What If God Seems Absent?

I thoroughly enjoy experiences where I felt like I’ve encountered the Living God. I’m blessed to feel this way after many of the worship services at my church (New Life Church). You may also have experienced such feelings at a Christian camp or conference, while on a pilgrimage, or resulting from coming in contact with inspired artwork.

But what happens when you do these things and still feel empty, like you’ve missed encountering God? Worse, what does it mean when we go for long stretches of time without feeling God’s presence?

How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?

Psalms 89:46 (NIV)

This little verse in the 89th Psalm makes it clear that we humans have been dealing with apparent absences of our Creator for a very long time. It’s also evident that you’re not alone if you’ve ever wondered where God was when you needed Him, when you or someone you loved was hurting.

How are we to reconcile the potential contradiction between biblical promises that God will never leave us nor forsake us (see Deuteronomy 31:6 and Hebrews 13:5 for examples) and admissions that God seems to hide himself, like the one we see in Psalms 89? And what are we supposed to do when we are enduring a day or week or season of life during which God seems to be absent?

Here are some thoughts, my meager offering, especially given that whole books have been written about this, but I am trying to cover it in a brief blog post.

Take Comfort

Whenever something unpleasant happens to me, I find comfort in learning that my experience is not unique. For one thing, I can try to learn from others’ experiences how they were able to get through the situation.

In this case, there is very good company on this journey through times of feeling abandoned by God. One relatively recent example of this is Mother Teresa. This saintly woman is well known for her decades of selfless service to the poorest of the poor in India. What may not be as well known, though, is that she had a crisis of faith that also lasted decades, which resulted from her feeling that God had abandoned her. In a letter that she had sent to her pastor and spiritual guide, Michael van der Peet, for example, she said:

“Jesus has a very special love for you. [But] as for me–The silence and the emptiness is so great–that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear.”

Mother Teresa, September 1979 (as posted in Time Magazine’s site by David van Biema on August 23, 2007)

Even Jesus experienced God’s absence. I have heard pastors say that the worst thing for Jesus about the whole horrendous crucifixion order was his separation from God, as he exclaimed from the cross:

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?”(which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus, in Mark 15:34 (NIV)

Remember That Regardless of How You Feel, God Has Promised Not to Abandon You

In times when it feels like God has abandoned you, it may help to remember his promises that he would never leave you nor forsake you. Of course, those promises may feel empty when you’re wondering where God is, so here’s a little story that may help.

My wife and I spent the weekend visiting our daughter and son-in-law our new grandson, who was born in August. I know we also experienced this when this same daughter was herself an infant, but it was even more evident as an observing grandparent than it was as a parent.

Anyway, our grandson has quite the appetite. In fact, he can go from being happy and smiley to very “hangry” (hungry + angry) in an instant. When that happened, my wife or I would get to hold the mad little man while his mom and dad hurried off to the kitchen to arrange for a bottle to feed him. We would try to console him, telling him that his dire situation would soon be resolved. Of course, he wasn’t having any of that. He would scream his head off, wondering why his mom and dad had abandoned him in his time of need. It was tragically adorable.

Here’s the thing: his mom and dad always worked diligently on his behalf to produce an outcome that was probably better than he was able to imagine. But while they were doing that, since they were in another room and out of his view, he seemed to think that they had abandoned him when he needed them most.

But had they actually abandoned him? Of course not.

I think that next time I feel like God has abandoned me, I’m going to try to picture my grandson’s cute little face turning bright red from his urgent screaming and wonder to myself if that’s what I look like to God.

Remember That God May Be Maturing Your Faith

Along the same lines as the story about my daughter and her family, it’s worth noting that while she exhibited the same behavior as her new little baby when she was his age, she doesn’t act like that anymore. Why is that? Well, as part of the process of teaching her and helping her to grow up, my wife and I gradually let her go longer and longer before meeting her needs. This helped her to learn that we would meet her needs, but not always in the timing that she expected–and not always in the way that she expected. The fact that she is not still eating out of a baby bottle is evidence that one day, when she cried because she was hungry, we addressed her need with baby food instead of milk–something quite unexpected indeed (and she let it dribble down her chin as her way of telling us it wasn’t the milk she had been expecting).

In the same way, God does not want us to spend our entire Christian journey consuming milk from a baby bottle. He has innumerable ways of helping us grow, and one of those ways may be to appear absent from us for a time, teaching us to trust him and his promises–similar to what Paul says in his letter to the Romans:

Not only so, but let us also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. 

The Apostle Paul, in Romans 5:3-4 (NIV)

Go Looking for Him

God isn’t particularly hard to find, provided you are looking in the right places. This doesn’t necessarily mean church, since there’s nothing magical or mystical about it–we probably won’t encounter his presence every time we go there.

Well, where else can you find him?

Good question. The answers are as numerous as there are people on this planet–and even more than that. Each person may need to look in different places. In fact, each person may need to look in different places each time this happens to her or him! Hopefully this isn’t surprising, but our Creator is creative!

You may find God on a mountain hike or a stroll through the woods on a golden autumn afternoon. You may find him by gazing at the night sky, suddenly amazed by the magnitude of it all. You may hear him in the endless crashing of waves on the beach or the gentle lapping of the ripples against your boat. You may find him in the rain or brilliant sunshine.

Or you may find him wandering through the pages of his Word–after all, the Bible is his love letter to us. His voice gives life to the words and stories it contains. That’s how these passages speak to you in different ways each time you encounter them. And that’s why the Bible isn’t like any other book, where you should feel comfortable setting it aside because you’ve already read it. Or if you have done that, then maybe it’s time to pick it back up to see what you will find.

You should also be able to find him by connecting with other followers of Christ. We are, after all, called to be the body of Christ to one another. You never know when a godly friend will pass along an inspired word or vision to you–or when you might feel the brilliance and warmth of God’s smile shining through that of anyone you encounter.

Finally, Don’t Be Afraid–Trust Him

I know it can be frightening to feel like God has abandoned you. I mean, it can lead you to dark alley questions like, What if this whole God-thing was made up??

In the interest of brevity (since this seems to be running long, despite my best attempts at being brief), let me point out one of the last things the Apostle Paul said to his son in the faith, Timothy:

For God did not give us a Spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control.

2 Timothy 1:7 (NET)

This means that if we’re feeling afraid, we should remember that this feeling did not come from God. It also means, that it’s possible (if not likely) that our feelings of fear and abandonment are coming from Satan, who would like nothing more than for us to believe the lies that he plants in our minds, like those dark alley questions. He wants us to not trust God. If we have to have faith in God, he wants to keep it at a low level of maturity, where we only believe God exists or trust him in the few moments when we can sense his presence.

I don’t know about you (well, I think I do!), but I would rather listen to words that were inspired by God than those hissed into our ears by the enemy. I would rather trust God than anyone else–even myself (although that’s harder than you’d like it would be!). I’d prefer to take comfort from a friend who gave his life to save mine:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

Jesus, in John 14:1-3 (NIV)

About Writing & Photography by David K. Carpenter

Photographer of Light and Life, Writer of Life as it finds me
This entry was posted in Christian, Faith and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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