We don’t like it when someone experiences God as absent. At least, Christians in the Western traditions don’t. It doesn’t fit our theology, what we know (or at least think we know – maybe more what we feel like we need to know).
Yet the stories of Scripture and the traditions of the church prod us to stop insisting on the theology that “God is always with us” and sit with the reality of experience. The history of Israel is a history of waiting on God to show up, to speak, to do something.
- David feels God has hidden himself; he experiences a painful silence from God (Psalms 13, 30, and 88).
- God withdraws himself from Israel, refusing to listen to their cries to him (Jeremiah 11, Lamentations 3, Zechariah 7).
- The parables of Jesus are full of absent masters, grooms, and landowners.
- On the cross, Jesus experiences the absence of his father: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Scriptures are full of the presence of God, but they also show us a people wrestling with God’s silence and absence. For all the stories we have been given, the arc of scripture leaves gaps of silence. Thousands of years of silence.
It is the absence of God that is our ordinary experience.
Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski has written,
“God himself, as God, does not appear in the world or in human experience. He is not the kind of being that can be present as a thing in the world. And yet, despite this necessary absence, he is believed to be that which gives the definitive sense to everything that does appear in the world and in experience. We first learn about the Christian God in the course of Christian living. We hear about him through preaching, we address him in prayer, and we attempt to respond to him in our actions; however, we approach him as one who will always be absent to us while we remain in something we now must call ‘our present state.’”
Advent testifies to this absence, for how can we long for what is already here? The virtue of hope requires something that is not present. Healing, knowledge, deliverance, provision, the very presence of God.
For the last forty years of her life, Mother Theresa felt the absence of God.
“Lord, my God,” she wrote, “You have thrown [me] away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.” She added: “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
If Theresa felt God’s absence, she herself was surely his presence to the thousands of the dying and abandoned she served.
Our reality is not God’s reality. But guess what? We have to live with our reality. And God not only knows that, God made us that way, and God condescends to meet us in the reality God gave us. In the incarnation of Jesus, in the gift of the stories and words of the scriptures which are as human as divine, in every story they give us of God meeting with and speaking to God’s people, God comes in human ways. He speaks words humans can understand. He meets us where we are.
And sometimes he doesn’t. There is room for that, too.