The answer to this title’s question might seem obvious. Some people will read, “Are we ever abandoned by God?” and immediately say, “Of course not!” And yet for others, the opposite answer might seem equally obvious. Many people feel like God abandons them, at least part of the time, and others feel like He’s never really been there at all. We know intellectually that God sees all and says He never leaves us, but sometimes it might still feel like we’ve been abandoned.
The good Christians answer to this conundrum is summed up in the famous footprints poem. We might feel like God has left us alone during the worst times of our lives. However, if we imagine the record of our lives as footprints in sand and see only one set during trying times, then we shouldn’t think God left us to walk alone. As the poem’s final line says, “When you saw only one set of footprints, / It was then that I carried you.”
I love this poem and I think there’s a lot of truth in it. However, it’s not the only answer to why some people feel like God is far away. There are times when He is right alongside us but we have trouble seeing Him because our trials are so bad. Others times, though, He seems distant because we’ve pushed Him away. He hasn’t abandoned us in that sort of situation, but we might not be walking near Him anymore. It’s this second scenario that we’re going to focus on today as we continue our study of Isaiah.
Over the last couple months, we’ve been studying themes in Isaiah 40-66. These are the last 27 chapters of the book, and they’re a record of an extended dialog where God speaks candidly about His feelings, desires, and plans. If you go back and read the very first post, you’ll see I made a list of key themes for further study. That list included “Covenant faithfulness; God never abandons His people” and “Sins push God away from us and we need to own-up to that.” These two points might seem contradictory, but studying Isaiah helps us see how both are accurate.
Sins that Lead To Separation
In Isaiah’s time, Israel was in the midst of a “stormy period marking the expansion of the Assyrian empire and the decline of Israel” that eventually led to “captivity at the hands of Babylon” (“Intro to Isaiah” from the NIV Study Bible). The people of Israel probably thought they had good reason to accuse God of abandoning them. How could He let this happen? Where did He go? God answers this question here in Isaiah 40-66.
Look, the Lord’s hand is not too weak to deliver you;Isaiah 59:1-4, NET
his ear is not too deaf to hear you.
But your sinful acts have alienated you from your God;
your sins have caused him to reject you and not listen to your prayers.
For your hands are stained with blood
and your fingers with sin;
your lips speak lies,
your tongue utters malicious words.
No one is concerned about justice;
no one sets forth his case truthfully.
They depend on false words and tell lies;
they conceive of oppression
and give birth to sin.
The problem isn’t God. It’s with the people who stopped aligning themselves with His just character. They feel rejected and abandoned by God because they first rejected and abandoned Him. They alienated Him by embracing sins, injustice, lies, and oppression. They left Him like an unfaithful wife running off and having sex with other men. Finally, God had enough. He wanted a divorce–an end to this particular covenant He had with Israel.
This is what the Lord says:Isaiah 50: 1-3, NET
“Where is your mother’s divorce certificate
by which I divorced her?
Or to which of my creditors did I sell you?
Look, you were sold because of your sins;
because of your rebellious acts I divorced your mother.
Why does no one challenge me when I come?
Why does no one respond when I call?
Is my hand too weak to deliver you?
Do I lack the power to rescue you?
Look, with a mere shout I can dry up the sea;
I can turn streams into a desert,
so the fish rot away and die
from lack of water.
I can clothe the sky in darkness;
I can cover it with sackcloth.”
From God’s perspective, Israel was the one who wasn’t responding. They’re the ones who left Him. In another part of Isaiah 40-66, God says, “you burdened me with your sins; you made me weary with your evil deeds” (Is 43:24, NET). Their evils were so terrible that God says He could not relent from His judgement on them (Is. 57). That did not, however, mean there was no hope. As we learn here in Isaiah as well as other prophecies, God already had plans to set up a new covenant. The author of Hebrews says that God found fault with the people He’d made the first covenant with and so He decided to set up a better covenant based on better promises (Heb. 8:7-13). We’ve seen the fulfilment of this prophecy already, when Jesus Christ came to earth.
Reconciliation and Remarriage
In Isaiah, God’s promise of a new covenant is closely connected to the Servant Song prophecies pointing ahead to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Two of these describe Him as “a covenant for the people” (Is. 42:6; 49:8). The Messiah ushers in a New Covenant, and the promise of His coming reinforces the promise that God will not abandon His people permanently. The punishment and separation were only temporary. There’s a way to fix it, and God promised to do just that.
“Don’t be afraid, for you will not be put to shame.Isaiah 54:4-7, NET
Don’t be intimidated, for you will not be humiliated.
You will forget about the shame you experienced in your youth;
you will no longer remember the disgrace of your abandonment.
For your husband is the one who made you—
the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is his name.
He is your Protector, the Holy One of Israel.
He is called ‘God of the entire earth.’
Indeed, the Lord will call you back
like a wife who has been abandoned and suffers from depression,
like a young wife when she has been rejected,” says your God.
“For a short time I abandoned you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.”
Notice the marriage imagery here that’s undoing the divorce we saw earlier. The one who created us, our Husband, is the one redeeming us from the death penalty of sin and welcoming us into a new marriage covenant. Along with that, He gives us a new name that we talked about in more detail a few weeks ago in the article on the “new thing” God is doing.
You will be called by a new name
that the Lord himself will give you.
You will be a majestic crown in the hand of the Lord,
a royal turban in the hand of your God.
You will no longer be called, “Abandoned,”
and your land will no longer be called “Desolate.”
Indeed, you will be called “My Delight is in Her,”
and your land “Married.”
For the Lord will take delight in you,
and your land will be married to him. …
They will be called, “The Holy People,Isaiah 62:2-4, 12
the Ones Protected by the Lord.”
You will be called, “Sought After,
City Not Abandoned.”
As we read through this story of divorce and marriage; of separation and reconciliation, we see that for a short time God did “abandon” His people. That abandonment wasn’t a real/permanent situation, though, and it was prompted by them abandoning Him first. He was so committed to fixing this breach between Himself and His people that Jesus came and died for us. That’s how even in the midst of discussing the truth that sin separates us from Him, God can also say, “I will not forsake them,” ” my covenant of peace will not be removed,” and “I will make an everlasting covenant with you” (Is. 41:17; 42:16; 54:10; 55:1-3). In the same section of scripture where He describes where the separation came from (our sins), God also shows where the reconciliation comes from.
You might be wondering what this dramatic story laid out in Isaiah has to do with us today. We’re living about 2,000 years past the start of the New Covenant. We were never literally part of this first covenant marriage, divorce, and new covenant reconciliation that ancient Israel went through; we started out as part of the New Covenant. This is still the history of our faith, though. We’re part of the whole grand love story that God is writing, even though we come in near the end.
We can see the grand metanarratives outlined through the Bible play out on a smaller scale in our individual lives as well. If we push God away and reject His covenant, we can read the words written to ancient Israel in Isaiah’s time and realize that we’re the ones who cause our disconnect from God. Then we can also read the encouraging reconciliation passages, and realize that God wants us to come back to Him. He has not abandoned us and He will not leave us alone–He wants us in a relationship with Him even if we’ve messed up and need to ask His forgiveness when we come back.
“Turn your ear, and come to me.
Hear, and your soul will live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.” …
Seek Yahweh while he may be found.Isaiah 55:3, 6-7, WEB
Call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts.
Let him return to Yahweh, and he will have mercy on him,
to our God, for he will freely pardon.
God values law, righteousness, and judgement, yet connected with all of that comes His love of justice, mercy, and reconciliation. He’s grieved when we sin, which causes separation, and He’s overjoyed when we repent and come back. Like the compassionate father in Jesus’s parable who ran to meet his prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), God is eager to welcome us back into a relationship with Him. He intends for the covenant we’ve entered with Him to be an everlasting one.
Near the beginning of this post, I quoted the start of Isaiah 59: “Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it can’t save; nor his ear dull, that it can’t hear. But your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Is. 59:1-2, WEB). If you keep reading through to the end of that chapter, you come to this statement about a redeemer:
“A Redeemer will come to Zion,
and to those who turn from disobedience in Jacob,” says Yahweh.
“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says Yahweh. “My Spirit who is on you, and my words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart out of your mouth, nor out of the mouth of your offspring, nor out of the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says Yahweh, “from now on and forever.”Isaiah 59:20-21, WEB
God wants us to be in such a close relationship with Him that we’ll never feel abandoned. As Jesus said when He told His disciples that He would send them the Holy Spirit, “I will not leave you orphans. I will come to you” (John 14:18, WEB). When we’re keeping covenant with God, there’s such a close relationship that His spirit dwells inside us. And if we have drifted away, we can repent and come back to the close relationship that God offers His beloved people.
I also want to mention that there are times we may feel abandoned by God even when we haven’t done anything wrong. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life and when He hung on the cross He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). God the Father did not abandon Jesus, but Jesus was in so much agony that it felt as if He were alone and He raised His voice in an anguished lament. Sometimes that’s how we feel, too. In those times, we can take comfort in the fact that Jesus empathizes with this feeling and that God has not truly abandoned us (Heb. 4:14-16; 13:5-6). His promises of help and redemption still apply, and He will make good things happen for us in the end.
Featured image by Inbetween from Lightstock
Song Recommendation: “I Am Not Alone” by Kari Jobe