A Devotion on Spiritual Desertion
The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose I will not, I will not desert to its foes; that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no, never, no never forsake!
The prospect of spiritual desertion is possibly the most frightening experience of the Christian life. Hell itself is often articulated as the eternal conscious experience of the deprivation of the divine presence. That is, Hell is a place where humans will be eternally aware that they are alone. While I would argue that Hell is actually more than mere deprivation of God’s presence, it is helpful for our purposes to highlight that particular aspect of eternal torment. This understanding of Hell grants us the liberty to describe our own feelings of spiritual desertion as a sort of “living Hell” on Earth.
But need the Christian ever fear spiritual desertion? Should the Christian speculate over whether or not God would even finally cut them off from the grace of His presence? The short answer is: no, they should not. The true believer is not only indwelt by the Holy Spirit, she has been united to Christ and so must never fear the permanent loss of God’s presence. In what follows I will briefly ground this assertion in Jesus’ own experience of desertion on the cross.
Matthew 26 contains the familiar scene of Jesus’ anguish over the prospect of becoming contaminated Himself by the sins of His people, but also at the prospect of facing the wrath and desertion of the Father that would necessarily follow. Jesus speaking to Peter and the two sons of Zebedee says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” (v. 38). It’s as if Jesus is on the verge of physically unraveling as He faces, not simply the process of dying, but the displeasure of God the Father. It is one thing to face the cross knowing that God will never forsake you, it is another thing to face it with the knowledge Jesus possessed.
But Jesus pressed on nonetheless, compelled by love for the Father and love for His people, not willing that anyone of them should perish. He embraced the cross. Adam and Eve fell into sin, shame, and death because they ate of the fruit of the tree, and so Jesus reverses all that occurred by stretching out His arms and allowing Himself to be nailed to a Tree. Peter writes,”He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)
Through Jesus’ wounds we are healed, and through His death we live.
Have we any need now to fear final spiritual desertion? This would hardly be a question if believers did not experience spiritual desertion in their spiritual lives. But anyone who had been a Christian for more than a few months knows there will be valleys as well as hills. We would likely not treasure the sweetness of communion with Christ if we did not experience His absence at times.
But does Christ ever truly depart from the regenerate soul? No He does not, but there are times when He causes us to acutely experience the withdrawal of the comforting grace of the Holy Spirit. But this is only to serve our greater spiritual good. Namely, that through the feeling of His absence, we should desire Him all the more. I’ve visited with several believers experiencing no small degree of consternation at the experience of Christ’s seeming absence. This led some of them to question the legitimacy of their conversion. Perhaps they never did truly believe. Could it be that the past years were all just a farce, that they had never truly partaken of the Living Water of the Gospel?
As is so often the case, the mere presence of the longing for communion with Christ bears witness to the work of grace in their soul. If we never desire communion with Christ and freedom from sin we never experienced the friendship of Christ to begin with, and so the question is moot. But those who pine for Christ’s love should be comforted, the reality of their desire for Christ is itself evidence of the presence of His grace in their soul.He will not desert His own, though He may allow us to experience discomfort that we may be comforted by Him, and experience again His personal love for us.
But what should we do while in the valleys of the Christian life?
First, search your heart and determine if there is any love for Christ and hatred of sin in you. If you’re struggling, it is very likely that you have already done this, and have seen the fruits of grace at work in your life.
Second, meditate on the attributes of God. Calling to mind God’s unchanging character, undying love, and boundless grace will warm your affections and drive you to praise. There have been times when I was deeply discouraged by my sin, only to read a Psalm of praise or read a theological work on God’s being and attributes only to find my heart deeply and spontaneously transported from it’s misery to tearful joy over all that God is in Himself. Not only does this stir our hearts to praise, it gives us a vocabulary with which to translate our awe and wonderment into heartfelt doxology. Third, pray the promises of God in Scripture. When you have lost all words with which to plead for God’s forgiveness, pray His Word. I cannot overstate the significance this has had on my own prayer life. When all of my prayers feel wrote and void of life, I turn to the Scripture and pray God’s own words back to Him. It isn’t long before I am able once again to find words with which to address our great and all seeing God.
To return to the original question I posed at the beginning of this post, should the Christian ever fear final spiritual desertion? Or to put it another way, should the Christian fear that the desertion, they may be experiencing even now, will never come to an end? The answer can be found in the Person and work of Christ. If Christ has truly experienced God abandonment for His people, how can we fear the same will fall upon us?
Christ experienced all the horror of divine abandonment on the cross in order that we may experience true and unbroken eternal communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Whatever we experience in this life will ultimately be subservient to this end. So with the psalmist we ought to sing, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him, my salvation and my God.” (Ps. 43:5 ESV)
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