|A friend of mine lost his father twice. The first time, he was lost through divorce when my friend was just a young child. He grew up without the loving presence of his father. The second time, he lost his father through death, just as his relationship with his father experienced a renaissance. Given just a few opportunities to spend time with his father, my friend has lived the majority of his life in the presence of absence.|
In suffering the absence of his earthly father, not by any choice of his own, my friend struggles to understand God’s presence in his life. It is often a struggle not to view God as one views parents and caregivers. And so, even though my friend persistently seeks after God, his experience of God has largely felt like the absence of God. Locked in a cosmic game of hide and seek, he is constantly searching, but feels he rarely finds.
This experience of absence, sadly, is not unique to my friend, but is often a struggle for those who claim faith, and even for those who do not. Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest Christian apologists, described his own experience with the perceived absence of God as a pitiable mystery:
“This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion, if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied.”(1)
Those who live in the midst of absence often experience a cruel vacancy; an empty throne room with an empty throne. Feeling as if one is far from the presence or oversight of God is indeed a pitiable state.
The words of Job, ancient in origin, speak the same language of absence experienced by many today:
Behold, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold
Him;He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.(2)
The story of Job is at least in part a story of God’s absence. While the narrator of the story and the readers of the story know the beginning and the end, Job finds himself in the silent middle struck down by tragedy. His story painfully reminds us of the mystery that in our moments of great need, God seems to go missing. Job’s cry is our cry, “Oh that I knew where I might find Him that I might come to his seat” (Job 23:3). Job clings tenaciously to the hope that he would find God, and find a just God in his case. “I am not silenced by the darkness,” Job proclaims, “nor deep gloom which covers me” (23:17).Called to “light the light of those in darkness on earth,” Mother Teresa wrote that if she ever became a saint, “I will surely be one of darkness.”(3) The paradoxical and unsuspected reality of her mission to the poorest of the poor in this world would be that she herself would experience the terrible darkness of God’s perceived absence. In the middle of her ministry, she wrote to one of her spiritual directors, “[T]his untold darkness, this loneliness, this continual longing for God which gives me that pain deep down in my heart…is such that I really do not see….[T]he place of God in my soul is blank…I just long for God and then it is that I feel—He does not want me, He is not there….I hear my own heart cry out, ‘My God’ and nothing else comes. The torture and the pain I cannot explain.”(4)
Like my fatherless friend, the pitiable Pascal, and the anguished Job, Mother Teresa experienced the profound pain of the absence of God in her life as she ministered to those largely missing from the radar of compassion and care. She herself was a light, but she experienced little light in her own heart and life. She was indeed a light in the darkness, but she experienced little of the illumination of God’s comforting presence in her own dark existence.
And yet, the paradox of her life reminds us that the experience of God’s absence need not lead us to the darkness of despair, but can propel us to embody God’s presence to others who grope for God in the darkness. As we do, we may experience just what Job did: “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee.”(4)
Margaret Manning is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.
(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, as cited in Kelly James Clark, When Faith is Not Enough (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 38.
(2) Job 23:8-9.
(3) Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” Brian Kolodiejchuk, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 1.
(4) Ibid., 1-2.
(5) Job 42:5.
Categories: Behold The Man