–Daniel S. Ferguson
I’m going to share with you today how I’m stuck. And I’m stuck in a way that a “good Christian” isn’t supposed to be stuck. I’ll just be honest with you. There’s a lot of Christians who won’t even talk about this issue. And I’m not sharing this with you because this is the Daniel-Ferguson-therapy hour, although I have tried to work through this in therapy. I’m sharing this with you because I seriously doubt that I’m the only person who struggles with this. I almost guarantee that there’s more people who struggle with this than would ever admit it. Maybe it’s some of you. Maybe it’s most of you. Maybe it’s all of you. I don’t know. But I do know that I’m not the only one. So here it is, the thing I’m stuck in.
I’m stuck when it comes to having a relationship with God.
That’s not something a “good Christian” is supposed to say, much less one who’s leading in church. We’re supposed to have it all together. We’re supposed to say that through the grace of Jesus, through prayer, and through Bible study, and through great Christian friendships that our relationship with God is ever-growing and wonderful and more intimate than it ever has been. I wish I could tell you that about me, but it just ain’t true. So I won’t.
If you feel separated from God, if you feel sometimes (or all the time) like God wants nothing to do with you, if you feel like you’re just praying to the wall, and if all you’ve ever gotten back is echoes, my message to you is this: Me too.
I have, for my entire Christian existence, felt stuck in my relationship with God. And I’ve done everything I could do to fix it. I’ve studied the Bible. I’ve prayed my butt off. I’ve made changes to my life and gotten rid of sinful patterns. I’ve been to the retreats and the camps and the conferences. I’ve forged deep, fruitful relationships with solid Christians who walk alongside me. I’ve served like crazy and barely ever missed church. I’ve done it all.
But you know what? I still feel alone in my relationship with God. I’m still seeking God without ever feeling like I’ve found him. I’ve still never had the “personal relationship with Jesus Christ” that we Christians talk about.
Can I just be honest about that? Can I tell you without fear that I don’t feel like I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Does that make me not Christian? Does that make me not saved? Does that disqualify me from leading?
The Bible says,
“If…you seek the Lord your God, you will find him…(Deuteronomy 4:29a, NIV)
Cool. That’s comforting. I’m glad to know that I’ll find God if I seek him. But…that’s not the whole verse. Oh sweet Lord, I wish that were the whole verse. Life would be so much easier if that were the whole verse. Life would be so much easier if finding God were a simple matter of looking for him. That’s hopeful. I wish that were true. But it’s not the whole verse. No, the rest of it reads like this:
“If…you seek the Lord your God, you will find him IF you seek him will all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29, NIV)
And that straight up scares me. Because now I have a reason to fear. Now I have a reason for it to be my fault.
So I, like a guy, try to fix it. I try everything. I try reading the Bible. I try meeting with Christian friends. I try serving; I try not serving and just concentrating on worshiping. I try singing; I try not singing. I try writing; I try reading; I try doing neither. I try leading; I try following. I try praying; I try meditation; I try just sitting and straining, trying to hear God’s voice. I try repenting; I try making lists of everything that’s holding me back. I try to seek after God with all my heart and with all my soul.
And you know what? I’m exhausted. And it doesn’t work. I’ve been seeking and seeking and seeking, and nothing. Nothing I can really put my hands on and say that it was a connection with God in that moment. It feels like the Bible isn’t true. It feels like I was sold a bad bill of goods. It feels like I’ve been lied to by the church and rejected by God. And that hurts.
I don’t want to gloss over that pain, because maybe that’s you. Maybe you’ve tried seeking after God with everything you had, and maybe you felt like you were left out in the cold. And you don’t know what to do. Again, me too.
Because the Bible is pretty clear on this issue. God says in the Bible,
“‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Romans 9:15b-16, NIV)
Now, there’s a part of that that’s really comforting. One of the things I love about Christianity is that the problems of sin and eternal separation from God have been resolved through Jesus. I don’t have to do anything. I don’t have to keep trying to be perfect. Perfection has been realized through Christ. I just have to believe in Jesus. I love the fact that salvation does not depend on human desire or effort. That’s good news.
But it’s also kind of painful. It seems to mean that there’s nothing I can do to get closer to God, and that a relationship with God depends entirely on God. What, then, do I do when I want a deeper, closer, more intimate relationship with God but he isn’t, by any way I can tell, reaching out to me?
We’re told we’re saved by faith, but what happens when we run out of it? What happens when, after years of trying as we might, we simply run out of faith? We just have nothing left? Like the father of the demon-possessed child in the Bible, we’ve asked God to help us with our unbelief, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve been helped. What little faith we’ve had has waned.
We’ve been to church, lots of times. We’ve gritted through hymns we didn’t fully believe. We’ve suffered through sermons that strain our reason. We’ve nearly torn our hair out in jealousy of the others who so obviously have connected with God because that’s a gift we didn’t receive.
We watch in grief as the Holy Spirit renders others unto tears of conviction and joy, but for us–we who bend our very wills like Olympic gymnasts to seek the face of God–we feel like we get nothing. It’s like the world’s most disappointing game of peek-a-boo. God seems to hide from we who seek him most.
People talk about having a relationship with God. We don’t even really know what that means. How can we have a relationship with someone who never talks back? How can we love someone who can’t even bother to call?
Is our request too much for the Lord? We just want to see his face, to hear his voice, to feel his presence. He’s done that for others. What made them worthy and us unworthy? I mean, David and Paul were both murderers, but God showed up for them. What gives?
What will it take for us to feel like we’re in a relationship with God? Because we would darken the very Sun and die just to see God’s light for an instant. But instead, we stand, it feels, in the cold night, outside the temple of God, banging on the door, begging to be let in, for just the hope of God in our lives.
That’s what it feels like to be an orphan of God. Maybe that’s not you, and that’s okay. Maybe you’ve got a great relationship with God. I’m jealous of you. I wish I had that, but please know that there are hurting souls around you who are reaching out to their Heavenly Father with everything they have, but still feel like orphans of God.
Christians, if you’re close to God, if you’ve got that wonderful relationship, you need to know that there are those of us who don’t. And even though it might hurt you a little, I’m going to ask something of you. I know you’re in the warmth and mirth of God’s presence. I know that’s wonderful. But for the sake of those around you, I’m going to ask something.
Be willing to step out into the cold with others.
I know that sounds like a big ask. I am asking you to be open to doubt, to be open to pain, to be open to what will feel like separation from God. But we orphans of God need you. We need you to stand out here with us. And I’m going to tell you why you should do it. Because Jesus did it. Jesus stepped out into the cold for us. Jesus stepped out of Heaven, out of God’s amazing presence, and I’m sure it felt like he stepped out of God’s love. But he did it for us, all of us, who were all, at one time, orphans of God. He made you children, and you get to sit in his lap. But please come back for the rest of us. We need you. So just like Jesus did for you, please step back into the cold and embrace someone who’s in pain and who longs for the presence of God. You just might be the closest they ever get. And I know because I’m speaking from experience.
So you gotta buy a coffee. You gotta set aside some time. And you better come with more than clichés. We’ve heard them. We don’t need answers. We need acknowledgment. We don’t need easy outs. We need embracing. It’s going to be hard for you, but we need you so badly. Please step out into the cold with us.
And those of us out in the cold, one of the hardest things for you will be not resenting these Christians for that. You’ll want to say go away. You’ll want to push them away because you’ll feel a distance between you and them. They, after all, have felt God. What do they know about where you are? That’s what your instinct will tell you. But you’ve got to resist that instinct. Keep connecting with people who love God. Keep bringing them into your life. They may not ever be able to usher you into God’s presence. Don’t expect that. But they will give you hope, they’ll give you guidance, and they’ll keep you honest as you keep pursuing God. So when they offer you a coffee, take it. When they give you some time, spend it. And be patient and gracious when they say something you don’t understand or think is just a platitude. It may very well be life-giving truth. Think hard about what they tell you about seeking after God. After all, they’ve found him.
Whenever I express this notion about being an orphan of God, I get asked all the time how it is that I remain Christian, how it is that I keep faith in a God who, I often feel, wants very little to do with me. I don’t have some highly memorable, three-point, alliterative answer to that question. If I did, I really wouldn’t writing this. I never would have thought to.
All I have is this. I don’t really feel like I’m one of God’s people. I don’t really feel like I’m one of God’s children. I don’t really feel loved by God. I never have, and I maybe never will, not on this earth anyway. And I stare at verses like the one I read earlier from Romans 9. It read, “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” (Romans 9:16, NIV). And that terrifies me some, because it makes me feel like I can’t do anything to fix it, that I’ll be stuck as an orphan of God forever.
But you know what it says just a few verses later? This is God speaking. He says,
“‘I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,’ and, ‘In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’’” (Romans 9:25-26, NIV)
That’s where I put my hope, in that even if I am an orphan right now, God still wants me to be his child. Even if I don’t feel loved right now, God still wants to love me. Even if I don’t feel like I belong with God’s people, God still wants me in Heaven with him.
You see, my hope is not built on my ability to perceive a relationship with Jesus Christ. Because then I would have no hope. My hope is not built on my ability to feel a connection with Jesus. Because then I would have no hope. My hope is not built on my ability to pursue God and commune with him. Because then I would have no hope. No, just like the old hymn says,
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I shall not trust the sweetest frame, but only lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.
A key phrase in there is “I shall not trust the sweetest frame.” Here’s what that means. It means that I can’t build my hope on my own comfort. I can’t build my hope on my own perceptions. I can’t build my hope on my own efforts to pursue God. All that ground is sinking sand, but on Christ the solid rock I must stand. I must only lean on Jesus’ name. And that’s where my hope is. That’s where your hope can be, too, not on your own apparent distance from God, not on your own efforts, but on the solid rock of Jesus, even when we can’t feel him underneath us.
By the grace of Jesus, we are no longer orphans. We may still feel like we are; we may still feel separated from God. But Christ has torn down the temple veil; Christ has overcome the separation between God and man; Christ has sealed us for eternity in God’s presence. Those who were not God’s people are now God’s people. Those who were not loved are now loved by God. Those were not children are now God’s children. That includes me, and that includes you. That’s the truth upon which our hope is built. That’s the truth that brings us joy, even as we feel like we’re still outside in the cold. That’s what we hold onto.
My fellow orphans, I don’t have some great solution for you. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have a gimmick or some magical formula to make it all better. I only have hope. A living hope, and that hope is Jesus. I can’t claim to have some deep, intimate relationship with him. I can’t. But I can claim to have hope in Jesus because he was resurrected from death back to life, and in just the same way, Jesus is resurrecting me from death back to life. I can’t see him now, and it doesn’t always feel like he loves me.
But he’s proven that he loves me by dying on the cross, and I cling to the cross of Christ. My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Not on my ability, not on my perception, not on my effort, not even on my reaching out. No.
On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. Come stand on the rock with me.