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When I feel far from God

There are times when God seems just about as far away as possible. I feel alone and even with crowds around me, the world feels empty.

There are times when God feels as close as my skin, where I can feel the weight of the Presence. All the world is filled with meaning and possibility because God is with me.

But most of the time, I live between these two poles, present and distant at the same time. This is the way of long relationships, old friendships and old marriages. There’s something good and settled-in with these relationships, but also something routine and stale.

Psalm 61 prays from a distance and is an excellent companion for when we find ourselves distant as well.

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
    I call as my heart grows faint;
    lead me to the rock that is higher than I (Ps. 61:1-2).

In the Hebrew mind, Jerusalem is the center of the earth. It’s where the temple was located. And before that, it’s where the ark of the covenant was located in the tabernacle, after David had it brought to his new capitol city.

Worship provides the center of the earth. Everything else gathers around God and goes out from God. Without worship, we are center-less.

Growing up, my parents’ house was the center of my world. But once I hit college that changed. Lakeside Bible Camp became my new center. I called it my Mediterranean, my “middle of the earth.” It was there that I had deep, life-changing encounters with God. It was there that everything about me — my faith, my personality, my hopes and dreams, me relationships — were challenged and grew. Lakeside made all of life worship. Every moment became pregnant with possibilities and heavy with God.

But here’s David, praying at a distance. Is he physically distant from Jerusalem and feeling dis-located? Or is he personally distant and feeling dislocated in heart, soul, and mind? Both are possibilities not just with him, but with us. Place matters. Heart matters.

Regardless, like us, he longs for the distance to disappear. He longs for closeness.

I long to dwell in your tent forever
    and take refuge in the shelter of your wings (Ps. 61:4).

In verses 2 and 3, David has referred to God as a massive rock and a strong tower, very tangible, physical expressions of strength and security. But here he shifts to a tent and wings.

There are two vastly different possibilities for what he’s getting at here.

The first draws from the nomadic roots of the Hebrew people. From Abraham through the desert wanderings, the people lived in tents (some still do to this day). And though people didn’t raise chickens back then, along with the birds residing in Israel, vast numbers of birds have always migrated between Europe and Africa through the land. Because of this, the image of a mother bird protecting the eggs or young in her nest grew deep in a biblical imagination of how God hovers over us, protecting us with his presence.

David wants that nestled protection for himself. He wants to live in God’s tent all the time. Wherever God goes, he’ll go too. No matter what kind of wandering path his life takes, he knows God won’t ever be far from him.

The other possibility is the tent refers to the tabernacle, the place of worship and meeting with God. And the wings refer to the two sets of cherubim wings on the ark of the covenant. This is a real possibility, because of David’s devotion to the ark and the belief that the ark was the throne of Yahweh, who “dwelt” between the cherubim wings. All of this is contained in 2 Samuel 6.

He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. … Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. … They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD (2 Sam. 6:2, 14, 15, 17).

Feeling far from God, David wants to restore worship as the center of his life. He doesn’t want to be an occasional worshiper, a Sunday Christian. He is insatiable. He wants God all the time. He wants to dance daily.

Our classic expression of this is Brother Lawrence’s The Practicing of the Presence of God. As a Carmelite lay brother, he learned the ability to live in the Presence not just during the hours of monastic worship, but even while he was washing bottles or repairing sandals.

The psalm then takes what at first seems like an abrupt shift. It moves from first-person prayer to third-person praying for the king. This isn’t a prayer for the king as a different person, however, but rather a step back from his feelings and praying for himself objectively as if he were another person.

Increase the days of the king’s life,
    his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
    appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him (Ps. 61:6-7).

This sounds like a “may he live forever” blessing of the king. But it’s more about his kingship than his individual life. He’s praying about not just himself, but for the descendants of his who will sit on his throne in years to come. It’s as if all his future descendants are alive in him right now. And when they take the throne, it’s his kingship which will be extended to future generations. All of this is in line with God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:16; see the whole chapter).

There’s something helpful in praying for ourselves in the third person. When we pray “me” and “my” prayers, we tend to pray skewed prayers from our skewed perspectives. And that’s an OK place to start. But as we continue in prayer, the mature person steps back a bit and seeks a more objective perspective, praying not just with the heart, but with the mind as well.

And what do we see? David prays for the same thing when praying objectively as he did when praying personally.

He wants protection and he wants Presence.

Protect my descendants by protecting me now. Let them be enthroned in your Presence forever by letting me never leave your tent now.

In anticipation of this, he finishes his prayer by saying in effect, “I will have your song always in my heart and on my lips. And I will live each day faithful to the covenant you have established between us.”

Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
    and fulfill my vows day after day (Ps. 61:8).

All of a sudden, we discover that David is no longer far away. Instead, he is singing to God and living out the daily commitments of covenant loyalty to God.

And there we have the key to living fully in the Presence: A worshipful and obedient heart.