Three Words For When God Feels Absent: Psalms, Palms, and Perspective
By Beth Demme
Sometimes it feels like God is as real, and as close, as my breath. Other times, it feels like God is absent. It’s easy to have faith when I feel God’s presence, but what do I do the rest of the time?
I have found three words that help when God feels absent: Psalms, Palms, and Perspective.
Reading the Psalms reminds me that I’m not the first (or only) person to feel distant from God.
Here’s a sampling of how the Psalmists address the absence of God:
God, don’t shut me out; don’t give me the silent treatment, O God. (Psalm 83:1, MSG).
I am worn out from my groaning. All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. (Psalm 6:6, NIV)
O Lord, why do you stand so far away? Why do you hide when I am in trouble? (Psalm 10:1, NLT)
Will the Lord walk off and leave us for good? Will he never smile again? Is his love worn threadbare? Has his salvation promise burned out? Has God forgotten his manners? Has he angrily stalked off and left us? “Just my luck,” I said. “The High God goes out of business just the moment I need him.” (Psalm 77:7-10, MSG)
The fact that the Bible includes these questions and lonely declarations reassures me that God can handle my feelings.
On the cross, Jesus experienced the absence of God. As he hung there, Jesus cried out the beginning of Psalm 22, saying: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34)
As Pastor L. William Countryman explains: “Even in the face of the worst terror, abandonment itself, Jesus called on the God he felt had abandoned him. His faith continued to tell him where he was and with whom, even when he could no longer sense the place or the presence.”
Jesus went from the cross to resurrection and, later, ascension to heaven. On the cross, Jesus experienced the feeling that God was absent, but that wasn’t the end of the story. My own feelings of distance and absence don’t have to be the end of the story.
In Isaiah 49, God speaks to Israel and says, “I will help you; I will make you to be a covenant for the people … to say to the captives, ‘Come out, and to those in darkness, Be free!’ … See they will come from afar–some from the north, some from the west, some from the region of Aswan.”
When God feels absent, I can imagine myself captive in the darkness of a far off place.
Isaiah encourages me to look forward to coming into God’s presence. When that happens, I will shout for joy, rejoice, and burst into song. (Isaiah 49:13)
In the meantime, God will not forget me. Incredibly, God says:
I have engraved you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:16)
God also describes himself as “like those who lift infants to their cheeks.” (Hosea 11:4, NRSV) I love the idea of being an infant, cradled in God’s over-sized hands, and lifted to his cheek. This picture eases some of my loneliness and feelings of separation.
The third word I try to remember when God feels absent is perspective.
I have to acknowledge that sometimes God’s presence or absence is only a matter of perspective. To paraphrase an old country song about looking for love, I might be looking for God in all the wrong places.
One of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament was a man named Elijah. He was so extraordinary that he was taken up to heaven “in a whirlwind.” (2 Kings 2:11) At one point, the Israelites were trying to kill Elijah and he escaped into the wilderness. God said he would come close to Elijah so that Elijah could experience “the presence of the Lord.” (1 Kings 11) Elijah witnessed a powerful wind so strong it “tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks.” Next, Elijah experienced an earthquake, and then fire. God wasn’t in any of those big events. God wasn’t in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. Instead, God was “a gentle whisper” that came after the fire.
When God feels absent, I need to remember to look for the gentle whisper rather than expecting (demanding?) my big God to show up in dynamic events or mighty ways.
One thing that can drown out the gentle whisper is a schedule that is too busy. Sometimes God feels absent because I haven’t made any time to access my connection to the supernatural and spiritual. I allow myself to be overwhelmed with tasks, rather than building my relationship with God. I fall into a routine of self-sufficiency, but then blame God for being absent.
Meanwhile, God has my name engraved on his palms and he longs to lift me to his cheek. Thru the Psalms, God has heard people like me endure the pain of separation. Thru the incarnation and crucifixion, God even experienced the feeling of abandonment. God is present, but am I looking in the right places?
Psalms, palms, and perspective help me have faith when God feels absent.
What about you? Do you ever feel that God is absent? How do you cope with the feeling? Does the metaphor of being engraved on God’s palm bring you any comfort? Are you an infant being lifted to God’s cheek? Tell me about it in the comments, in an e-mail, or on Facebook.
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