When God is Absent

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

Those haunting words cried out by Jesus as he hung from the cross reflect a common human experience. Within the desolation, lie two unanswered questions, ‘Where are you, God?’ and ‘Why has this happened?’.

For centuries, or indeed, millennia, people have asked questions about God’s presence and absence. Where were you, God at Hillsborough or when Grenfell Tower burned? Why did you allow my mum to die when I was just 17? Why when it seemed so right, did that job go so wrong?

People have given up their faith because God did not answer their prayers. People desert the church because they don’t find God there. Many say: ‘We prayed for healing – and it didn’t happen.’ ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’  ‘Why does God allow suffering?’

When our prayers are seemingly unanswered it’s easy to blame God. And, yes, it is hard when some things can’t be explained. Yet some of the difficult things that happen are often down to human error or decisions (or lack of them) or our attitude or response.

The Psalms, that great collection of words about the human condition, pull no punches on this topic… here’s just two examples…

‘How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me?’ (Psalm13:1)

‘O Lord, why do you cast me off?’ (Psalm 88:14a)

As Christians, we speak of having a relationship with God. In many ways, that relationship may well contain the same elements there are in those with people: anger, abandonment, disappointment, frustration, shouting, unanswered questions… That relationship also understands there are times when we need to express such emotions towards God. Beth LaNeel Tanner put it like this ‘The personal cries of pain and brash accusations against God are not thoughts to be hidden from the throne of God but to be deposited with all their jagged edges and sharp cries before the face of God.’

In our relationships and friendships with others, we can also grow apart. It is one of my deepest regrets that I have lost contact with so many friends over the years – and a lot of that was down to me not keeping in touch as well as them. So it is with God, if we don’t ‘keep in touch’ – not just through prayer but also actively looking for God’s presence in our lives – then we may well grow apart from God. As a vicar I once knew used to say, ‘If God seems far away – then who’s moved?’

Yes, there are times when God does seem far away but we too have to take some responsibility for that. If God seems far away or feels absent then it’s important to consider what we’re doing to ‘find’ (or ‘distance’) God. For unlike human relationships, where both presence and absence occur, God is, ultimately, never absent. But neither can we just sit back and wait for God to make that presence known.

The more we look for God’s presence, the more we will see God present and the more God will show us that presence. So, a couple of thoughts about recognising God’s presence in our lives.

An increased sense of thankfulness. Thanking God for every aspect of every day. Whether that is ‘Thank you, God for safe travel’, ‘Thank you, God for that phone call or text exchange,’ ‘Thank you, God for the sunset,’ ‘Thank you, God for a person (or pet)’, ‘Thank you, God for that car parking space’… Consciously thanking God (and not feeling guilty if we forget to) for all we are given increases our awareness of God’s presence in our lives – and helps us to look for that presence too. Using an approach such as The Examen can be helpful in this respect too.

An increased sense of trust. ‘Trust God and everything will be fine.’ Yeah… Right… Simples… But does anyone ever tell us how to actually do it? Trusting God will vary in form for each of us but perhaps some of it is the merging of personal responsibility with our personal experience of God (which is not unlike trusting other people really). For example, looking back at how God has blessed and provided for us in the past. Verbalising our trust also helps: for example, starting the day by saying, ‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; Oh my God, in you I trust’ (Psalm 25:1-2a). Simple words to say at any other point in the day also – maybe ahead of difficult meeting or situation or any other time when you need the reassurance of God’s presence. Because God is never absent.

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