I have had a number of “conversions” in my life. I first confessed Jesus as my Savior and was baptized when I was 8 years old. I can’t say I really experienced an incredible change in my life because I was blessed with a wonderful Christian family so I had been in church all my life.
During High School two contradictory things happened in my life simultaneously. I began to preach on a fairly regular basis and I began to develop an alternate set of friends who had no idea that I was a Christian, much less a “preacher boy” (Yes, the rumors you’ve heard are true, I did win the “World Preacher Boy” contest when I was 16).
The summer after High School graduation I experienced my second “conversion”. My contradictory lifestyle had caused me to loathe myself and at church camp I admitted to myself that I had become a “Christian atheist”. That is, I talked a lot about God but didn’t consider Him at all in my decision-making and I certainly did not feel close to Him at all. I was a “good moral man” externally but internally I was alienated and rebellious. During that week at camp I realized that I couldn’t go on living “two lives” anymore. It was either go all the way with God, or get rid of Him entirely. Fortunately, I decided on the former and made a public confession of what a hypocrite I had become. I wanted to go all the way back to the basics, so I chose to be baptized again. I consider that my actual baptism into Christ because it was a decision that I made of my own free will and volition as a young adult. It was humiliating to be baptized in front of some of those that I had baptized myself but afterwards I felt great. In fact it was like I became a new person. The most profound change was a sense of God’s presence that followed me everywhere I went.
I had this incredible “bubbly” feeling inside — knowing that God loved me with all His heart, that I was right with God, that I was committed to doing His will, and that all was well in my world. As I went through the day I sensed God’s presence; I could see evidence of Him in everything that happened.
At this point, my experience was consistent with everything I had heard about the Christian life. This was the mid sixties, at the beginning of what was called “the Jesus Movement”, and the Christian slogans that were popular were phrases like “Turn on to Jesus…Get high on Jesus…Jesus is a natural high…Jesus is the eternal high.” So, naturally, I thought that since I had given my life to Jesus, I would feel good all the time. And at first I did.
But after a few months things began to change. I came down from my high. The bubbles evaporated. I didn’t sense God’s presence as I had before. Suddenly there seemed to be a distance between us. Where before God had spoken to me so clearly, he now seemed to be silent. Where before I had felt wrapped up in God’s love, now my heart felt cold.
I thought “There must be something wrong.” Specifically my thinking was, “There must be something wrong with me. God’s feelings for me must have changed, or I wouldn’t feel this way.” I went to see my preacher, and told him what I was going through. He wrote on a piece of paper some Scriptures for me to memorize.
At the bottom of the page he drew a picture of a train — an engine and a caboose. On the engine he wrote “Faith.” On the caboose he wrote “Feelings.” He gave me the piece of paper and said to me, “In the Christian life, your feelings will go up and down, and will sometimes run hot and sometimes run cold. You can’t be driven by your feelings; faith has to be the engine of your Christian life. It is faith that drives you forward.”
The longer I’ve been a Christian, the more I’ve realized how common this experience is. Every one of us goes through times when we experience the highs of the mountaintop, and every one of us goes through times when we face the lows of the valley. And this pattern doesn’t happen just once — it happens again and again throughout the course of our lives. The thing that’s important for us to realize is: Even during the valley-lows, God’s presence in our life is just as real as it is during the mountaintop highs. In fact, during the times we’re going through the valley — when we don’t feel God’s presence — we have the opportunity to grow by leaps and bounds in our Christian walk, because these are times for us to learn to walk by faith: To let the engine pull the caboose.
For the next couple of days I’m going to try to answer the question “What should we do during those times when God seems far away?
I want to share with you a reality that doesn’t change regardless of how we feel. That reality is that God is always with us, and we live in his presence 24 hours a day, seven days week, 52 weeks a year. God’s presence in your life is not a feeling you depend on, it is a faith you live by.
This is the reality that sustained King David. He went through times when he couldn’t feel the presence of God. During one such time he wrote a poem that is recorded for us as Psalm 13.
Spend a little time reflecting on his emotionallly charged words:
“How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.”