When God Doesn’t Feel Like ‘Immanuel’
When God Doesn’t Feel Like ‘Immanuel’

By Michael C. Mack

What do you do when everyone around you is singing about joy and glad tidings and peace on earth . . . but your life reflects none of it? How do you get through “the most wonderful time of year” when your season is anything but merry and bright?

And let me ask leaders, how do you lead others to experience Immanuel, God with us, when God feels far away this Christmas?

Let’s face it, we are surrounded by people who are experiencing sadness, depression, sorrow, discouragement, and pain this December. Perhaps you are among them.

In the Bible, leaders and “ordinary people” had these same struggles. Jeremiah, King David, Martha and Mary, and others felt as if God were distant or had forsaken them when they needed him most.

Then there’s Asaph. The story of this Old Testament man—one of King David’s chief musicians who had 12 psalms attributed to him—may not seem to have any connection to the Christmas story, but he, like many others, was looking forward to the arrival of the Messiah (e.g., Psalm 80:17). And his life mirrors many of ours at this time of year. He experienced struggles and questions and doubts:

“I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands, and I would not be comforted” (Psalm 77:1, 2).

“Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?” (vv. 7-9).

Asaph believed and trusted in God, but he questioned where God was in the occasion of his pain. Like Asaph, when God’s people today—even his leaders—are lonely or hurting, and we cry out to God and hear nothing, the experience can be even more painful and confusing . . . especially at Christmas. We may feel ignored or neglected even while we seek his presence or power. We are filled with questions: Why? Where are you, Lord? What’s going on? We just want to understand and know he’s still there for us. And yet, inexplicably . . . nothing.

Later—perhaps days, weeks, months, even years—we will be able to look back and see how God was moving. Later, we understand God’s sovereignty and timing. But in our moments of despair and darkness, we can’t see it.

I know all of this firsthand. I was walking in a dark valley through this season of light six years ago. In early December I came to Psalm 77 in my Bible reading, and I felt a deep connection to Asaph.

I wrote in my journal,

God, I don’t understand. I don’t know how this is all going to work out and I can’t see how you are working in this. What are you doing? How are you going to work all this out? Please, Lord, show me just a sliver of your plan and purpose. Regardless, God, help me hang on and continue to trust in you and your timing.

So, what do we do when we are in a season of life when God feels far away—when he does not seem to be Immanuel, God with us?

We can try to remember. Asaph said, “Then I thought, ‘To this I will appeal: the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand. 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 77:10-12).

It’s vital for us to be in God’s Word every day. The stories remind us of his faithfulness, strength, and love. They give us perspective. They lift us up out of our current circumstances to help us see God is, indeed, in control. We can also look back at our own lives and remember how he has worked in more personal ways.

Remembering God’s greatness and sovereignty naturally leads to worship: an acknowledgement of God’s nature and his power. Worship is vital in the darkness of the valley. And, by the way, so is community with some friends; don’t go through this alone!

I wrote in my journal six years ago,

All I can say in the midst of this is, “I will continue to trust the Lord, no matter how I feel.” I’ve come to a place where I know I must worship God even though I don’t feel like it, and don’t even necessarily sense his presence with me as I call out to him in praise for who he is. It’s an act of the will at this point.

With Asaph, we cry out, even in the midst of our questions, “Your ways, God, are holy. What god is as great as our God?” (v. 13).

It’s impossible for me to know your circumstances, leader. But I’m praying for anyone who is struggling, and I’m asking all godly leaders to join me in that prayer today. I ask God to encourage you and simply, if nothing else, allow you to sense his holy, loving presence with you in the valley. That’s his promise in Psalm 23, that he walks through the valley with you—as your Good Shepherd, as Immanuel.

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