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The Absence of God: Where is God in times of trouble?

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July 10, 2019

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit; One God, Amen.

 

Where is God in times of trouble? Is he absent, does he leave us and abandon us? What does it even mean to say that God is ‘absent’? If you are anything like the rest of the human race, then surely you have struggled with this question at some point in your life and are maybe dealing with it even now! For us to better understand what is happening within us when we feel this way, we must take a step back and take a closer look at some of the things that might have led us to speak in this way.

 

For instance, when we say, “Where are you God?” What exactly are we saying? Surely this is not an expression of curiosity as per God’s actual location! However, with a little bit of introspection, we ought to sincerely ask ourselves ‘is this a sentiment of abandonment as if God has left me alone and I can’t find Him? Is this coming from a place of frustration because I am confused and can’t make out God’s voice in my life? Or is it something else, could this be false expectations on my end as to how God deals with me in my life? Let’s examine these and other possibilities together.

 

Many people, when finding themselves in difficult times and facing big obstacles, they cry out to God. And all too often they will speak as if God can somehow be held responsible for allowing these bad things to happen in their lives. And so, they react just as Martha the sister of Lazarus reacted when she saw the Lord after her brother died…we say “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) Or in our own case, we would say, had You been here I would not have lost my job, or failed my exam, or be put in this or that situation…

 

In reality what we are doing here, is hinting at two common misconceptions we most probably have:  1) We say that God is all powerful and He loves me and so He would never allow anything bad to happen to someone that He loves. And 2) if this bad thing has happened, then God must have been absent or away or has abandoned me… and so we ask “Where are you God”? In both cases, these two ways of thinking are very flawed and demonstrate a very poor understanding of Who God is and How he works in our lives. To weed out some these fallacies, lets highlight a few things that we as Orthodox Christians Do Not believe…

 

  • #1 We do not believe that God has favoritism and choses to love & protect some groups of people over others. God is not “looking out” or “has the backs” of those whom he calls His children because they believe in Him. (Clearly, He doesn’t play favorites! This cant be true as most of the apostles were martyred and died a brutal death, His holy Church has endured and continues to endure persecution even until today, and bad things happen to good people all the time. If this statement were true, the apostles would have all been kings and rulers who led comfortable and peaceful lives and died of a good old age tucked away in palaces! This is not at all what we see… )

 

  • #2 Based on what we just said, we also do not believe that God rewards those who love him with comfort, success health and wealth in this life, but rather the reward is eternal life in union with Him. (And so as Orthodox Christians, we reject any teaching that says that if a person just prays hard enough, or offers just enough of his time and money, or if they do such and such good deeds, that these will somehow earn favor with God – This is completely foreign to the message of the gospel that says we must learn to sell all that we have, detach ourselves from this world, carry our cross and follow him” (“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. (Mark 8:34))
  • #3 We do not believe that God is some sort of Genie in a lamp that grants me wishes if I rub the lamp the right way and state my wishes in the right way. (All too often this misconception seems to creep into our teaching, as if God owes us our heart’s-desires because we give him what he wants in the form or prayer, worship, fasting, and tithe…this is precisely what leads many to be disheartened and resentful towards God when according to them, God has failed them…)
  • #4 We do not believe that our Spiritual life should be led by our emotions and feelings! All too often we hear people say, “I don’t feel anything when I Pray!” Or “I can’t feel God’s presence anymore!” What does that even mean?! The danger here is that if my entire relationship with God is based on my feelings, then surely I will spend most of the time being deceived. When I don’t get what I want, when problems take too long to be resolved, when my pride and ego get in the way of repentance….all of these will affect my mood and my emotions and will directly translate into resentment and/or embitterment within my relationship with God.
  • And finally #5, we do not believe that God is ever absent! (One of the most ancient and most beautiful prayers the Church teaches us is directed to the Holy Spirit and it says “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who is present in all places and fills all, the treasury of good things and the Life-Giver”. Notice the words is present in all places and fills all – God is truly Omnipresent! We either believe this to be true or we do not! I cannot, as an Orthodox Christian believe the truth that is found in this prayer while at the same time accuse God of being absent in my life… He is very much present indeed! Now, it is not because I don’t hear God that this means that He has abandoned me. On the contrary, all too often God’s silence is an invitation to persevere, to push through my fears and anxieties, to pursue Him and chase Him into the deep for the sake of building a more profound relationship with Him.

 

In regard to the issue of feeling abandoned, we are reminded of one of the great saints of the Old Testament who felt this very strongly during a difficult period of his life. The great prophet Elijah once believed that he was the last of God’s prophets to walk the earth. He was tired of fighting and so when faced with the fact that the evil queen Jezebel was seeking to end his life, he cried out to God, even to the point of wishing death upon himself. Scripture says

 

“And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4)

 

One can only imagine the anguish and anxiety he must have felt as he lied there underneath a broom tree, thinking that life was no longer worth living. But indeed, the Lord was not hidden away from him, on the contrary, God was much closer to him than he may have thought. Lets read together from the passage that followed these events:

 

“11 Then [The Lord God] said, “Go out, and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

14 And he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.”

15 Then the Lord said to him: “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus […]” (1 Kings 19:11-15)

 

Notice how the Lord was revealed to Elijah, only in the still mall voice! Scripture says, that the Lord was not in the strong wind, nor the earthquake, nor in the fire… He is to be found only in the still small voice. This is the same Elijah who, just in the previous chapter, we read about the great victory God grants him when he single-handedly defeated the hundreds upon hundreds of the pagan priests and prophets on mount Carmel. God heeds his request and sent down fire in front of everyone to consume his sacrifice and declare Himself God over all people. How could Elijah forget God’s work with him so quickly…as soon as Jezebel sends to him and says she is seeking to kill him as he was the cause of the death pf her false prophets, Elijah despairs… But God, who is found in that still small voice, saves Elijah’s life, shows him His plan, and continues to work with him.

 

And all of us as well,  how quickly do we forget God’s great and mighty hand in our lives. How he has saved us in the past, has granted us mercy, and pulled us out of very dark pits in our lives… how quickly we despair and question His presence. We too, like Elijah, ought to calm our hearts, silence the storm within us, and seek that still small voice. It is that voice that will direct us and give us peace. No one ought to claim that this is an easy task, we can only claim that it is always worth the effort.

 

And so my beloved, we conclude by saying that often, the question of “Where is God” is not the right question. Rather let us ask “What now Lord?”, “Where do you wish to lead me?”, “What am I to learn from this?”… And while it takes faith and strength to ask these questions, the reward of true and personal relationship with God is well worth it! Let us have in mind the encouragement of St John Climacus, who in his book the ladder of divine ascent exhorts all to push forward, to not despair and says “Ascend, my brothers, ascend eagerly. Let your hearts’ resolve be to climb. Listen to the voice of the one who says: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of our God, Who makes our feet to be like the feet of the deer, ‘Who sets us on the high places, that we may be triumphant on His road.”

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