Is God Near or Far?

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin

But how can we rejoice in the Lord if he is far from us?
Pray to God that he may not be far.
If he is, that is your doing.
(St. Augustine)

These words of St. Augustine, from one of his sermons, are both intriguing and challenging. He presumes, first of all that Christians should be people who rejoice. His words echo the instruction of St. Paul in the Letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near.” (4:4-5)
But Augustine also observes that if God seems far away from you, “that is your doing.” In other words, it’s your fault!
I suspect that for many of us there have been times when God seemed far away. Perhaps when we had fallen into a deep depression and we felt that God had abandoned us; or when our spiritual life seemed arid and our faith useless; or when the most urgent of our prayers went unanswered; or even in those moments when we wondered if there really is a God at all, and that religion is just a fairy tale. These experiences are not unusual. Many great saints had their own “dark night of the soul.”
But Augustine makes it clear that if God seems far away, the responsibility is ours! In preaching I’ve often asked the question this way: “If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, who moved?”
Our relationship with God, like any relationship, needs to be nurtured. Otherwise, that friendship will die. So that leads us to some questions: Do we invest any time and energy into our friendship with God? Do we pray? Do we read the Word of God? Do we attend Mass and receive the sacraments? Are we generous in performing works of charity? One of the things Augustine emphasizes in his sermon is the efficacy of love: “Love, and he will be near.”
In the winter time, the earth leans away from the sun, the source of our light and warmth, and the earth grows cold and dark. And so it is with us. If we drift away from God, the source of our light and warmth, our souls grow cold and dark. But when God is near, all is well, and indeed we have reason to rejoice!
Something to think about: Have you ever had a “dark night of the soul” when God seemed far away?