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What to Do When You Can’t Feel God’s Presence

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Is my or your lack of awareness indicative of an absence of God's presence?


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Michele Cushatt

A friend recently told me of a hospitalized man on the edge of death. He spent many days bedridden, fighting for life. One day, in between visits from family and friends, the man felt a presence in his hospital room, hovering at the foot of the bed. Whereas before he’d been wracked with fear and pain, now he felt warm and calm. No pain; overwhelming peace.

But soon the comforting presence turned unbearable. Although I can hardly imagine, he claimed the goodness and glory became too much, and he feared he might die from the intensity of it. It was as if God Himself sat at the foot of his bed. Finally, he cried out, “No more! Don’t come any closer, I can’t take any more!”

I listened to the story intrigued but skeptical. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard friends speak of mysterious experiences of God’s presence.

I’m still waiting for mine, however. In spite of many prayers and pleas for God to “show me your glory!” (Ex. 33:18), I’ve yet to see strange lights, apparitions or angels, nor have I heard a deep James Earl Jones voice offering divine guidance from the heights of my bedroom ceiling.

A girl can still hope.

Instead, my spiritual life could be best described as long stretches of silence and confusion peppered with brief but rare moments of spiritual clarity that last about as long as a sneeze. I try to hang on to those glory moments, certain that if I could have but a few more seconds of holy nearness it would finally ease my aching. Like grasping air with the hand, it disappears as soon as I reach for it.

But is my lack of awareness indicative of an absence of His presence?

I don’t think so.

I believe salvation to be one hundred percent God’s work, a result of His grace alone (Eph. 2:8–9). There is absolutely nothing I can do to earn it or deserve it. Even my desire for Him is evidence of His grace.

But now I’m starting to understand that spiritual living—the ongoing process of connecting with God and becoming more like Him—is also His work. For too long I assumed all responsibility, working hard to do the do’s and avoid the don’ts, to flagellate myself into holiness to prove myself worthy of Him.

In a sense, I imitated the Old Testament Israelites, exhausting myself to erect a perfected tabernacle in the hope that God’s presence would come down from heaven and be with me.

Here’s the problem: when I didn’t feel God’s presence, I assumed the blame. I must’ve done something wrong, missed some instruction. I both loathed myself for my repeated failures and resented God for His impossible standards. I desperately needed Him but could never measure up to Him.

I’d missed the key message of the new covenant that everything changed with Jesus, when God came down and gave us full access to Himself. That’s why the disciples panicked when Jesus said He was going away. What would they do without His nearness?

This is how Jesus responded: “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:6–7 RSV).

Jesus’ absence was about to make space for an even greater gift: God’s presence moving closer still. Not merely dwelling with us but dwelling in us (John 14:16–20).

Several months ago, I spent well over an hour on a video consultation with Debi Grebenik, director of the Trauma Training Institute and a well-known expert in trauma therapy and healing for children.

Having connected through a mutual friend, I came prepared with a long list of questions and, to be quite honest, frustrations. We were neck deep in the most difficult year of parenting our youngest three children. As they quickly approached adolescence, the memories of their childhood traumas, both conscious and subconscious, turned our household into a war zone.

And my own trauma and too-slow emotional and physical healing only added to the intensity.

We needed help.

Then came the call with Debi. And in the middle of a few tears and too many questions, she shared a common trauma analogy that shifted my entire mindset.

“Do you know the secret to getting out of a dog bite?” she asked.

What?! I had no idea what she was talking about.

“Let’s say you see a dog and reach out your hand to pet it. But rather than welcome your affection, the dog sees you as a threat and attacks. Now your entire fist is trapped between the canine’s teeth.”

Now that sounded familiar. Living with someone recovering from trauma feels like being caught in a dog’s bite. Unpredictable and painful.

“How do you get your hand out with the least amount of damage?” she asked. She didn’t wait for an answer.

“Human instinct will make you want to jerk back, yank your hand out of the dog’s mouth. But that’s when the damage happens.”

She paused for only a second.

“The secret? Push in.”

Push in. It didn’t take more than a moment for me to make the connection. And then I burst into tears. When a child or an adult is in the middle of a trauma response, instinct will tell you to pull away, shut down, self-protect.

Those who’ve been deeply wounded often strike out at those around them. But the secret to healing is to push in. To stay close. Then what was once wounded in relationship can be healed in relationship.

This is what Jesus wanted the disciples to understand, what He wants you and me to understand. Although God came close with the covenant, the tabernacle, the incarnation and the cross, there remained a gap He longed to fill. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God pushed in until His presence—His living, active presence—took residence in us.

I laughed, God help me. The irony was not lost on me. Psychiatrists and trauma professionals thought they’d come up with a brilliant new insight into the healing of humanity’s deepest relational wounds.

Turns out, God already had it covered.

Excerpted from Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves by Michele Cushatt. Copyright © 2019 by Michele Cushatt. Used by permission of Zondervan. https://michelecushatt.com/relentless/.


Photo Source: Portrait Photography Colorado Springs/www.majestyphoto.com

Michele Cushatt is the author of Relentless: The Unshakeable Presence of a God Who Never Leaves. She isan experienced communicator who speaks internationally to a wide variety of audiences including Women of Faith, LifeToday TV, Compassion International, Ziglar Family, Family Life Blended, and Focus on the Family. A three-time head and neck cancer survivor and parent of “children from hard places,” Michele is a (reluctant) expert on trauma, pain, and the deep human need for authentic connection. She lives and her husband, Troy, shared a blended family of six children, including biological children, stepchildren, and foster-adopt children. They live in Denver, Colorado.