Student Series: Panting in the Desert: Seeking God When He Feels Like A Fake, A Figment, or Far Away
This article is part of Rooted’s 2019 student series, where young Christians share their experiences of faith in high school and college. Annie Talton is a rising sophomore at Washington and Lee University.
I vividly remember standing in the staircase of my freshman dorm at Washington and Lee University crying out to God, “Father, are you there? Where are you? Why have you left me all alone?” It felt like a full-on Psalm 42 moment, where David falls on his knees and cries out, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” (v. 5)
Through heaving sobs and a teary face, I contemplated the existence of the God around whom I had built my entire life and being. I was so frustrated with myself and with whoever was in charge of the universe (i.e. God). I had grown up in the Christian church, and my faith had always been an important cornerstone in my life. In that moment, all that I had built my life upon felt like it was collapsing around me and cascading down in harsh, shard-like intellectual realities.
This moment was the peak of what I lovingly like to call my 2018 Existential Crisis. I went through a season of full of doubt, fear, and deep contemplation as to whether this whole Christianity thing, or even this whole Religion thing, is actually the truth… or if it is just another coping mechanism to which human beings have clung to make sense of this otherwise nonsensical world. My 2018 Existential Crisis was an intense inner spiritual battle with wander-prone self, Satan, and sin. As I sat there in that stairwell, my heart twisting in emptiness and confusion, I felt like I had fallen to the bottom of a deep well with no point of reference or sense of Truth.
This Crisis was primarily brought on by a class I was taking in the religion department. The class was called, “Approaches to the Study of Religion,” and we read scholars of religion in the various fields of psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology. With the combination of feeling far from God and reading secular scholars’ theories of religion, I began to think that my relationship with God maybe was all a figment of my psyche and that the only reason I am a Christian is because of the influence of the community of believers. This class was equally the best class and the most challenging class I had ever taken, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually.
God intervened in this season by remaining silent. I recently read a quote that said, “Sometimes silence speaks louder than a thousand words.” God was using silence to teach me, and, while it was scary and uncomfortable, He eventually used silence to draw me nearer to Him. Because I couldn’t rely on feeling the Lord close to me, I went on what felt like an endless, relentless search for Him. I had countless conversations with people, met with religious figures in my life, did tons of apologetics research, read articles, listened to podcasts, asked questions of everyone with whom I interacted, went to many office hours searching for answers.
What I came to find after this season of discomfort and doubt were not answers, although the Lord has revealed Himself more clearly in many ways. What I found was a peace with the unknowing. A surrender. This could only come from letting go and falling to my knees before God, like David exemplifies in Psalm 42.
The summer after that semester, I came upon a podcast episode by Tim Keller titled “Finding God,” which pretty much described word for word how to navigate exactly what kinds of spiritual battles I had been fighting, ones of doubt and crying out to a seemingly unresponsive God. I perked up hearing Tim Keller uttering such words because I thought that I was alone, but Tim Keller, an amazing pastor and esteemed theologian, had also himself felt this way before, along with others. He even delivered an entire rubric for what to think when going through seasons like these.
In this episode, Keller dissected a verse from Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” He explained how deer are smart creatures who plan ahead to make sure that they are always near a water source. You can imagine these deer crouched over dry, dusty streams that would usually for them be flowing abundantly with water, as they always have before. In the same way, when we are panting for the quenching presence of God and finding no relief, the reason we are parched is not because we have done anything foolish or wrong in that moment, but because God is doing something. We are not being punished, we are actually being grown and loved. God is beyond the constraints of time and space and is constantly doing an infinite number of things in our lives, and while He might feel far away or distant, He is working in us and teaching us.
I still have times when the Lord feels far away and I doubt His goodness, His loving will, and even His existence. But I will always be able to look back on this season as a reminder that even when God feels far away, the reality is that He is always right there and that He is always walking through this life with me, working everything that goes on in my life for His good and perfect plan. I have to remind myself of these truths not only by continuing to pursue what others have learned and teach, like Tim Keller, but I also just have to stop. To remain grounded in my faith, I must rely on friends who are also fighting this good fight to live to serve God, to experience these struggles and joys alongside one another. While surrounding myself with people who are pursuing the Lord to share and sharpen me has helped to make this life fuller and God-centered, I cannot solely rely on community. I have personally found that relying on and idolizing community brings about a lot of guilt and shame. I need intimate relationship with my Father in heaven. I have to stop and rest in God’s matchless grace and love, reminding myself of the gospel, of God’s crazy, unthinkable love and sacrifice for us in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we have liberating freedom, boundless grace, and overflowing joy. The truth is that God loves us so dearly, and whatever is happening in seasons of fear and doubt or in abundance and fullness, God is always working for our good.
I have learned so much in this journey, but one of the lessons that this season taught me is to embrace the unknowing and step into the wondrous mystery that is God. Seek Him, pursue Him, know Him, embody him, bask in His love and share it. Be unafraid, bold, and daring. This has made living, loving, exploring, and worshipping God all the more captivating.