God does not abandon his children

God does not abandon his children October 18, 2019

We all feel down at times. Low blood sugar, tragedy, and everything in between can bring on depression. The translation of Spiritual Desertion by Gisbertus Voetius and Johannes Hoornbeeck is not targeted at any of these kinds of ailments. Instead, they are responding to the uniquely Christian feeling of the collapse of assurance and sense of having been abandoned–deserted–by God. This is really two books, with the first having been started by Voetius, then re-started and completed by Hoornbeeck. There is also an excellent introduction that sorts this out and puts both writers in their context.

So what is “spiritual desertion”?

We describe spiritual desertion as follows: It is an inner cross or spiritual sorrow and trial as a result of which a person, now being truly converted to God, fails to feel his or her heart’s delight in God and divine things. It results from the darkening of one’s assurance and clarity with respect to appropriation by a personal faith.” (pg 30)

In other words, it is exactly what it sounds like–the sense that God has abandoned us. This is not a doubt about the nature of the faith, or a failure to believe that Scripture is true, or any of the other topics that apologetics is designed to grapple with. Instead, it is the sense that these things are not true for me. Yes, Christ died for the sins of all who repent and believe, and there are people who have been redeemed and are going to heaven, but do not feel as if these promises are true for me.

“The true subjects of [spiritual] desertion, the people in whose life it is found, are only believers, for this is their peculiar and incommunicable kind of suffering and illness, just as eclipses only occur in the case of the sun and the moon. Unbelievers and hypocrites are only ‘wandering stars’ (Jude 13), not those two great lights. Hence in them that which was never there cannot be eclipsed and lacking.” (pg 31-32)

Image: Dutch Reformed Translation Society

This is a problem for Christians alone, and one that seems to be largely unique to us.

There are, according to Voetius, specific reasons why God subjects believers to this situation:

“The immediate ends for which God sends desertion, or abandonment, are:
-that the believer may be tested and so become better known to himself and others;
-that the desire for grace and glory may increasingly be strengthened in him;
-that hidden sins may be uncovered and future sins prevented;
-that he be taught tenderness of conscience and a correct and precise observation of his conduct;
-that he become empty and poor of spirit;
-that he obtain an aversion to this world and to the pilgrim’s life;
-that he be weaned of external, earthly joy and consolation;
-that he learn to be fed with tears as the only delicacy of consolation when the Comforter is not present;
-that on account of these things he may cling to his God all the more firmly.” (pg 40)

And just as spiritual desertion is not without reason, so it is not without cure (though the cure is never promised, and may only come late in life). Fortunately, there is no mystery when it comes to curing spiritual desertion. It is the same cure that applies to all of mankind’s greatest needs: the application of the Gospel to the soul. As with salvation, in cases of spiritual desertion this will happen in God’s time, rather than in ours. Yet, there are some things we can do and things we should keep in mind when we are deserted ourselves, or (especially) when we are helping others who are feeling deserted.

First, check into potential physiological causes. We want to be sure that the cause is genuinely spiritual, and not biochemical (my word, not the word the Dutch theologians use). Second,
“We must avoid false remedies, such as
(1) earthy comforts in the form of sensual pleasure sand enjoyments, vain pastimes, the lessening of activity and the relaxation of zeal for self-mortification, and especially the scrupulous practices of godliness, and so forth…
(2) We must not praise the patients too much, elevating them above many other believers, by which it is more or less suggested to them that they must draw peace of conscience and consolation from their own works.
(3) We must guard against trivializing this evil as if it did not exist or amount to much or as if it is nothing but a concoction of their own foolishness and pessimistic attitude.
(4) We must similarly avoid trivializing sins and an all too ready, general, and undiscerning expansion of the mercy of God.
(5) We must guard against a stripped-down version of the commandments: Do this, believe that, tell yourself this, avoid that, reject this or that, and so on, without in the process persuading people that the grace they do not feel, and deny feeling, in themselves is in fact in them.”
What, then, are the true remedies?
“The means to be used are part purgative and part restorative. Those of the first kind are the examination of conscience and its relief by the renewal of penitence, along with fasting and prayer. Those of the other kind [restorative] are:
(1) the general means such as the exercise of godliness, both in the home and outside it, diligent exertion in one’s daily occupation, keeping company with godly folks, especially the ministers of the Word. These ought above all to be equipped with the gift and art of consolation and to watch over the consciences of the people entrusted to their care in this state… Add to this the use of medicines and keeping a diet, if the body has perhaps also been affected, either before the abandonment, or concurrently with it, or later by its influence.
(2) The special means are the restorative aids of the consolations composed of the experiences and remembrances of the past, the contemplation of the present, and the desire or yearning for the future, or that which is not yet visible. Let the general remedy be a spiritual yearning accompanied by sorrows. Once this has been found, as it is in all who are truly converted, we can firmly conclude–against all doubts and evil suspicions–that they are in the state of grace, as can be seen from the immovable grounds of Holy Scripture.” (46-47)
In other words: trust God, reflect on the Gospel, repent of your sins, and work with others. And a good place to start doing all of this is by reading this excellent book.

Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO

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