Faith's Most Challenging Trial1
The sense of God’s presence is a precious gift that we should never take for granted. Of course, in another, more technically theological sense, God is always present to us whether we feel or sense him or not. The attribute of divine omnipresence is a comfort to every Christian and a threat to those who think they can sin secretly, outside of God’s purview. Continue reading . . .
The sense of God’s presence is a precious gift that we should never take for granted. Of course, in another, more technically theological sense, God is always present to us whether we feel or sense him or not. The attribute of divine omnipresence is a comfort to every Christian and a threat to those who think they can sin secretly, outside of God’s purview.
But most dear to the child of God is the sensible awareness of his nearness. James, the half-brother of our Lord, exhorts us to “draw near to God” with the promise that if we do “he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). Needless to say, God does not travel or move through space in order to “draw near” to us. He is always and everywhere present. As David so clearly declared in Psalm 139, there is no place where we might successfully “flee” from God’s presence (Ps. 139:7b). Whether in “heaven” or in “Sheol” (v. 8), God is there. But James (and others) must have in mind our capacity to sense God’s presence, to feel, in some sense, his nearness and be reassured that he will never leave us or forsake us.
That is why it is so difficult for us when God appears to have withdrawn his presence. Spurgeon referred to this as his “apparent desertion.” So why would God do this? Why would he not always and at every moment, especially in times of pain and heartache, make his presence felt? Spurgeon has suggested that one reason may be his design to “try” or to test our faith. He explains:
“He will see whether we can trust him or no[t]. When we see him by sensible enjoyment there is not that space for faith which his absence causes; and, moreover, to believe what we feel to be true is no hard matter, but to credit what present experience appears to contradict is a divine act which is most honorable to the grace which enables us to do it” (“The Causes of Apparent Desertion,” 8).
Spurgeon isn’t saying that faith is entirely absent “when we see him by sensible enjoyment.” It’s just easier. But when “sensible enjoyment” gives way to his “apparent desertion” our faith is challenged: will we believe his promises and trust in the reality of his abiding presence anyway? Spurgeon is certainly correct in pointing out that it is “no hard matter” to “believe what we feel to be true.” But in the absence of such feeling, when we are overwhelmed by the crushing weight of abandonment and pain and disappointment, more credit is due that “faith” which holds on to God in spite of all experience to the contrary. Says Spurgeon:
“Our faith is the center of the target at which God doth shoot when he tries us, and if any other grace shall escape untried, certainly faith shall not. There is no way of piercing faith to its very marrow like the sticking of the arrow of desertion in it; this finds it out whether it be of the immortals or no[t]. Strip it of its armor of conscious enjoyment, and suffer the terrors of the Lord to set themselves in array against it, and that is faith indeed which can escape unhurt from the midst of the attack. Faith must be tried, and desertion is the furnace, heated seven times, into which it must be thrust. Blest is the man who can endure the ordeal” (8).
Again, it is the “conscious enjoyment” of God’s nearness and love, not the unshakable reality of it, that Spurgeon has in mind. The latter is a given, a truth and promise on which we can always rely. But not to feel it, sense it, or find the capacity to enjoy it, is faith’s most challenging trial. And when faith emerges on the other side, as Peter so beautifully puts it, its genuineness having been “tested by fire” (1 Peter 1:7), we celebrate and “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).