When God Feels Absent – Part 2

Ever feel like God is distant, leaving your prayers unanswered? Join us this Sunday for Part 2 of “When God Feels Absent” to uncover ancient wisdom that offers guidance during these seasons of divine silence. Discover 4 practical practices that can reignite your faith and draw you closer to God, helping you find hope and direction even in the midst of uncertainty.

Alright, this is part two of our series, “When God Feels Absent.”

If you were here last week, you’ll remember that at the end of 1 Samuel 4, things looked about as bleak for Israel as they could possibly be.

The army had been decimated by the Philistines.

Old, old priests who had shepherded Israel for so long, Eli and his sons, all died in a single day.

The ark of the covenant, which represented God’s presence to the people, in an unthinkable act had been carried off by the Philistines.

The Israelite’s condition was summarized by a single name — Ichabod — that a dying woman named her child.

Ichabod — the glory is gone. They can’t find God.


Now, here’s what I want to do with this message today.

The fifth chapter of 1 Samuel goes on to tell what God does to get free in the minds of the ancient world.

When the Ark got captured, it was like God got carried off from his people.

First Samuel 5 talks about what God does to get free and come home to his people.


In a little while, on the back half of this message, we’re going to look at that.

But before we do that, I want to look with you at this question — what do you do when you feel like God is absent?

When you have problems and they’re not going away. And worse than that you feel like you can’t hear from God.

You pray, and it’s like you don’t sense anything coming back. You don’t know what God wants you to do. He doesn’t seem to be giving any guidance, or any help, or any answers. What do you do then?

What do you do when God feels absent?


That happens sometimes in the lives of about everyone I know.

And for some of you it’s going on right now.


Israel had a lot of experience with this problem. So if you ever feel this, you’re not alone.


What I want to do in the first part of this message is walk through four practices that the Israelites would engage in and hang on to when it felt like God was far away.

I want to express each practice in a single word.

All you have to remember today is just four practices — four words that you need to do when it feels like God is far away.


Alright, here’s the first one. It’s a very important word. It may surprise you a little bit.

The first thing you do is — Complain

You need to complain.


There’s a fascinating paradox in the Book of the Psalms, which is the great prayer book of Israel.

The Hebrew name for the Psalms was “Tehillim,” which means “the book of praises.”

One of the things scholars often do is break the Psalms up into different categories.

There will be hymns of praise.
There will be corporate songs of thanksgiving — the enthronement songs.
And there are worship songs.

When scholars do this, when they categorize psalms according to their genre, by far the most common kind of psalm is called the psalm of lament.

This is just kind of a nice way of saying “a psalm of complaint.”


I’ll give you an example.

This is Psalm 44, which is one of the most common psalms of complaint. This is what the Psalmist says, and it’s addressed to God.

You gave us up to be devoured like sheep and have scattered us among the nations. You sold your people for a pittance, gaining nothing from their sale. (Psalm 44:11-12)

All this came upon us, though we had not forgotten you; we had not been false to your covenant. (Psalm 44:17)

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! (Psalm 44:23)

That’s quite striking language to use for God, isn’t it? “Wake up, God!”


The Israelites devoted more psalms to complaining than any other single category.


So when you feel like God is absent, the first practice you need to engage in is — you need to complain.


Now, this is very good news for some of you.

How many of you either already know how to complain or you’d be willing to learn?

How many of you have discovered that complaining is, in fact, your spiritual gift?


This is an interesting thing to me. Because in our day, in modern Christianity, we’re not taught to do this.


When I was growing up, I was taught a little acronym for praying. Some of you will know this: A-C-T-S

But the C did not stand for complaining in that little acronym.

We’re not taught to do this.


An Old Testament scholar named Allen Davis has written that in the ancient world, these prayers of complaint are without parallel in other religions.

In no other culture did people pray to their god or gods in language that was so frank and even rude.

God, why are you sleeping?
God, why do you hide your face?
Lord, you have crushed us.
Why do you forge our misery?
How long, O Lord, how long?


People of other ancient religions pray. People have always prayed.

They made requests.
They offered worship.
They sometimes prayed for their god or gods to curse other people.

But in all of the ancient world only Israel prayed these kind of prayers of complaint.

And I think for a real good reason.


Because only Israel, in all the ancient world, believed that this great, sovereign, mysterious God who made the heavens and the earth cares that I’m in pain and can be expected to do something about it.

Only Israel had a God like that, and so they prayed these prayers of complaint a lot.


Now, what makes them so powerful and what makes them a very important part of your spiritual life and mine is that they’re not just random complaining. Anyone can just complain.

These Psalms are always addressed directly to God — always.


Quick aside. I watched a movie with my son recently. It’s a movie some of you will remember called “Bruce Almighty.” It’s with Jim Carrey, who’s not a real profound theological thinker.

At one point in the film, he’s talking to Morgan Freeman — the character who portrays God.

He’s told to pray, and he’s thinking about what would be an appropriate prayer.

So he says, “Well, I’ll feed all the hungry people and bring peace to the world.”

Then he asks, “How was that prayer?”

Morgan Freeman says, “Well, pretty good if you’re running for Miss America.”


One of the reasons why prayer dies is that people pray polite little prayers that are not really connected to what’s going on inside of them.

Of course, inside of me is a lot of junk and mixed up motives and messed up stuff.

But there’s not going to be the opportunity for it to get dealt with and set right unless I honestly, openly bring it out with God.


Then I can trust that God’s going to do something about what it is that I care about.


But where it starts is you’ve got to be passionately honest with God.


It’s when you’re not indulging in self-pity or martyrdom or passive resignation, but genuinely opening yourself up to God.

When you complain — it’s hoping that God can still be trusted. You’re asking God to create the kind of condition in your heart that will make praise possible once again.

That will happen. And it will happen in you. It happened for the psalmist.

It may not happen right away. It may not happen overnight, because the only place you can meet God is in reality, and sometimes reality is a messy, confusing place.


So, I’ll bet you didn’t expect to hear this — but it may be for your spiritual growth that you need to learn how to complain more.


And here’s the deal — when it comes to learning to complain more, I bet you can do it. I bet you can.


Alright, the second practice, again, in a single word. When God feels far away — Lean

Lean on other people. Don’t go through God’s absence alone.


In the Old Testament if you had to think of one person who is maybe the most famous of anyone in the Bible for all that he suffered, who had pretty much his whole life wiped out, who would that one person be?

It would be Job.


If you read the Book of Job, you’ll discover that much of the Book of Job is, in fact, a complaint to God that keeps Job in the game spiritually.

So the practice that we see is this one — Job did not suffer God’s absence alone. Job needed some people.


And you have to choose the people that you’re going to lean on with care.


The first person in Job’s life that we read about was his wife.

After he’d lost everything — his children, his wealth, his health — he’s sitting on an ash heap scraping the sores of his body with broken shards of pottery.

Does anyone remember what advice his wife gave him?

“Curse God and die.”

This would not have been encouraging to Job.

This would not be a good bumper sticker verse. You’re not going to see people driving around with that on the back of their car. “Curse God and die” is not going to sell.


When trouble hits, I wouldn’t make Mrs. Job my first choice for a leanee.

If I’m going to be the leaner I’ve got to choose the leanee with care.


After her, we read about three friends.

This is what the text says in Job, chapter 2.

When they heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.

When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. [Signs of great mourning.]

Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was. (Job 2:11-13)

Some of you know Job’s friends also have taken a lot of criticism over the years.

Let me ask you a question. Who do you have in your life that is so devoted to you that they would sit next to you for seven days and seven nights in silence during your time of trouble?


When God feels absent, you need a few people to be fully present.

People that you know will pray for you.
People who will listen to your most honest thoughts without judging you and without coddling you.
People who will point you back to God.

The key with this one is don’t wait until trouble hits. Don’t wait until the ark gets carried off. Be building these relationships now.


If you lead a small group, help the people in your group to learn to listen to each other.

They may not be able to handle seven days of being silent in your small group, but you could start with like seven seconds — just seven seconds of being quiet and listening and then kind of build up from there.


This leads to the third practice, which in one word is — Still


Psalm 46 is the psalm about the world in turmoil, and the psalmist famously says:

Be still and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10)

How many of you would say one of the problems you face in your spiritual life is you have too much peace and quiet?


When God feels absent, a lot of us go into overdrive, and we frantically try to fill up our lives with noise and activity as a way to do pain avoidance.

There is a time to stop drowning in action and information and noise, and just be still.


Very often pain is when we need to be still the most, but we want it the least because we just want something that will distract us from what hurts.


Often God has to walk us through a process.


I think of Elijah in 1 Kings 19.

He feels deserted by God.

Queen Jezebel wants to kill him, and he’s been on adrenaline overload for a while.

He wants to die. He said to God:

Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors. (1 Kings 19:4)


God leads him to a cave. God has to prepare Elijah to listen to him.


There’s an interesting progression just to quiet him down.

God starts by giving him some food.

God does with him what you do with a cranky toddler. He gives him a little food, tells him to take a nap, and sends him on a journey to the cave.


There’s an interesting progression in the phenomenon that Elijah experiences in the cave.

I never thought about this until this week. There’s an interesting decrease in volume in what Elijah experiences.


First, there’s a loud wind, like a tornado.

Do you know what the volume of a tornado is?

You can’t hear a thing when the wind gets really loud.

A tornado would get Elijah’s attention. But the text says God was not in the tornado.


Then there’s an earthquake. An earthquake can rumble pretty good, but they’re not as loud as tornadoes.

But God wasn’t in that.


Then there’s a fire. A fire produces less noise then a tornado or an earthquake, but can still roar.

God’s not in that.


Finally when God decides that Elijah has quieted down enough to listen, there’s a still small voice.

And that’s God.

God’s just saying, “Be still.”


I think in times of great pain, the hardest thing in the world sometimes is just to be still.


About twelve years ago during a very raw and painful time in my life, I just sat on the floor in my office and just cried.

I remember that day so vividly. I had a real clear sense of God saying, “I want you to give this to me.”

It was a personal thing. Not a scandalous deal, but it was very, very deep.

A lot of you have had that kind of experience of God saying, “I want you to let go of this. This is not for you to handle on your own.”

That was one of the hardest things.


I mean, I was just weeping over that and saying, “Alright, God, I’ll give it to you if you want me to give it to you.”

It was very hard.


Eventually for me, eventually on the other side, there’s great freedom in that.

But it would never have happened in my life if there hadn’t been some time of just being still when I didn’t want to be still… because it hurt.


There are times when it feels like God is far away.

And there comes a time for you — not to read more, or try more, or fix more, or get more advice, but to just be still with God.


Alright, the fourth practice is something we’ve already done today.

Israel talked about this one a lot.

The Psalmist said:

I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:11-12)


We took communion earlier to Remember


One of the most important things you can do in your spiritual life is just stir up memories of times when God spoke to you, comforted you, guided you, helped you and loved you.

So that in dark days when God feels far away, you can remember.


Israel did that all the time.

That’s one of the reasons why we have the Old Testament Scriptures — because they were devoted to remembering.


As many of you know, they were, for the most part, an illiterate society.

Estimates are that even in Jesus’ day, literacy in his area was somewhere around three percent.

The stories that we have in the Old Testament are stories that would get memorized, remembered, and handed down from one generation to another.


One of the stories that Israel loved to remember the most, especially later on when they were in exile, was this story from 1 Samuel about when the ark had been carried off.

About when it felt to them like God was in exile, but God freed himself.


I want to spend the last part of this message remembering that story.

When we get to 1 Samuel 5, here’s what happens.

Israel has been defeated in the battle by the Philistines. The ark of the covenant has been carried off.


Now we’re going to leave Israel behind for a little bit and go to where it’s just the Philistines and God — the ark of the covenant.

Here’s what the Philistines do:

They have a huge parade, carrying the ark of the covenant to the temple of their god in the Philistine city, Ashdod.

Their god’s name was Dagon. Ashdod is where they had his great temple.


They take their victory in battle as a sign that their god Dagon had triumphed over the God of Israel, over Yahweh.

The ark of the covenant is brought to the priest in this temple, and they take it inside.

They set it down in the temple next to the statue of Dagon — this great statue.

All the Philistines cheer about how Dagon has prevailed over the God of the Israelites.

They have a big feast. And they chant all their favorite chants.

And they would tell the battle stories.

The soldiers would tell all of their battle stories and do the same thing that people do when they tell stories about fish or golf, which is to lie and make up stuff about how well they had done.

And then everyone goes home.


Now it’s night and there’s no one around to see or hear what’s going on in the temple, and something happens in the night.

When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! (1 Samuel 5:3)

They’re ready to celebrate the victory, and their god Dagon has “fallen on his face before the ark of the Lord.”

The writer of Scripture does not tell us what the people thought.

Maybe it was just an accident. Maybe it was just a coincidence. But it looks as if Dagon has bowed down to worship the God of Israel. It looks as if the God of Israel is the Lord of Lords.


The priest realizes this kind of thing is not good for business — to have your god bowing down before another God. So they dust their god off. They prop their god up, and all day long they have this celebration.


Understand, the Ashdodites are coming into the temple to celebrate their victory, to offer their sacrifices, to sing songs to Dagon. They do that all day long. The priests are all there.


Then it’s night and the priest turns off the lights, and they go home and they leave Dagon alone with Yahweh in the temple in the dark.

Dagon says to himself, “Here we go again.”

The following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the Lord! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained. (1 Samuel 5:4)

Now, wouldn’t you love to know what happened in the night?

What’s so frustrating about this text is the writer doesn’t tell us what happened in the night.

That is, at this point, only for God to know.

All we know is that this is a three-day story.


The first day is a very dark day, and it looks like God is defeated. The glory is gone from Israel, and heaven is silent, and no one can understand why.

That’s the first day. Some days in life are like that.


The second day in this story is a day of hidden combat.

It’s shrouded in mystery. It’s a day of ambiguity and uncertainty and anxiety. And some days in life are like that.


The third day, that’s God’s day.

There’s night, but our God does some of his best work at night.

On the morning of the third day, all the powers opposed to God get defeated, and idols get disarmed, and stones get rolled away, and people are filled with awe and wonder because on the third day, that’s the day of hope.


This is a three-day story, and the third day is God’s day.


Now, from this point on in the story, Yahweh is on the march. God will not be stopped.


Judgment comes to the Philistines in the form of a physical affliction.

This part of the story gets a little gross. I’m just warning you about that now.

I would apologize for it, except it comes right out of the Bible.


God sends a plague to the Philistines. It involves mice in some ways and physical suffering, physical affliction.

Now exactly what the Philistines are afflicted with is a little difficult to translate.

The New International Version uses the word tumors, which is kind of a polite choice.

The King James Bible is more literal.

This is what it says.

But the hand of the Lord was heavy upon the Ashdodites, and he destroyed them, and smote them with hemorrhoids, both Ashdod and its territories. (1 Samuel 5:6)

It verse 9, it says:

“They had hemorrhoids in their secret parts.”

Which is where hemorrhoids usually go.


I’m just going to allow you to insert your own joke here, because I don’t really want to get in trouble.


Now, the obvious question is why would this detail make it into the Bible?

That’s kind of a weird thing to say, isn’t it?

What got into whoever was writing the Bible at this point?

When he asked his wife, “Hey, honey, take a look at this and see if you think it would make a good chapter in the Bible?”

Why didn’t she say, “Keep that out”?


You see, this is a very deliberate part of the story and here’s why:

These were the Philistines. These were the enemies of God’s people. And they were very powerful. They were living in the Iron Age.

Remember, Israelites didn’t have a single smith in the whole country because they didn’t have that technology. The Philistines did.

The writer wants the readers to know, and you and I know, “Don’t be afraid of your enemies, don’t envy them, don’t try to be like them.

“If for awhile it looks like the Philistines are going to come out on top, don’t be deceived. That’s first day stuff. The third day is coming.”


In the presence of God’s judgment, the writer wants us to know that all people are just embarrassingly human.

These very powerful Philistines are embarrassingly human, and all their iron swords and spears and shields and chariots do them no good, because what they really need is an inflatable cushion to sit on.


While the Iron Age had arrived, the inflatable cushion age was still centuries away and iron was the last thing they wanted to sit on.


So the Ashdodites decide that having the ark of the covenant in their town is not such a great idea after all.

They call a meeting of the security council of the Philistines and say, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?”

One of them, a bright guy, says, “Let’s send it to Gath.”

Gath is another one of the five major Philistine cities.

Of course, news travels kind of slowly in those days.

There was no phone or email, so the Gath people said, “Hey, we get the ark. Cool.”

But pretty soon, the Gathites are all looking for something soft to sit on.


This time there’s no council meeting, no consulting with the elders. They just decide to Fed-Ex the ark to Ekron, another big city.

By now the word has spread, and while the ark is still being delivered the text says the Ekronites start crying out, “Oh no you don’t. Not here. Not in my backyard.”

They consult the Dagon priests. “What should we do with this ark? What should we do?”

The priests say, “Let’s send it back to Israel, along with a bribe to get Yahweh not to hurt us anymore, just to kind of seal the deal.”

So they agree to send five gold mice and — I’m not making this up — five gold hemorrhoids.

So there’s a cart with the ark and five gold mice and five golden hemorrhoids.

Here’s what the priests say:

“But maybe our problems are not due to Israel’s gods at all. Maybe this is all just a coincidence, this suffering and plagues we’ve been going through. So we’ll do a test.”

This is what they do in 1 Samuel.

They put the ark on a cart. They hitch the cart up to two cows. Both of these cows milk cows. They’re nursing calves. These are cows that have never pulled a cart before.

Their calves are back in the barn, back to the West.

In the opposite direction is Israel, the city of Beth Shemesh that the cows are supposed to move towards.

Here’s what the priests say:

“If these milk cows desert their calves who they are nursing and go on into Israel, then we’ll know that Yahweh did this, that he brought this suffering on us. If the cows go home to their calves, then we’ll know it was just all coincidence and Yahweh didn’t do anything.”

Now, what are the odds that two cows who have never pulled a cart, who are nursing their calves, would deny their maternal instincts, say no to their need to nurse, desert their children, and go to a country they have never been to in their life? What are the odds of that?

By the way, if they did go home to their calves, who do you think would get to keep the gold? The priest most likely.

So they arranged this pile of gold on the cart, cows get hitched up to the cart, all the Philistines are watching.

The priests are watching. Everyone is holding their breath.

The wheels on the cart begin to turn. The cows are not going home. These mothers are not going to their little infant calves. They’re going to Israel.

Imagine the priest’s response when the cows start moving, and they travel East.

“No you stupid cows! How can you leave your children? What kind of mothers are you? Who’s going to get this gold now?”

The text says the cows took the straight way in the direction of Beth Shemesh.

They went along the highway and “did not turn aside to the right or to the left.”

That little phrase, “did not turn aside to the right or to the left” is a technical expression often used in the Old Testament to indicate unwavering obedience to the will of God.

And it’s from these cows.


Walter Brueggemann, who’s a great Old Testament scholar, said that the hinge of this whole story is Yahweh’s irresistible determination to return to his people.

He writes this:

Yahweh is unstoppable and irresistible and on the way home. Perhaps Yahweh kept asking the Philistine cows in eagerness, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

Can you imagine that trip? The ark of the covenant, the ark of the God of Israel and two milk cows.

The text says they mooed the whole way.

It doesn’t say why they mooed.

I’ll tell you what I think. I’ll tell you my guess.

I remember another parade when God was coming to his people, when Jesus was entering Jerusalem, and the people were making noise.

The people were waving palm branches and singing and dancing and shouting.

The leaders told Jesus to shut the people up and Jesus says, “If I do that, the rocks would cry out.”

Because when God comes home to his people, there’s just got to be praise, there’s got to be noise.

Maybe the cows mooed all the way to Israel because God was coming home to his people, and there just had to be praise.

Some of God’s creatures had to make noise, and if the cows were silent maybe the rocks would have cried out.


Then they take the ark all the way home. God comes home to his people.


More amazing things happen in this story, but we’re going to stop here.

God comes home to his people. God just refuses to leave his people alone.


So in those moments in your life when God feels absent — and sometimes those moments will come.

If right now you’re living in the first day — and some of you are. And things look dark.

If you’re living in the second day and things look ambiguous — your job is to keep complaining, and keep leaning and keep being still and remember that our God is the God of the third day.

Whatever your life is like right now, making sure that everything comes out right is not ultimately up to you and me.

Our job is to hang on and not lose hope and remember that we serve the God of the third day and the third day will come.

Remember that although in our world sometimes sorrow may last for a night, our God does some of his best work at night — and joy comes in the morning.

Remember that although it looks like Dagon is pretty strong, he is coming down.

Although sometimes the way of the Philistines seems pretty compelling and pretty successful, it’s headed for judgment.

Although sometimes you might feel incompetent or inadequate or not gifted enough or not faithful enough, remember that God can use milk cows to get his work done. Think of what he can do through you.

Remember that though at some times it feels like God is a long way off, he’s closer than you think.

One day he will return to set everything right.

One day he will come home, because he’s the God of the third day.

Alright, let me pray for you as Christian and the team come to lead us in a closing song.

Blue Oaks Church
Pleasanton, CA