely have. Let’s explore this thought a little further.

We know the truth is that we receive the Holy Spirit when we become Christians. Scripture is very clear that our initial filling of the Holy Spirit comes by believing:

 “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:38-39)

But I want to suggest that being initially filled with the Holy Spirit and being continually empowered by the Holy Spirit are different things.

Perhaps the analogy of gas in a tank may help our understanding: A car might be filled with fuel, but until the engine starts, the car doesn’t have the power to move right?

It is possible to have the Holy Spirit (gas), but know nothing of his active presence in our lives (ignition). I know because that was me for many years. I believe that I was given the Holy Spirit of God when I put my faith in Christ as a young child, but I knew nothing of God’s power working through me until I learned how to recognize and intentionally activate it.

This means we cannot just sit back and wait for his power to strike (unfortunately!). Rather, we are invited to participate in bringing about more of God’s power in our lives. That is, we have a part to play.

Let’s look at three things we can do to access more of God’s gift of power in our lives in greater measure:

  1. Power comes in our asking.

Jesus says as he is teaching his disciples on the subject of prayer:

“What father among you, if his son asks for fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then… know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:12-13)

Nuzzled within this passage of Luke 11, Jesus tells us to ask, which in some translations is the word “impudence.” Do you know what this word means? The word impudence is the kind of asking in prayer that is so persistent, so bold, so shameless that it’s almost rude!

So Jesus is saying when it comes to asking for more of his power in our lives – for more of his Spirit – he says that God will often answer because of our impudence.

But what are we really asking for?  Take a look at all these Scriptures describing the Spirit’s activity in our lives:

  • Helps us obey God – to know and carry out God’s will (Ez 36:26-27)
  • Makes God’s presence evident in us (John 7:38-39, 14:23)
  • Offers guidance into Truth (John 16:13) and tells us what is ahead (John 16:13)
  • Reminds us of Jesus’ words (John 14:26)
  • Gives us power beyond our own human strength (Luke 24:49, Romans 8:11)
  • Enables us to be witnesses carrying out Jesus’ ministry of healing the sick and setting the captives free (Acts 1:8)
  • Gives us special gifts to build up the church and to be the church to a lost and broken world (Acts 2:17-18, I Corinthians 12:8-10, 28-30, Romans 12:6-8, Ephesians 4:11, I Peter 4:11)
  • Fills us with the life of Christ (Romans 8:11)
  • Transforms our character into the image of Christ (Galatians 5:23-24, 2 Cor. 3:18)
  • A Comforter, Counselor, Helper, Intercessor, Advocate, Strengthener, and Standby that will remain with us forever (John 14:16)

Wow! Who wouldn’t want more of this Spirit? The good news is that there is no such thing as too much asking when it comes to the Spirit. We are instructed to be like those who ask with that kind of persistence, consistency and shamelessness that won’t give up until it happens.

   2. Power comes in our embracing weakness.

Often times we think of power in terms of how the world thinks of it. We think if we are capable, if we are qualified, if we are strong, God will work His power through us. I confess at times I fall into this kind of thinking.

But in regards to accessing God’s power in the Kingdom, things work in the exact opposite fashion. For example power comes not in our strength, but in our learning to depend on God in our weakness.

Paul explains this as he realizes that the mysterious “thorn in his side” isn’t a weakness that will set him back, but it turns out it is the key to God’s power working through him:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Paul goes onto say he will boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on him.

This truly is one of the greatest secrets of accessing God’s power is admitting our weakness and learning to depend absolutely on him. We see this formula exhibited all throughout the Scriptures. When God wants to complete a task, who does he typically choose? He often chooses the weak, the poor, the insignificant and the inadequate:

  • Think of Moses, a man overwhelmed by his weaknesses and his lack of abilities.
  • Then there is David, the greatest of the Old Testament Kings of Israel. David was the youngest of the brothers in his family, a mere shepherd. God appointed him to be King even though he appeared to be the least likely candidate.
  • Consider Jesus himself. His birthplace was a dusty stable. As an adult Jesus became a carpenter, with no readily apparent qualities to pinpoint him as leader (see Isa 53:2-3).
  • Then there is the ragtag bunch of men Jesus appointed to be his followers. One was a fisherman, another a hated tax collector and the list goes on of ordinary men. But God worked powerfully through these individuals and people were amazed because they were so ordinary and unimpressive by the world’s standards.

When we truly learn to depend on God out of our weakness instead of powering through on our own strength, we will begin to see an increased measure of the power of God working in our lives.

          3. Power comes in our willingness to take risks.

Jesus tells his disciples:

 “…do not worry about how or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Matthew 10:19)

Sometimes we need to be willing to step out in faith and trust that God’s power will anoint us along the way. Where is there a person we see who could use prayer, but we cower back in fear? Or a message of truth we feel compelled to speak to a friend but we hold back so as not to offend? I often fall prey to fears of all kinds that hold me back from stepping out in faith.

Sometimes we want to be assured of what God will do before we go. But he often asks us to go…in order to see what he will do.

What is holding you back from stepping out and taking a risk for God?

Learning to recognize and access God’s power is a journey. It is not ‘black and white’ and there is certainly some measure of ‘ebb and flow’ as we seek to faithfully walk out our relationship with God. But my prayer is that you would be blessed as you put these three things into practice–asking with impudence, depending on God in your human weakness and taking risks into the unknown–discovering greater access to the power of God in your life. It is a gift. And it is ours in Christ. So take hold of it, receive it, unwrap it and live into it!

 

 

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