“If you don’t feel as close to God as you used to, guess who moved?”
When preachers ask this question, the answer is obvious. After all, we continually preach the love of God. God is persistent. God never gives up. God pursues us all the way, no matter what.
But we humans are fickle. One day we might boisterously shout our love for God and the very next live like an atheist. More commonly, there might be a time in our lives when we are fully engaged in spiritual disciplines, integrated into the life of the church, witnessing for Jesus with humility; life changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes hitting us upside the head with a two by four. We tire of life with God. We kick back. We take it easy.
So when we’re faced with the question, “Who moved?” God’s faithful, we’re fickle. Surely we’re the ones who did the moving.
Sometimes that’s the way it works. But consider Jesus.
It’s hard to imagine someone in the Bible closer to God than Jesus. A man of deep prayer, he constantly spent time alone with God. He did this not only before his big ministry events, but even in the middle of success with the crowds. The New Testament and subsequent Christian tradition goes so far as to call Jesus the Son of God – God incarnate – come to live among us.
This very Jesus, however, reached a point where he said – no, “said” is too weak – where he cried out – “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That sounds like someone who doesn’t feel very close to God. So who moved?
Did Jesus move? Did he withdraw from his Father? Did he stop reading his Bible? Did he stop praying as much? Did he skip church to play golf , go fishing, or sleep in?
Or was it the Father that moved? Many want to say this. Jesus became sin for us, and God, being too holy to tolerate the presence of sin, turned his back on Jesus. The Father moved away from the Son.
We’re forgetting an important word in the original question, however. Feel. It’s possible to feel farther from God without being farther from God. We need our feelings to be human, but sometimes we can’t rely on them.
Consider the Jesus who felt God-forsaken? Was he feeling the truth of the situation? Had God turned his back on him because he’d taken on our sin?
We could work our way through the Old Testament, Psalm 22 in particular, but I’ll do that another time. Just consider this work of Jesus. When we read the gospels we don’t see this “taking on human sin” as a new thing, something Jesus just starts doing on the cross. No, we see it at the very beginning of his ministry when he’s baptized.
Jesus comes to John to be baptized. John’s confused. He knows enough about Jesus to know Jesus doesn’t need the baptism of repentance he had on offer. Sinners are the ones who need to repent. Jesus isn’t a sinner, so doesn’t need to repent, and doesn’t need baptism.
But Jesus insists. We need to do this to “fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus says. So John relents and baptizes Jesus. In this act we see Jesus casting his lot with sinners, or, in other words, taking their sin upon himself.
And how does God the Father respond? Lightening bolts to destroy his now sinful son? Curses on him for moving away? Maybe a silent turning his back on this now baptized man? Well, no, none of that. Seeing Jesus take the sin of the world upon himself, the Father says, “This is my beloved son.”
If the Father says this when Jesus ritually begins taking on the sin of the world, how much more when it climaxes on the cross?
Ok, so maybe Jesus didn’t turn away from God, and maybe God didn’t turn away from Jesus. So what happened? Why does Jesus feel so distant from God?
Life is tough in this sinful world. Taking sin – and its consequences – upon himself was not a mere bit of Kabuki theological accounting. It was downright hellish. His suffering was real, not pretended.
So what about us? How do we explain our feeling like God is farther away?
In line with the popular answer, maybe we have moved. Maybe we have forsaken the life of discipleship. Maybe we’ve become mere spiritual slackers or consumers. But maybe not. Maybe it’s just the fact that life is hard. Maybe it’s that we live in a sinful, broken, hurting (and hurtful) world. The reality could be that God is as close – or closer! – than ever, and our feeling, our perception is off.
What can we do? Best I can think of is to stay close to Jesus, to walk with him even through the valley of the shadow of death. Hold on to his promises, and expect him to see you through.