On average, I spend about 4-6 hours per week sat in coffee shops. This is partly because I am addicted to coffee and have many loyalty cards. However it is also because I love regularly meeting up with other Christians to discuss Christian life and all its highs, lows, problems and questions. In these sorts of chats over the years, there has been one issue that Christians have asked me about more than any other, and by a huge margin. The question is usually phrased: “I feel very distant from God” or “I feel spiritually dry”… “what should I do?”.
All Christians experience times of feeling that God is distant. I am writing this article from rural Africa, where for the past two months, I have been away from my home church, bible study group and Christian friends. The only church within travelling distance from me has been very different to what I am used to, not least because the sermons are mostly not in English! These breaks from my normal Christian community have undoubtably contributed to the several moments during my trip when I have felt distant from God.
Christians feel distant from God for a vast array of reasons and in a diverse range of circumstances: from times of deep personal suffering, to prolonged periods of mundane routine, and nearly everything in between. But the experience is usually similar: we feel spiritually dry, God feels distant, and the Christian life becomes significantly more arduous.
So what should we do when God feels distant?
When a Christian tells me that they are feeling spiritually dry or distant from God, my response is always to ask a question: are you doing daily devotional times: reading the bible and praying? Out of the dozens of times this topic has come up, I have yet to be answered in the affirmative.
In the apostle John’s introduction to his gospel, he concisely summarises the doctrine of salvation as:
“Yet to all who did receive him [Jesus], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God- children born not of natural descent, nor human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:12-13)
As its most basic, fundamental level, Christian faith is a personal relationship. When we become a Christian, we enter a father- child relationship with God that extends into eternity. Everything else in the Christian life, whether church, evangelism, holiness, or anything else, is built-upon and produced from this personal relationship with God.
However, relationships, by definition, require communication. If two people are not in any communication, they cannot be in a functioning relationship. So it is with God. This is why it is so fundamentally essential for Christians to spend a segment of time each day communicating to God: talking to Him in prayer and listening to Him by reading His word. It is hardly surprising that if we cease doing daily devotional time, God begins to feel distant and everything else in the Christian life becomes more arduous. And conversely, it is unsurprising that people commonly feel much closer to God and more ready to continue in the Christian walk, after having started to read their bible and pray regularly.
And so if you feel distant from God or spiritually dry, my first advice would always be to start (or restart) personal daily devotional time where you read the bible and pray on your own with God.
Of course, lots of people find daily devotional times difficult to start and then persevere with. So I thought I’d end this little piece with some pointers that I have found helpful when it comes to daily devotional time.
Set a time
You can never do something every day without it becoming part of your daily routine. Therefore daily devotionals only really work if you schedule them at a set time each day. Doing devotional time “whenever I get a free moment in the day” rarely (if ever) works long-term. That being said, inserting activities into one’s daily routine takes time and effort. And so for the first few weeks, reading the bible and praying every day is often challenging. However, persevering for a number of weeks will almost inevitably lead to a natural assimilation into the daily routine, such that it subsequently becomes difficult to remove. Nowadays I find it oddly uncomfortable to go to sleep without having first read the bible and prayed!
The bible is not written as a novel; simply reading a chapter, and then continuing with the rest of your day as per usual, rarely accomplishes much (especially if you are reading a list of building measurements or genealogies). Rather, bible reading ought to be more listening to a message, than perusing a story. I once heard the Scottish preacher Alistair Begg give some guidance that I found very helpful. He suggested that every time we read a passage of scripture on our own, we should ask two questions:
1. What does this passage say about God?
2. What does with passage say about me?
Obviously there are many other questions that can be asked, and there are many other effective ways to read the bible on one’s own. However questions like these help us to actively listen to God’s message in scripture, rather than simply scanning a text for interesting bits!
God isn’t Santa
When I was a child, I was taught at Sunday School the “teaspoon (TSP)” method of praying: “TSP” standing for “thank you”, “sorry” and “please” (in that order). I actually find this method very helpful now for a number of reasons. Starting with thanksgiving reminds me of how good God has been to me and the world, before I present my requests to Him. Saying sorry and repenting of sin is something often forgotten in my personal prayer, if I don’t follow a structure. And these reminders of God’s goodness and my sin then shape the requests I present to God. For me at least, without this structure, I would tend towards praying to God like a child writing a Christmas wish-list of desires. Following this structure thus helps me to approach God properly, as a loving Father and King, rather than fairy-tale Santa-figure.
There is much more that could be said on this topic of spiritual dryness and daily devotional time. However, maintaining a close, active and communicative relationship with God need not be complicated or strenuous. In his infinite wisdom, God has given His inspired words in black & white to be opened any time and the spiritual channel to approach Him in prayer in any circumstance. In my experience, people feel less far away when you are talking with them!