The email was from my niece Diana. She was in Chile directing a short-term class in nutrition; but the message was not about her work there. "So, it has been a long time since you received a 'life question' from me," she opened.
These Reflections were born from email dialogue over the years initiated by a "Diana Life Question." I treasured that she would probe my thinking, and she appreciated my honest, real-world thoughts. (And, many of her questions were ones I had wrestled with, or still wrestle with.) "You should write about this stuff," Diana encouraged.
The gist of her current question was that she felt her faith and walk with God was becoming dry. She wanted to hear God in the midst of all the trouble in the world and the seemingly conflicting responses of Christians around her and in the media. "I come to God to 'listen and hear'," she wrote; "but feel like I'm not really seeking because my faith is dry. I even pray, 'God, what am I searching for?'" And, without the sense of God's nearness, life can feel somewhat mundane, a rut: "Go to work, come home, take care of family, go to bed ... do it all again. And do it in the midst of the sadness and heartache in the world, and then feel bad that I'm the one complaining. ... So, this is my life compass at the moment. ... Maybe more than you bargained for on this Monday afternoon!"
I knew my response could not be a quick or superficial one. And, I knew that my thoughts would find their way into a Reflection. Who has not had the tough dry spells of faith that Diana expressed? Perhaps hers is a universal given in the lives of believers: There will be lonely, dry times during our walk with God in Ordinary Time. (My initial email response to Diana is in the Resources below.)
I couldn't have written this Reflection in my twenties or even thirties. At that age I hope I would have realized my thoughts would simply be mere speculation, maybe just naive philosophical thinking. But, in my seventies: I realize that, although my thoughts are still speculation, experience and time give me confidence they may contain some kernel of truth. Is our God a God Who Leaves?
"At the moment of my most profound need, God who had seemed always available to me, suddenly seemed distant and absent, as if he had slammed a door shut and double-bolted it from the inside."C.S. Lewis This dryness of spirit, a sense of God not being near, perhaps even leaving us, has been with people of faith for centuries. Such a theme is a part of many of the psalms. "How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" (Psalm 13:1) "O LORD, why do You reject my soul? Why do You hide Your face from me?" (Psalm 88:14) And, of course, Jesus groaning from the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46; which is also Psalm 22:1) When Mother Teresa's journals surfaced, many were surprised that she suffered long periods of spiritual isolation and emotional despair. Mother Teresa feeling the absence of God?!
Many religious folks will always stress that it is not God who leaves us; it is we who distance ourselves from God. While I know, with me, that may often be the root of my dry times of the spirit; I don't think that is always the case. Frankly, over the years, I've grown tired of constantly beating up myself believing that it is always my weakness and lack of faith that cause this sense of God's absence. I wonder: Does God (for some reason beyond our knowing) withdraw from us? I don't know; but, it sure feels that way.
Maybe there are times when God does not totally abandon us, but says, "You need to do this alone for a while." Perhaps it is not far-fetched to believe that God actually trusts us to go alone. "I have taught you, shown you, and even held your hand. You need to see what you can do on your own."
I remember when my son Alan wanted to learn to ride a bike. I helped him pedal and steer with the training wheels on. After removing the confidence-giving extra wheels, I would run alongside for balance and direction ... and for moral support and encouragement. Then, it was time for him to go it alone ... the only way to really learn. He had to do it without my constant hovering.
Across and down the street was a large vacant field. Winding bike paths and small hills and bumps. The first couple of times I went with Alan, helped him get started, gave a hand when he fell. Then he was on his own. "Push the bike to the field," I said. "You're not ready for the streets." In the house I was out of even shouting range, but could see the field through the kitchen window. For weeks, Alan worked at learning. Many falls with skinned knees and shins. I often watched, sometimes feeling tears starting as I saw the hard times and spills. But, often beaming with pride at how hard he worked and stayed with the rigors and pain of learning. And, he did learn! Soon he graduated to the sidewalks and streets of our small Wyoming town.
I look back now and wonder. Is stuff like learning-to-ride-a-bike something similar to God with us? Are there times when we really do have to just do it ourselves? After Jesus' disciples had been with him awhile, listening, learning, watching, Jesus sends them out two-by-two, without him; to preach, heal, and drive out demons ... like their master had taught them. He trusted them enough to go and do kingdom work without his direct presence. (See Mark 6:7-13.)
I would not pretend to know God's intentions and methods in our relationship; but, I do think it makes sense that God takes some type of leave of us. Perhaps God can prepare us, but there are some tasks and learnings we must do by ourselves. I choose to think of this as a mature type of trust and faith: God trusts me enough to say, "You can do this! And, you can do it without my always hovering over." And: Do I trust God enough to go it alone? And, can I feel good and empowered believing that God trusts me? Perhaps during these times, rather than hang our heads in despondence, we should stand straight and tall with the confidence that God trusts us enough to encourage us to walk on our own.
Although at these times, I may feel a distance from God and even a dry soul, I can go it alone realizing from experience that the dry spells do end. When the psalmists groan pleas like, "How long will you hide your face from me?" their later conclusion is usually a comforting answer. And perhaps, when it feels that God's face is hidden from us, God is watching ... maybe from heaven's kitchen window.
Not wanting to let my thoughts about God Leaving be simply my own speculation, I did turn to some theologians. A Google search of "Does God Leave You?" and similar phrases produced many credible resources and viewpoints. One by theologian John PiperJohn Stephen Piper (born January 11, 1946) is founder and teacher of desiringgod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of Desiring God, Don't Waste Your Life, and many others. not only presented the view that God does somehow "leave", but also dealt with the obvious conflict between this belief and the belief that God and Jesus will never leave us.
In an audio interview, If God Never Leaves Me, Why Does He Withdraw? (see Resources below), Piper distinguishes between the omnipresence of God (he also calls it God's conventional presence) and God's manifest presence. (Manifest: pertaining to what is readily seen and easily evident.)
Piper says, "When I say that sometimes God withdraws his presence from us, I don't mean that we are forsaken by our covenant God. I mean that the manifestations of his presence are limited. He doesn't withdraw his covenant commitment to us or his sustaining grace from us. What he withdraws is the sweetness of his fellowship from time to time or the conscious sense of his power." Why God does that, Piper leaves unanswered, but does think that God has reasons for taking leave and is saving his thoughts about this for another time. (So far, I haven't seen his follow-up!)
In The Screwtape Letters (chapter 8), C.S. Lewis suggests that, while God does give us the sweet and guiding manifest communications of His presence," sooner or later, He withdraws, if not in fact, at least from (our) conscious experience." Lewis calls these "trough periods." And, Lewis adds, it is in these trough periods, more than the peak periods that we grow into the sort of persons God wants us to be.
While, in these trough periods, it may be helpful to look inward and ponder reasons for our condition; however, I think it can be counter-productive to over-analyze. In baseball, we see a pitcher experience serious slumps. Although there is a need for analyzing and tweaking, the best advice is to just go out and pitch. Don't over-think it; just do what you know how to do.
Maybe, while in our slumps, the best advice is to go out to "our pitchers mound" and keep living out our faith. In the Screwtape Letters section cited above, Lewis, speaking as an agent of Satan, says that one of their biggest threats is the God-believer who has lost their desire and "asks why he has been forsaken ... [but] still obeys." During these times, we need to continue to pray and worship ... even though our hearts aren't in it ... and it seems like the One we want so much isn't even listening.
Since these trough periods do seem to come, perhaps rather than feel downcast about them, we can use these periods to grow, strengthen, and better understand our faith. One way is to recognize the dryness and realize that this loneliness is a strong sign that God is real to us and that God is important in our lives. If our belief and faith were not strong, we would not have this profound sense of loss. We wouldn't mourn over the absence of some abstract philosophical theory! We can also use this time to identify just what it is we miss when God seems far away. We may already realize that we depend on God, but it can be a growth experience to be specific about our need for God. "God, when it seems you're 'away', I really miss ........"
And, what can I conclude from all of this? I believe that these "dry times," which all of us seem to experience, are real. Often they can be more trying than the difficult trials of sickness and loss. Whether they are part of God's plan for us or simply an inherent component of the walk of faith, I do not know. But I do believe that while our God may be a God whose manifest presence leaves us from time to time, that same God's omnipresent love is always there. I don't know whether it's inappropriate to tinker with scripture, but I will close by adding a phrase to St. Paul's famous verse about nothing separating us from the love of God:
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor the absence of God's guiding and comforting hand, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38, NIV)
The God Who Leaves?
Resources Related To this Reflection
I hear you ... very much. Not sure what I'm trying to think and say, and maybe this is all off base:
But, I wonder sometimes whether God deliberately chooses to be absent from us. Not sure why; but, maybe God thinks we need these difficult dry spells. I doubt whether God actually leaves us, but maybe says, "Go on a while without me. You're OK, and I'll return, but you need some time when I'm not always hovering. Don't fear. Just be yourself."
Don't know whether I'm really over-reaching, trying to thoughts/words into God's mouth, but that's what I think sometime. Seems like Bonhoeffer wrote something like that sometime. I'll have to look it up!
Maybe God gives us time alone. Scary! Seems like Jesus felt that way a few times. "Why have you forsaken me?!" I'd like to ponder those words from the cross some time; not now. But, if Jesus felt that way, why should we think we're immune from similar feelings?
Maybe you can use this in-the-desert time to just be you and do what you do without God. I'd say not to panic and just let your feelings be what they are. Maybe just "be" with them and not try to make sense of them. You know in the long run that God is around. And God sees you in the ruts of life. Maybe faith is simply going along in the dry times, knowing that you've had these times in the past and that the more robust stuff returns.
Maybe you'll see something in the face of someone there in Chile that gives a hint of what life, and desert life is all about. No need to look hard for that face; it may just appear. Maybe it won't either!
With your permission, I'd like to use your current feelings to form a Reflection. I need to think more on it and see what smarter people than I have to say. But, I think you are in a place where we all find ourselves sometime -- or often. Maybe faith is something about going along when it seems to be going nowhere. Jesus said "Follow Me." He didn't say where!
I do miss you ... and yours. You mentioned you might read Ecclesiastes ... your and my favorite book. It probably does have some words for all of this ... probably better than mine.
Hope when your work in Chile is over, you can take some time and just BE, even if in the midst of the seemingly ruts.
Diana is Professor of Nutrition & Health at the University of Dayton.