When Darkness Descends: Experiencing the Absence of God

When Darkness Descends: Experiencing the Absence of God

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God called Tiffany Johnson, 26, and Philip Crouse, 24, to become missionaries. So, in obedience to God's will, they came from Minnesota and Alaska to Colorado to receive training through Youth With A Mission (YWAM). At midnight on December 9, 2007, Matthew Murray, 24, walked into the YWAM training center in Arvada, Colorado, seeking to spend the night.

Five years earlier he had been dismissed from the training center for troubling and threatening behavior. The receptionist explained that unauthorized persons could not remain overnight. Murray responded by pulling a gun and beginning to fire. When the mayhem ended, Johnson and Crouse lay dead. Their hopes for obeying God's call died with them-a "divine" call had been terminated by one severely troubled "human."

Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when Tiffany and Philip needed Him?

On February 12, 2005, American missionary Dorothy Stang, 74, was traveling to a sustainable development project in Anapu, Para State, Brazil, when she was assassinated by two gunmen. Murder was the price she paid for defending the rights of rural workers against powerful land grabbers and loggers. Violence was their tool for forcing small landowners off their land.

They had now silenced a missionary who for 37 years desired only to follow the Lord's call.

Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when Dorothy needed Him?

News channels cover such big stories. Other disturbing stories unfold away from the public eye, raising similar questions.

The "absence" of God may be experienced during maddening and lonely hours in an intensive care unit. The scene might be an unforgiving county morgue, or the aftermath of a shattering divorce. Bewildered parents huddled over a cluttered kitchen table might be enduring the agony of God's silence. And what about abused children and spouses who exist in a world of suffocating pain and fear?

Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when they needed Him?

God in Eclipse

Laura Bradford lost her job and asked God for guidance. She got nothing. "It's like a big, black hole," she said. The silence left her "confused and lonely." Rabbi Irwin Kula tells of "the sacred messiness of life."1 Pete Creig lived through his wife's debilitating brain tumor and fight for life, and experienced "God on mute."2

The "eclipse of God" is how Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson describes God's apparent "absence."3 Our "success" intoxicated culture sometimes seeps into our language and reduces the Laura Bradfords to second class Christians. That should not be. The published letters of Mother Teresa reveal that sometimes the sense of God's absence became so oppressive she even doubted His existence.

If we paint a rosy picture of God always showing up ahead of the emergency response crews, we will shortchange the biblical record.
The history of God with His people hides nothing. The Bible records God's people lamenting His apparent "eclipse." This is called "the hidden face of God." Sometimes God "hid" His face because the people had sinned (Deuteronomy 31:18, 32:20). Many times only the pain, not the reason, was known.
 
One community lament cries, "You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them" (Psalm 44:12, NRSV). At first, Old Testament laments sound faithless. But they aren't. They are actually affirmations of faith, for they implore God to act as the intervening and consoling One that Israel believes Him to be.

For Christians, the most profound lament arose from the lips of Jesus while He was on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1) Was that a cry of despair, or was it an appeal to the Father's faithfulness?

What Kind of God is He?

 
When cries for God's consolation fall back on us like collapsing walls, there are numerous ways to respond. One part of Christianity says we should recognize that all that happens in the world, including the tragic and traumatic, is but the unfolding of God's sovereign will.
 
Faith's role is to accept the good and the bad, God's presence and absence, as part of a divine plan. A Christian minister of this persuasion tripped over roller skates atop the basement stairs and tumbled to the bottom. Bruised from head to toe, he said, "Well, Praise God! That much is over with!"

We in the Wesleyan tradition do not understand God's sovereignty that way, and the difference affects how we deal with suffering and divine "silence." Rather than viewing God's sovereignty as principally coercive power and control, we believe there is a much higher and more correct understanding-God's vulnerable love.

 
A God who willingly shoulders the risks associated with love is more sovereign and powerful than a God who doesn't.
 
If God is love, and if He consistently acts in accordance with who He is, how could it be otherwise? How could He be love and then reject the risks associated with love? During Christmas we sing the words of Cecil F. Alexander, "With the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy" ("Once in Royal David's City"). Why else identify divine power with the Cross as Paul did (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)? Jesus Christ is divine vulnerable love incarnate! 
 
The major risk associated with love is rejection.

Sin is the rejection of God's love and the consequences reveal the unmistakable marks of everything opposed to love, including spiritual death. From Adam onward, the consequences have extended their poisonous tentacles into every corner of human life. They have even affected the rest of God's creation (Romans 8:18-25). Some consequences of rejecting God's love result from intentional disobedience. In these instances we usually do not have to look very far to uncover the sources of grief.

But many consequences of rejecting God's love are tragic in nature. The burden falls principally not upon the offender, but indiscriminately upon nation groups and persons mangled by grief. The burden rests upon African children orphaned by AIDS, and upon women raped by militants in Darfur. Evil and injustice are "equal opportunity" tyrants. Just ask the victims of sexual abuse who as adults are still trying to piece life back together, or victims of natural disasters who have been made double victims because of looters. In such times, during God's "eclipse," we may ask with Habakkuk, "Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves" (1:13)?

Why doesn't a loving God eliminate the possibilities for evil? He could, but not without eliminating the possibilities for real responsive love. Extract freedom from love and it ceases to be love, for both God and man.

 
Sometimes the "cause" for God's "silence" lies with us, perhaps the result of clinical depression, emotional fatigue, or childhood abuse that makes adult faith very difficult. The source might be psychological trauma, or even unconfessed sin. But in many instances, the "why" of God's "silence" is simply not answerable. The search leads no further. Trying to fabricate explanations only adds to our frustration and even anger. But if that were the final word we would be justified in yielding to despair and just giving up.
A God Who Laments
The good news is that "absence" and "silence" do not have the final say. The risen Christ does! Everything Christian must be grounded and measured there. In Christ, the Father radically identified with human brokenness. Without reservation, He took it all upon himself. That's what it means to say that Jesus was "tempted" in all points even as we are (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15). Was none of our pain omitted? What about the dread agony of divine silence? God shouldered this also.

In the closing moments of Jesus' death on the cross, He cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46)? In this unfathomable divine lament, the cries of humankind past, present, and future were brought to red-hot focus. God took the "dark night of the soul" upon himself. Its gloom drew "lament" from the heart of our Lord, even as it does ours. Did the Father answer the Son's lament? Not immediately.

Three days in the tomb testify to that. Easter morning-resurrection-was the Father's response. In the same power by which He created the universe, the Father faithfully raised His Son from the grave. And in so doing, He definitively dispelled any lingering questions about His presence, His faithfulness, and His power to redeem.

 
But what about now? What about the Tiffany Johnsons and Philip Crouses, the Laura Bradfords and the Mother Teresas? What is this "lamenting God" doing now?

The New Testament answers clearly. When the darkness of divine silence and absence descends, when "we are being killed all day long," even then we are enfolded by God's love, a love from which nothing can separate us (Psalm 44:22, Romans 8:31-39). Even more, the ascended Christ constantly represents us before the Father, "with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26, Hebrews 7:25).

"Answers?" Sometimes.

Answer always!

"Consolation?" Often.

Consolation always!

"Presence?" Often.

Representation always!

1Meredith Heagney, "A crisis of faith," The Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 23, 2007.2Pete Creig, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer (Regal Book, 2007).3Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Prentice Hall, 1975, 512).

Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Holiness Today, March/April 2008