There is an urgent cry that arises from 17 of our psalms. It is one of the most persistent prayers in the entire hymn book of this ancient people. They all accuse God of playing “hide and go seek”. Hear the frequent refrain:
10:1 “Why do you stand far off, O Lord
Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?”
13:1 “How Long, O Lord?
Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul?”
27:7-9 Hear O Lord when I cry aloud
Be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come” my heart says “Seek his face.”
Your face Lord do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
35:22-23 O Lord, do not be silent
O Lord, do not be far from me
Wake up and stir yourself for my defence
38:21-22 Do not forsake me O Lord
O My God, do not be far from me.
51:11-12 Do not cast me away from your presence
Or take your holy spirit from me
63:1 O God, you are my God, I seek You
My soul thirsts for you
My flesh faints for you
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
69:16-17 Do not hide your face from your servant
For I am in distress
Make haste to answer me
88:13-14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
89:46 How long, O Lord
Will you hide yourself forever?
And on go those cries throughout this book. And they are in this hymnal because they reflected the yearnings, not only of their authors, but also the longings of worshipping communities down the centuries.
But that cry is not just an ancient cry. Read the diaries and journals of the great saints throughout the history of the church. Hear the cry of William Cowper in his song “O For A Closer Walk With God” that has been repeated a million times.
Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I saw the Lord,
Where is the soul refreshing view
of Jesus and the Word.
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
how sweet their memory still
but they have left an aching void
the world can never fill.
Return, O Holy Dove, Return
Sweet Messenger of love
I also believe that the cry of the Psalmist, and the cry of saints gone by, is the cry of some of our own hearts. For here is the strange conundrum; when I need God the most, it is then he seems most absent, and the question “why” forces its way into our minds.
We could live easily with getting a “NO” answer to some of our prayers for changes in circumstances, if we could just sense the reassuring presence of God as compensation. We can live without things, but we do not want to live without Him and the experience of His fellowship.
Because the problem of the felt absence of God is so prevalent we have created slogans to respond to the dilemma. One of them reads this way,
IF YOU AND GOD DO NOT FEEL
AS CLOSE AS YOU USED TO,
GUESS WHO MOVED!?
The presumed answer to this question is, of course, that I moved. If God seems to be absent from my life, if His presence is not sensed by me, then I must have moved away from Him.
There is no doubt that if I regard iniquity in my heart, God will not hear me. Isaiah reminds Israel that her sins have made a separation between God and her, so that God will not listen to her prayers.
Sin always interrupts fellowship with God. The Psalmist is aware of that as he cried, “Take not Your holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of my salvation.” He is aware that he has sinned, and he is responsible for the spiritual dearth in his life.
But I am convinced that that slogan is horribly deceptive. It is unfair to presume that if I sense the absence of God’s nearness, then I must be guilty of something. Let me suggest the alternative. Sometimes God moves.
Now I need to clarify that. God is omnipresent. That means that God is everywhere. In Him we live, and move, and have our being. He is closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet. There is nowhere that you and I can go where God is not fully present. If I make my bed in hell he is there. If I go to the ends of the earth, he is there. God is never absent. (Ps 139:7-12) The promise of Jesus was “I will be with you always even to the end of the age.” And as David Livingston asserts “that is the word of a gentleman who will keep His word.”
There are times, however, when God will withdraw the sense of his nearness. He is not absent, yet we will not sense him anywhere. And God will do this, not because of any sin in our lives, and not because of any unbelief on my part. There were days when enemies or illness or famine struck a nation or a family. Those pain-filled moments, however, would not have been so difficult if they could have sensed the sweet serenity of the presence of the Comforter. Job’s troubles would have been cut in half if he had had the comfort of the Spirit instead of the cold comfort of his unfriendly friends.
But many of God’s best people, have also spoken about the “dark night of the soul”. These dark nights were not caused by any difficult circumstances taking place externally, but internally they were experiencing times of spiritual drought, and could not determine the cause or find a cure. In those moments: God seemed so distant, prayer gave no pleasure, the Word of God brought no revelation, Christian hymnody raised no songs in the night. And all that was left was an aching void and the memory of better days long gone.
Is it possible that God hides Himself even from his own children? Does that make God a tease? A sadist? Is it God’s intent to cause his children spiritual pain?
Let me give a resounding “NO!” to that. There is nothing malicious or capricious in God. But the question is still before us, WHY would God withdraw the sense of his nearness from his own children? Let me suggest three possible reasons that may help us as we go through the shadowlands.
God desires to reduce our dependence upon feelings
Do you know the story told by Saint Theresa, a saintly woman of the 1500’s who tells of a vision that she experienced? She saw three women seated on three chairs at some distance from each other. Into the room came Jesus. Piled up in His arms were gifts. He stopped at the first chair where one woman sat. He unloaded one by one all the gifts that He had brought and placed them on to her lap. Then he talked for a long time with her, stroking her hair, touching her hand. Finally, he left, and came to the second woman. He gave her no gifts, but he touched her hand, and whispered for a few seconds in her ear, and then moved towards the third woman, but instead of stopping to give gifts, or speak a word, he walked past her and left the room.
There appeared an angel in the room. St. Theresa exclaimed, “O how He must have loved that first woman!” A look of alarm came on the angel’s face. “Oh no! It is not that at all. The first woman cannot trust Him, cannot love Him unless she senses his nearness and receives his gifts. She is so fragile that she has not yet learned to walk by faith. The second woman walks by faith, but occasionally she needs reassurance because at times she begins to doubt, but a few words of encouragement are all she needs. But the third woman walks by faith, not by sight. She does not insist on His gifts or his touch before she will follow him or love him. She loves Him best of all. Even if he slayed her, she would trust him.”
There are some of us who walk by feeling rather than by faith. There are some of us who are so dependent upon our feelings, that life ends up being a roller coaster of mood swings.
Some of us are tyrannized by our feelings. We are Christian hedonists. Our emotions are wonderful servant, but terrible masters. If we have to feel good before we will be good, and if we have to feel good before we will do good, we will be forever locked in our immaturity.
Advice was given to John Wesley. He was a Christian activist, always working to fix the world around him. The advice was “Only do what the Holy Spirit impresses you to do.” He found at the close of several days he had done nothing to make people’s lives better. He quickly reverted back to the advice he gave others as well as himself.
Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.
He did not want to trust what he called “frames and feelings” but decided to follow the pattern of his Lord who went about doing good.
It may be that God wants to reduce our dependence upon feeling, and to do that, He may withdraw the sense of his nearness. He may withdraw the crutches that we have depended on too much, so that we can learn to walk well and walk by faith.
God desires to reduce our dependence upon Himself
There is a second reason why God may withdraw the sense of his nearness.
Dare I say it? God desires to reduce our dependence upon Himself. Some of us are too dependent upon God. God wants us to be child-like, but we insist upon being child-ish. God wants sons and daughters who are co-creators and co-redeemers along with himself. Some of us want to stay forever listed as “dependents”.
When a mother gives birth to a baby she holds it frequently, stays close, feeds it, changes its diapers, bathes it, dresses it, wipes its nose, makes its bed, carries it about, pushes it in a baby carriage, and does a thousand other things for her child. And that is good and right!
But for that same mother to be doing all of that for a 15-year-old would be considered a tragedy. If parents are overly protective, we might find ourselves still attached to our mother’s umbilical cord or apron strings for the rest of our lives. Children must be given responsibility for themselves or they will be forever immature!
Someone asked me recently whether I have any children. My answer was, “No. but I do have three daughters.” Three adult daughters who are making their own way through life with skill. Amy and I do not have any children any more.
The European theologian Jurgen Moltman asks an intriguing question. After God had created man and woman, what was the first thing he did after that? His answer was: HE STEPPED BACK. He retreated from them to give them space to begin the process of becoming fully human, and to enable them to be free to make choices for themselves whether good or evil.
In God’s family we all begin immature. We do need to be looked after. And God through his church provides us with surrogate parents and baby sitters. But God does not want us forever childish. He wants us to grow to the fullness of the stature of the Son of God.
God does not want obedience to Himself that stems from childish fear of him. He wants everyone to carry the title that was given Abraham. “A friend of God”.
To enable us to grow, God may hide himself from us, so that we must make decisions the best way we can.
This is the reason that many of us do not know “god’s will for our lives” in reference to our vocation. It may well be that God wants us to make that decision for ourselves. He does not want us forever putting out fleeces, forever insecure and afraid to make decision until we have felt an OK coming from God.
God may be silent to teach us how to make our own decisions and therefore become responsible for ourselves, and thereby responsible for the care of others.
God is Revealed in His Hiddenness
But there may be a third reason for God hiding Himself. In the very moments when God hides Himself, He is revealing something to us about Himself.
Throughout human history God has revealed Himself to those who sought Him. God has not been silent or distant. But some of us live with a great presumption in our lives. We get the feeling that God is predictable. He is the cosmic bellhop who jumps every time we call. Not so!
To presume that God exists for the satisfaction of my needs is a very inadequate view of the totally awesome God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us that God is not quite as “have-able” as we are prone to think. God is no genie in the bottle called prayer. He is the Lord God Omnipotent who rules according to His own will. He is under no obligation to keep us happy. He has no mandate to advertise his actions or his presence. And God may hide Himself from us to remind us that he is not “ours”. We may be His, but He is not ours. He reserves the right to act as He will, not as we wish.
There are times then that God conceals Himself from us. Not because he is cruel or because he is unkind. But because as the Divine Father he wants to see His children growing strong through the seasons of life.
So what do we do if we find that God seems absent? Let me close with a poem adapted from Betty Swinford.
The Storms beat,
The battle waxes strong,
And, I cannot find God.
Strange that He should hide Himself
When I need him most.
How skillfully He hides!
I speak to my heart, I say
“I’ll seek Him here,
I’ll seek Him there!
But no matter where I look,
God cannot be found.
I’ll sing that song again!
That song that touched my heart
that wondrous day.
I’ll go to the meeting place
where God came down
and met my deepest need.
I’ll hold that scripture to my heart,
the one He made alive to me.
But… The song is empty,
And, He is not there at the place
where I met Him so wonderfully.
Nor is He in that verse.
He isn’t anywhere.
And Yet!… Because I cannot feel or find Him,
Because my emotions are unable to sense Him,
Even so, He is here!
For I could never turn away,
And he has said,
“I’ll never leave you not forsake you.
O yes, God reigns!
Though hiding, he has NOT gone away,
He still is here with me.