What to Make of God’s Absence

I took one of my quarterly walks the other day. There is always this hidden prompting which pulls me out of my habitual life and into the cloaked darkness of the gentle breeze. I don’t necessarily feel shamed into putting on my running shoes and my special long-sleeve t-shirt with a busty woman advertising my favorite café from Eureka Springs, but instead, a real sense of longing compels me down the familiar road.

What I hate about these walks is the expectant dread of what might become clear to me; from past walks, I remember the terror of the coercive wind filling up my being and manipulating my synapsis and soul to propel me this way and that. These seemingly harmless strolls have bullied me into fleeting jobs and unfinished degrees.

Yet, I continue to step freely into the tearing wind as it whistles and hums through the crack of my bedroom windowsill.

Just as it always seems to do, the wind directed me down a particular path. In the silence of the rustling leaves, while the vacant cars hugged the curb and the curious dogs squinted violently through the planks of their domain, the wind filled me with the hope of absence. The “this way and the that way” ceased.

It seemed to say, Stop and wait. This is where you are to be.

“The story in which God does his saving work arises among a people whose primary experience of God is his absence…[but] for most of us it doesn’t fit into what is ‘normal’ in our understanding of salvation” – Eugene Peterson

I proceed through life with a preconceived idea of what it means to live well – and in particular, what it means to live my life for the glory of God. So, I actively and anxiously pursue the fulfillment of living out this idea, and I do so with the hope of experiencing what I think to be the grace and peace of our loving God. I follow a simple equation: if ‘x’ is defined as such, I must do ‘y’, so I can experience ‘z’, the goal of ‘x.’

As I have aged and matured, the structure of the equation has remained constant, but the particulars are constantly in flux. ‘Z’ was never what I thought it would be, so something must have been wrong with ‘x’ and ‘y.’ I mix things up and change ‘x’ based on the latest fad which naturally derails my understanding of ‘y’. Yet, ‘z’ never tastes as sweet as I hoped it would. Dejected, but with even more zeal, I configure the variables hoping the answers meet my specified requirements.

But, at the very core of the equation, something is wrong. The equation itself. God does not necessarily work in the realm of equations, and if he does, it is foreign to our finite understanding and imperfect application. Not only that, but the very application of an equation for the purpose of attaining God renders God useless and fails to achieve the communion with God available to us. Our use of an equation places a distance between ourselves and God because what is needed is the equation and not God himself. What we find, then, is a misplaced desire matched with an imperfect formula and a God out of reach.

At this point and in a present state of pain and dissatisfaction, God just leaves us within his absence. Naturally, we curse and scorn him, and I think the Psalms can attest to the righteousness of our vitriol. But, instead of seeking to claw our way out of the uncomfortable silence through some prescribed form of spirituality to some goal of manufactured formation, I think we are actually called to wait alone in the darkness. As we experience this, we might only be able to describe it as our sliver of hell on earth, yet God can confidently and lovingly describe it as a means to a grace we can’t even fathom or perceive.

That frightening night, the wind filled me up like a child’s balloon, and instead of carrying me instantly to something new, he tethered me to the tree and whispered, Wait and see. For my creativity is wild, and my goodness is sweet, but oftentimes, it looks quite differently than you think.

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