Columnist: When God seems to be absent
Published 12:00 am Monday, August 29, 2016
To be sure, there are times when the feeling of God’s absence comes to all of us. Without doubt, we know times of great joy and companionship with God, but then suddenly life changes. We are faced with new challenges or illnesses or difficulties that we have not previously encountered.
I remember one day walking around Glenn Memorial Church in Atlanta with my friend, Bishop Bevel Jones. He knew I was preparing to become the pastor of a church in Dallas, Texas, that was experiencing a serious crisis. As we walked, Bishop Jones said, “Hal, there will be times in your ministry when you’ll get down on your knees and ask, ‘God are you really there?’ “
That happened during my ministry in Dallas, but it had also happened a few years prior to my going to Dallas. At that time, I was a very young minister and had just conducted the funeral of a little 5-year-old girl who had died of bone cancer.
For several days previously, I had experienced the terrible agonies of that family and their grief. The casket had even been opened after the funeral, and the agonies of family and friends were intensified. When the service was finally over, I went back to my parsonage, got on my knees and asked, “Lord, are you really there?”
Of course, I took some comfort in the fact that I wouldn’t have been on my knees if I hadn’t thought that God was there.
However, most of us know well the contradiction of “God is no where” and “God is now here.” We are often confident of God and at other times long for a sign of God.
At any rate, I want to focus today on the times when God seems absent. What can we do? What can we think?
First, when God seems absent, we can continue to trust God! In the final analysis, trust is at the very heart of life. As someone reminds us, “You go to a doctor whose name you cannot pronounce. He/she gives you a prescription you cannot read. You take it to a pharmacist you have never seen. He/she gives you a medicine you do not understand and yet you take it.”
That’s trust! The writer of Proverbs takes it to a higher level when he says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart” (Proverbs 3:5). Simply stated, God is to be taken into account at all times, even when he seems absent. The thought of him is not to be limited to dire circumstances or sacred places or special occasions.
Whenever we take God into account we are exercising our trust in God. While I was privileged to serve that great church in Dallas, I had followed a prominent minister who had been accused of trying to kill his wife, and the church was disillusioned.
The press would not leave the story alone and kept playing it over and over again on the front pages of the newspaper. A few months after I had been there, one of the staff members was accused of tickling boys. We went through two years of turmoil — police investigations and bringing in counsellors on Sunday afternoons to deal with families and their needs.
Yet, in spite of it all, we had two monumental things going for us: gracious Christians who loved that church and a gracious God who loved us and promised to be with us. So, in all our struggles we did the best we could and we trusted God. Even in our asking God if he were there, we trusted God and sought his guidance. And, thankfully, God honored that commitment and today that church is thriving.
Second, when God seems absent. We can look for him in other forms or disguises! As the controversial Episcopal Bishop, John Spong, expressed it, “For many people in our age God is not real, because they look for God in the wrong places, or they have an inadequate concept.”
There were two soldiers talking during World War I. They were standing out on the battlefield and looking between the trenches at what they called “no man’s land.” They also noticed several who were wounded, and they noticed the barbed wire.
One if the men turned to the other and said, “Captain, where is God in all this?” At this point, two stretcher bearers got up and ran out to rescue the men who had been wounded. The captain turned to the private and said, “There’s God! There goes God there.”
Third, when God seems absent, his very absence may be the token of his presence! Not long ago I was re-reading an old book, and it really spoke to me. And there is something there that I think will speak to you.
The book was written by the late Walter Russell Bowie, well-known minister and author, and was titled, “Where You Find God.”
Dr. Bowie wrote: “Part of the inner world of everyone of us is this sense of emptiness, unease, incompleteness; and I believe that this in itself is a word from God, that this is the sound that God’s word makes in a world that had explained God away.”
In other words, Dr.Bowie was saying that we know God best in his absence or silence, through our missing him. Theologian, Paul Tillich said, “God is present in the force that makes us restless.”
Emptiness or a sense of God’s absence, perhaps that is the flip side of God’s insistence on being our God.