The Absence of God

This year I spent some time reading Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. I am more and more drawn to Nouwen’s writings and I am particularly interested in thoughts on spiritual formation and direction. Thus, this work was an important part of my journey.

In the book, there is a very interesting chapter entitled “Who Is God For Me?” And, while Nouwen addresses some more well-known aspects such as “God Is with Us” and “God Is Personal,” he also offers insights on a not-so-talked-about characteristic: “God Is Hidden.”

In this chapter in particular, Nouwen takes up the idea of the absence of God. I was intrigued by this concept, one I had not given much thought to in the past.

Being an evangelical, I have never really heard people preach or teach on this. It may be that, once a year, we focus on the abandonment of Christ at the cross. Yet, it tends to stop there. Nothing more to say. We evangelicals would rather focus on the concept of “he will never leave you nor forsake you.” Of course, that truth must be received. But what I have been learning is that God’s absence is very real for the Christian.

Nouwen says:

In prayer and meditation, God’s presence is never separated from God’s absence, and God’s absence is never separated from God’s presence in the heart. The presence of God is so much beyond the human experience of being near to another that it quite easily is misperceived as absence. The absence of God, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of God’s presence.” (p79)

It is that last sentence that struck me most.

Could God’s absence teach me something new about God’s presence?

I would have never thought of such before recent months. But I think Nouwen is onto something. Still, I imagine we may only understand this in the midst of actually experiencing the absence of God. And I would venture to say most of us have encountered his absence on some level. But we may not have been fully in touch with that reality. That’s certainly been my story.

However, I am now becoming aware of God’s absence in my life.

Ok, most may express such in this God-forsaken year we call 2020. But I will add that I have experienced more of God’s absence in the past 8-10 years than I have his presence. That’s a long personal stretch for me. With the trials we walked through in pastoring a church in Belgium far away from home, from painful marriage challenges we experienced a few years back, to my lack of experiencing a sure sense of community for quite some time. Each of these have highlighted the absence of God in my life.

Still, what I can recognize at the same time is that I have learned so much about who God is. He does hear our cries, our laments, he does want us to feel our pain, hurt, shame, and loneliness. These feelings make us human, reveal our true humanity.

I’ve learned how to navigate my hurt and the host of other feelings. Not perfectly, but at least some progress. I have also learned how to shout at God, be upset with God, blame God—and then after letting it all out, repent of what needs to be repented of. I have been taught by Job, the Psalms, Lamentations, and the Prophets. I have been humbled, broken, desperate, fearful, and more. And I find that I am still a child of the Father.

I do not offer what I have learned and become aware of as a way to push down the experience of God’s absence. That is far from the truth. But this are honest reflections of a long season of absence.

So, yes, I have encountered something of God’s presence in his absence. And I am grateful that Nouwen put words to my experiences for nearly a decade now.

Still, I know there is more to encounter. Perhaps more absence, but even in that, perhaps more presence.

3 thoughts on “The Absence of God

  1. A couple of years ago, I went through a very profound dark night of the soul and became very despondent. So, I went to read some of the old Christian mystics to try and understand my experience and discovered that all of them had these intense times of feeling abandoned by God. One (I wish I could remember which) wrote that these times are God removing from us everything that is not Himself, and this includes the feelings associated with His presence, because we are prone to put our trust in those experiences.

      • I want to say it was Gregory of Nyssa, but I may be totally misremembering that. I read a lot of them in a binge altogether during a very difficult time, so it’s all kind of a blur. But I do remember drawing some comfort from the idea that even our experience of God can be an idol and something God may deprive us of at times so that we build trust in Him and not our experience of Him. This is a lesson I’m still learning.

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