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Where in the World is God?

It was a morning soaked in pain. Three stories, three conversations, three lives turned upside down and inside out. A death, a dying, and a falling apart. And through it all, a single question, weaving its way through the tears, the rage, the stubborn silence. Where is God?

Yes, where is God? Where is God when things fall apart? Colossians 1:17 says that in Christ all things hold together, but we often resonate more with Yeats than the Apostle Paul. The center cannot hold…

These conversations, they are undoubtedly more about sitting with the pain, more about sharing it than explaining it, I suspect. Sometimes a single shed tear is worth more than a thousand empty pious words. But there is a time for words, too. Words can invite us into new spaces, new understandings. They can train us to look, to see, to hear, to experience differently. I know they can, because words have done this for me.

And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of where God is—particularly when the pain and the confusion threaten to overwhelm and destroy.

So often it seems like we expect God to come from somewhere else—wherever it is that God ordinarily hangs his hat—into the world of our experience. The implicit assumption is that God is out there when what we would desperately like is for him to come in here for a while and do a bit of tinkering with the system, perform a bit of reparative therapy in our world and in our lives.

This is how I thought of God when I was a kid. I would dare God to prove himself to me—if God could just do something that couldn’t be explained in any other way, I would be his forever. Move that obstacle. Help me find that lost item. Make it sunny when I want to play outside. Get me that A in math class. If you will just arrange things in the way I would like them this one time, you’ll have such an enthusiastic disciple, dear God!

I sometimes wonder how much any of us progress from this understanding of God. Where is God? is often little more than a variation of Why is life so hard? I know it is for me.

But what if, rather than looking for a God “out there” to come “in here,” we probed the nature and character of what gives “in here” its shape in the first place? What if, rather than as an absentee landlord who periodically makes an appearance when things deteriorate sufficiently, we were to see God as the very foundation for so much of what makes life livable, meaningful, heartbreaking, glorious, and hopeful in the first place?

Four areas leap to mind. Nothing terribly original in what follows, but I, at least, need periodic reminders of, well, pretty much everything important.

Truth. We take for granted, I think, that our brains are capable of thinking and of arriving at conclusions that represent an external reality in comprehensive and satisfying ways. We blithely assume that truth does and should matter to us when, strictly speaking, if ours is a materialistic reality—there is only physical stuff that is the product of time plus chance—all that should conceivably matter to us would be adaptive utility. But we have a hunger for the truth. We want to know what is real and to arrange our lives accordingly.

Beauty. We are frequently moved beyond words by the staggering beauty that our world exhibits. A paddle on the ocean while the sun is setting. A motorcycle ride through the Rockies. A human being that takes our breath away. A painting that speaks to us in ways that words never could. On one level, these are just sensory impressions—colours, textures, shades and shapes—but these sensory impressions are somehow able to reduce us to tears. The world seems to be saying something, and our reactions to beautiful things, however feeble and inadequate, give evidence to the fact that we have a hunger to listen.

Love. At some level, we know that this is what we are made for. When love is absent, we chase after it, often in incalculably destructive ways. When love is present, we cling to it. Every crappy pop song, every lame rom-com, every “I do,” every baby born, every tenacious clinging to a relationship that teeters on the precipice, every act of self-giving, every unmerited kindness, every waiting in the darkness, every bandaged wound on the side of the road, every weeping at the gate when the prodigal comes home, every taste of bread and wine. All bear witness—sometimes eloquent, sometimes partial—that we were made for love. Love is where we come from. Love is what draws us forward. Love is divine.

Suffering. It might seem strange to even include this one, much less put it at the end. Surely love should be the final word! But I am still thinking of the three conversations, the death, the dying, the falling apart. And I am convinced that suffering, too, bears a kind of witness to God if only because as Christians we are children of a God who suffers. Suffering is the woundedness of the world visiting us in personal and painful ways just as it visited God in personal and painful ways. Suffering reminds us that the story is not yet finished. And our reaction to the death, the dying, and the falling apart bespeaks our firm and undying conviction that these things do not belong.

Where in the world is God?  

Well, God is in the world—in all that makes and breaks us, all that moves and molds us, all that raises us up and, yes, even potentially in all that tears us down. God is the one in whom we live, move, and have our being. God is not somewhere out there looking for an invitation to access in here. God is here and always has been.

And thank God! For who could imagine a world without truth, without beauty, without love, and—I almost tremble to say it—without the suffering that drives us deeper into the mystery of God. Who could imagine such a world where these things were not, a world where there was no God?

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. L #

    So powerful…suffering is a sort of doorway to deeper connection with the divine…not the only one, but one that invites a sort of surrender to something greater than the self…thanks for your words today. Laurie

    June 10, 2015
    • Thank you, Laurie. I like the way you put that… “one that invites a sort of surrender to something greater than the self.”

      June 11, 2015
  2. mike #

    This post resonates with my own “vibration”, in a manner of speaking.

    “And so, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of where God is—particularly when the pain and the confusion threaten to overwhelm and destroy.” — Yes, there are so many days when the only prayer I can utter is “God help me please”. The inner turmoil and mental chatter can be overwhelming at times. Temporarily disengaging from others and being in silence always seems to help.

    “I sometimes wonder how much any of us progress from this understanding of God. Where is God? is often little more than a variation of Why is life so hard? I know it is for me.”—an astute observation, Ryan. I think your right. For me, there’s a measure of passive aggressiveness in it too. “Haven’t I been through enough already!”…not to mention my self-pity.

    June 11, 2015
    • Disengagement and silence… Two highly undervalued things. Thanks, Mike.

      June 11, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    Maybe suffering should be first….in some real way without suffering, love, truth and beauty are all offended. All diminished.

    I think about the experiences of my life and the lives of others I have witnessed around me and I often see that, when times are really good, vision sometimes never strays beyond our own personal happiness.

    It is easier to objectify people, without shame, when times are good. Relationships with men can be nothing more than shared exercises in the creation of wealth, power and property. With women, primarily sexual, flirty and mostly superficial.

    Suffering always seems to bring us back to deeper more meaningful realities. Our real needs, the real needs of others. Who we really are. What we really believe. True character often reveals itself in struggle and suffering. The quality of a mans character often suffers (irony intended 🙂 ) when life gets too easy; too playful.

    It seems that the hard fought struggles teach us the real value and meaning of who we are, who others are and what we share together.

    Paradise will come but first the cross. In this way we will understand the fullness of truth, beauty and love.

    June 11, 2015
    • Maybe suffering should be first….in some real way without suffering, love, truth and beauty are all offended. All diminished.

      I hesitate to go this far, Paul. I couldn’t imagine saying this to people in unimaginable pain. I am content to say that suffering can be one of the experiences through which we can encounter God. But I don’t think it is necessary to appreciate its opposites.

      June 11, 2015
  4. Paul Johnston #

    I understand your hesitation, Ryan. I share it.

    Everything has it’s time and place. Certainly it is not the time or place to speak of such things to people in great pain. It is enough to lay our suffering at the foot of the cross and weep.

    In time, God’s grace is a powerful antidote. It has been my experience and the experience of others to have a greater awareness of the goodness of life and it beauties, as the healing process occurs. Goodness once taken for granted is noticed and appreciated on a deeper and more meaningful level. Appreciation itself seems to be a byproduct.

    “Fear of God”….true humility comes to the one who has suffered grievously and gone to Jesus for consolation. Indignities that once offended are now likely to illicit empathy over anger. A heart that has suffered deeply, knows the heart and will of Christ better then one who has not.

    I make no advocacy for suffering here, Ryan. “Let this cup pass, if it be your will” is always the right response. Yet it is important to remember that in the same moment we take our grief to the foot of the cross, is the same moment that healing and resurrection begins.

    June 12, 2015
    • Very wise words here, Paul (and beautifully put). Thank you.

      June 12, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        You’re welcome, Ryan. Thank you for creating this space for all of us here. “Where two or more are gathered”… 🙂

        June 13, 2015
    • mike #

      I so appreciate your contributions here, Paul. You have amazing depth and clarity. I feel privileged to have access to both yours and Ryan’s sharp intellect and wisdom. The exchanges between you both is like having a front row seat into the Mind of God, in a manner of speaking. It’s immensely helpful to me, and I’m sure to others as well.

      June 12, 2015
      • mike #

        Thank you both.

        June 12, 2015
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thank you for your kind words, Mike. God is working in you also. In us also. 🙂 There is also wisdom, truth and sincerity in what you share, here.

        It is good to appreciate our mutual fellowship. To enjoy the workings of the Spirit among us. To give thanks to God and one another.

        Mike, a gentle reminder, as I remind myself.

        We are forgiven men. 🙂

        Let the joy of forgiveness animate our days. 🙂

        June 13, 2015
      • Well, this is very kind, Mike. Not sure about the “mind of God” bit, but I appreciate this generous affirmation of the dialogue that takes place here. Thank you for contributing to it.

        June 13, 2015
  5. Howard wideman #

    Well written Ryan. God bless your lethbridge ministry

    June 13, 2015

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