Far From God
Last night as bedtime approached, my daughter was sitting at the kitchen counter casually thumbing through one of those Bibles that has a “Where to Find Help When…” indexes in the front. It’s quite a resource. Whatever your problem—“Sleeplessness” or “Difficulty in Witnessing,” “Tempted to Envy” or “Choosing a Career”—there are 3-5 verses conveniently listed to address it. The Bible as self-help manual, apparently. Or something like that. It’s an approach to Scripture that irritates me, in many ways, and breaks any number of exegetical/hermeneutical principles along the way, but I suppose these things must occasionally do some good. I guess.
Anyway, as I was trying to imagine what an eleven year old was making of categories like “Looking for a Job/Made Redundant,” she all of a sudden said, “look dad, it says ‘Far from God.’” She paused for a second, and then said, “I sometimes feel far from God.” My heart kind of sank. A pastor should probably have something important, insightful, and inspirational at the ready to say in response to such queries, shouldn’t they? Something a bit more profound than, “Hmm… me too…” Needless to say, it was another interesting bedtime conversation.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently listened to a series of lectures presented at a local church by philosopher C. Stephen Evans on the relationship between reason and faith. During the second of his lectures, Evans talked about what he called the “Pascalian constraints” (based on Blaise Pascal’s famous “wager” in Pensées) and, specifically about two principles that would seem to be necessary if there was a God who had created a world and who had designed human beings to respond to him. The first was called the “wide accessibility principle”— knowledge of God should be available to everybody. The second was called the “easy resistibility principle”—knowledge of God should be able to be resisted because of God’s ultimate goal that people ought to freely choose to love him. We would think God unfair if he only revealed himself to certain people, and we would think God coercive if he forced people to acknowledge and/or worship him. So far, so good.
The question is, why would anyone resist God? The obvious answer, according to Evans, is sin. Human beings are sinful and rebellious and have hearts that are bent away from God. This is pretty standard Christian orthodoxy and tells an important truth of the human condition. But I wonder if it tells enough of the story. Is sin the only reason we resist God? Is it only the lack of desire to believe on the part of obstinate human beings and their corrupted wills? Is the decision to resist God always the result of a willful misreading of the cosmos? Or does the universe just have the appearance, at times, of pure indifference to human projects and aspirations? Has God, perhaps, made himself a bit too easy to resist?
I think that most of us feel “far from God” at times. Sometimes this distance is largely our own creation. But sometimes it isn’t. God does not always make himself obvious, after all. And some people face such horrors in life that one can scarcely imagine what twisted path could possibly lead from the broken, painful shards of personal experience to belief in a good God. Countless writers have spoken of the deus absconditus—the God who hides—and this is surely the experience, at times, of most (all?) Christians, whether those who have walked with Christ for long decades or little girls who wonder why God doesn’t peek out from behind the veil every now and then to make himself just a bit more obvious.
Another season of Advent is approaching. It is a season that typically bustles and bursts with the hope of the God who comes near in Christ. But I think it is important to remember that the nearness of God is almost always preceded by the experience of (sometimes long) absence. “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” the famous song goes… And ransom those who mourn in lonely exile… free from Satan’s tyranny… disperse the gloomy clouds of night… death’s dark shadows put to flight… Make safe the way that leads on high… And close the path to misery.” There are few songs that simultaneously speak so poignantly of the experience of God’s absence and the hope of God’s presence.
We live on the other side of God’s “coming near,” of course. We do not wait in the same way as those who longed for that first Advent. Our waiting and our hoping look different now—they are Christ-coloured, tinged with the beauty and light and peace in a way that they were not prior to Jesus’ first coming. But I think the experience of being “far from God” remains a part of the life of faith, whether it is an intermittent interruption or a steady and stubborn obstacle to navigate. Perhaps the pain of absence is a necessary precursor to the joy of presence. Perhaps these “gloomy clouds” and “dark shadows” are some of God’s strange gifts to keep us hungry and hopeful in a world where the light seems to come gradually.
“There was a time you let me know
What was really going on below
But now you never show it to me do you?”
John of the Cross speaks of the “Dark night of the Soul”, this absence, this hunger this thirst for presence. Mother Theresa, I believe, spoke to her spiritual adviser that this absence spanned many, many years for her. She remained resolute and dedicated, but at times discouraged and abandoned.
My only observation/defense might point to the dangers inherent within our own consciousness. Our freedom allows for any conscious expression of thought we choose to entertain. Many of these thoughts can be and are corrupt, even at time evil; the voices of deception. God becomes invisible to us then through our conscious understanding; a consequence of our choices.
For me then, contemplation becomes or at least can become, the place of communion. The silencing of the conscious mind so that the voice of Christ might be revealed. I am still the novice. And I have, as I suspect most contemplatives have, often great difficulty “shutting myself up”. When I do, I believe I have experienced Christ in such a way as to trump the logical and “very true to experience” dilemmas you present here, Ryan.
As always thank you for the provocation. You are indeed a minister of God’s word.
Love the Leonard Cohen line. Thanks, Paul.