Biblical spirituality is often depicted as an intimate walk with God, communion with God, and knowledge of God’s character and will—all of which lead to a righteous life (Gen. 5:24; 6:9; 1 Kings 3:3; Isa. 38:3). God acts on behalf of, and abides with, those who call upon Him (Ps. 118:5; Isa. 55:6; John 15:1−10). Examples of closeness of God abound in the Scripture,1 culminating in Christ’s incarnation (Matt. 1:23; John 17:21) and in the work of the Holy Spirit (John 14:26; 1 Cor. 6:19).
Yet one of the greatest spiritual challenges that people of faith have experienced is the sense of the absence of God (Pss. 22:1; 51:11; Isa. 63:11−19; Joel 2:17). Although the absence of God is far from being a complete absence (and so is better depicted as the “apparent absence”), in this essay I refer to it as “absence” in order to stress how some people experience it; and not in order to convey a theological truth.
Just as Divine Presence comes to expression in a variety of ways, so does divine absence. I will attempt to elucidate some aspects of the “absence” of God, as experienced primarily in personal life. Attention to the absence of God motif, I believe, is significant for those who, like ministers, endeavor to be responsive to people’s religious experiences and concerns.
Absence of God in the experience of pious individuals
At times, the worshipers of God, and even their enemies, wonder, where is God? (Job 35:10; Pss. 42:3, 10; 79:10). The question of why God has hidden His face is frequently asked.2 The faithful respond to the apparent absence of God with lament (Pss. 22:1; 27:9; 30:7). God’s absence is felt like intense thirst in a dry land (Pss. 42:1, 2; 63:1) or as abandonment and mortal anguish without end (Job 17:15; 23:3; Pss. 6:2, 3; 102:1−7; Lam. 5:20−22). Jesus’ dying words, “ ‘My God, my God why have You forsaken Me?’ ” (Matt. 27:46),3 give just a glimpse into the coldness and darkness that surrounded Jesus when deprived of His Father’s presence.
Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a modern Jewish philosopher, writes that a believer “oscillates between ecstasy in God’s companionship and despair when he feels abandoned by God” and is tormented by “the awesome dichotomy of God’s involvement in the drama of creation, and His exaltedness above and remoteness from this very drama.”4 The experience of Soloveitchik’s “lonely man of faith” is shared by believers who say that they cannot feel the nearness of God at all times. I do not speak here about unity with divine nature, or the experience of the divine within, but about the sense of connectedness with God—which is sometimes experienced as the exceptional touch of God.5 Martin Luther’s periods of depression may be, in part, reflective of the ongoing conflict between feelings of abandonment by God as well as ecstasy over God’s unmerited grace.6 Mother Teresa confessed that, for nearly a half-century, she could not feel Christ’s presence in her heart. She writes: “Do not think that my spiritual life is strewn with roses—that is the flower which I hardly ever find on my way. Quite the contrary, I have more often as my companion ‘darkness.’ ”7 For her, “darkness” was “an apparent absence of God from her life, and, at the same time, a painful longing for Him.”8
I do not intend to evaluate the possible influences on people’s religious experiences nor to suggest that they all have common background. I point out simply that certain experiences of spiritual desolation have been shared by some believers of all times and faiths.
Absence of God as response to human sin
Separation from God is the consequence of sin; thus, it is a common human experience (Deut. 31:18; Isa. 59:2; Rom. 3:23). In the Scripture, expressions of this experience often are confessions of sins and guilt (Pss. 51:9, 11; 89:38−52; Lam. 5:7, 16). At the same time, confession and abandonment of sin lead to a renewed relationship with God (Ps. 32; Jer. 31:34).
David C. Steinmetz remarks that the struggle for sanctity resembles, in some ways, the fairy tale about the princess and the pea. Royalty, unlike other people, is supposedly so sensitive to any foreign object that a genuine princess would, therefore, notice a tiny pea even if it were placed under her mattress. Similarly, genuine saints display greater sensitivity than do other people in the presence of the smallest sin. Yet, Steinmetz contends, “[t]he unfortunate effect of this sensitivity is that real progress in the spiritual life may strike the saint as no progress, and a robust faith may feel like hypocrisy or unbelief.”9 Individuals who struggle with feelings of abandonment by God, which are caused by guilt and fear, should be encouraged to remember that sanctity is God’s gift to them and not theirs to God. Peace and assurance of salvation come with acceptance of God’s grace (Ps. 32:1, 2; Rom. 5:1, 2).
Absence of God and transcendence of God
Believers appear to have a tendency to engage God either as transcendent, holy, and distant or as immanent, loving, and intimate. Practically this is reflected in some trends to place a greater importance on either outer religious observance or inner spirituality. Deborah L. Geweke rightly argues that “an experience that is oriented toward an integration of both the forensic and the mystical provides a communal context for spiritual experience, which reflects an ecclesial integration between identity and relevancy, religion and spirituality, and liturgy and life.”10
Experiences of Divine Presence and absence are not always mutually exclusive. The apostolic church experienced God as the One who was beyond His people, with them, and within them (Rom. 8:11; Eph. 4:4−6). The notion of God’s coinciding nearness and remoteness is conveyed in, for example, divine epiphanies accompanied by clouds and fire that imply both divine revelation and hiddenness (Exod. 13:21; 19:9, 16−18). Some personal feelings of divine absence thus may point to God’s transcendence and otherness.
Absence of God and the elusive presence of God
Divine absence reflects the apparent elusiveness of Divine Presence. “The fact, however, that the divine presence is elusive does not imply it is illusory or lacking in reality.”11 Quite contrary, the strongly felt divine absence can strengthen one’s experience of God’s direct presence.
Ralph L. Underwood comments: “[P]eople speak about an experience of the absence of God. I suggest that such experience is essential to an authentic sense of reality of God. The simple reason is that if we experience God as always present and always attending to our well-being, then we have no basis, at least in terms of our experiences, for distinguishing God from fantasy or wish fulfillment. Certainly a number of religions, Christianity not the least among them, teach that God is present everywhere and always. My point, however, is that this belief is not based on subjective experiencing of God as always present, and if it were we would have no abiding confidence in the veracity of our claim, for such an experience is not distinguishable from fantasy.”12
Moments of God’s absence sometimes bring clarity to the experience of God’s immediate presence in the past and help prepare believers for a new experience in the future (Pss. 22; 42). In history, God’s absence in connection with the exiles was a strong indication of the Divine Presence that the people had lost, and as such was to be a motivation to seek God with renewed fervor and appreciation (Pss. 74; 79; Isa. 54:7).
The apparent elusiveness of Divine Presence is, perhaps, implied in the notion that biblical faith involves uncertainty and suspense as much as confidence and assertion. While we trust that God has taken hold of us, we know that we have no full grasp of God. One can confidently assert that the Lord is my God, yet this is confessed with reverent awareness that God is not my possession. Spiritual life is, thus, commitment that we make in love, trust, and hope (1 Cor. 13:12, 13).
Absence of God and silence of God
God’s absence is sometimes referred to as God’s silence, God’s seeming aloofness in times of believers’ distress (Pss. 28:1; 39:12; 83:1). The silence of idols is the proof of their nonexistence (Ps. 115:5), but God’s silence is the sign of His sovereignty and His ability to respond when and how He chooses. Thus “the face of the silent and hidden God is a form of revelation.”13 From a historical perspective, during King Ahab’s reign God broke His silence after three years and six months by sending fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice (1 Kings 18; James 5:17). Later, Elijah was shown that the Divine Presence could be manifested in unexpected ways, such as in “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11−13; compare to 1 Kings 18:37−39). Ekman P. C. Tam comments: “[W]e must be careful not to fall into temptation of expecting God to relate to us in the one and single way that we favour. It is important to remember that the experience of the silence of God is not less true and less blessed than the experience of the charismatic touch of God.”14
In the Scripture, God seems present in and speaks through silence, but, unlike in some mystic traditions,15 is not silence. In other words, the silence of God does not imply the silent God but culminates in divine intervention. This often precedes God’s judgment (Ps. 50:3, 21) and deliverance (Ps. 62:1; Ezek. 29:21). Martin Luther criticized negative theology (the Via Negativa), which promoted entering God’s silence as the cloud of unknowing and losing the conceptualization of God, and argued that believers should abide in the revelation of God in Christ on the cross.16 God has made Himself known in Christ (John 1:18), and believers trustingly turn to this vision of God.
The lives of some people of faith, like Joseph and Esther, demonstrate that the apparent absence of God is, in reality, God’s invisible presence that works “behind the scenes.” Elisha prayed that God would open the eyes of the young man to see that God was with His people (2 Kings 6:17). We are reminded that “[f]or now we see in a mirror, dimly” and “know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). “We hope for what we do not see” (Rom. 8:25). Yet by faith, which is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1), believers can abide in the assurance of Divine Providence in their lives.
Bearing the absence of God
The apparent absence of God poignantly reminds us that our walk is by faith and not by sight. If we have only what we have experienced, we have nothing; if we have the inspiration of the vision of God, we have more than we can experience. This calls for patience, commitment, and humility. Sometimes the experience of divine silence is designed to empower us to enter into a closer relationship with God by strengthening our hopeful anticipation of renewed closeness with Him.
The silence of God teaches us to let go of our expectations and demands for what God should do to us and build our relationship with Him on faith and trust. Walking by faith means not surrendering to doubts and feelings of desolation, but acting on one’s convictions. Though sometimes believers may have special feelings of nearness of God, feelings are not the ultimate measure of God’s presence.
The call for Christ’s disciples to partake of Christ’s sufferings (Gal. 6:17; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:13) can sometimes take them through periods of God’s silence like those that Christ experienced (Matt. 4:1−11; 26:36−45; 27:46). Then we are brought closer to our Lord—who longed for an uninterrupted union with his Father and cried for the salvation of humankind.
God’s apparent absence in the personal life can lead believers to receive divine comfort in the community (Pss. 22; 42; Phil. 2:1). In Psalm 73, the concern for God’s people (v. 15) led the psalmist to the sanctuary where he experienced a remarkable transformation from doubting God’s presence (vv. 11−13) to enjoying it fully (vv. 23, 28).
The sense of the apparent absence of God also reminds us that we are still not fully restored but remain part of this corrupted world (Rom. 8:19−26). This situation makes us long for the time “when this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53) and for a life of incessant communion with God in His kingdom (Rev. 21:3; 22; 23).
1 For example, God’s presence is revealed in God’s past acts of creation (Isa. 40:28) and great deeds in Israel’s history (Pss. 78; 105), in His present blessings (Pss. 4:3; 18:3), and promises of future prosperity (Ezek. 43:7−9). God dwelt among His people in the sanctuary (Exod. 25:8) and engaged with his servants “face to face” (Gen. 32:30; Exod. 33:11).
2 For example, Job 13:24; Pss. 10:1; 13:1; 44:24; and 88:14.
3 This and other biblical quotations are taken from the New King James Version.
4 Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith, 2nd ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2, 47, quoted in Simon Cooper, “Theological Proximity: The Quest for Intimacy with God,” in Jewish Theology in Our Time: A New Generation Explores the Foundations & Future of Jewish Belief, ed. Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2010), 131.
5 For a treatment of the distinction between unity with divine nature and connectedness with Christ, see Scott Hendrix, “Martin Luther’s Reformation of Spirituality,” Lutheran Quarterly 13 (1999): 256−58.
6 Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 181, 261.
7 Mother Teresa, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light; The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” ed. Brian Kolodiejchuk (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2007), 20.
8 Ibid., 21, 22.
9 David C. Steinmetz, “Growing in Grace,” Christian Century, October 30, 2007, 10.
10 Deborah L. Geweke, “Ampersand Faith: Reintegrating Liturgy and Life through a Reappropriation of Mystical Theology and Praxis,” Currents in Theology and Mission 38 (2010): 258. For Geweke “the mystical” is “that part of its [Christian] belief and practices that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness for, and reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.” (Ibid., 259). “The forensic” refers to the legal aspects of justification. Ibid., 257–58.
11 Ralph L. Underwood, “The Presence and Absence of God in Object Relational and Theological Perspectives,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 14 (1986): 301.
12 Ibid., 302.
13 Paolo Torresan, “Silence in the Bible,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 31 (2003): 159.
14 Ekman P. C. Tam, “Silence of God and God of Silence,” Asia Journal of Theology 16 (2002): 159.
15 Ibid., 157, 163.
16 For an overview of Luther’s critique of negative theology of the mystics, see Paul Rorem, “Martin Luther’s Christocentric Critique of Pseudo-Dionysian Spirituality,” Lutheran Quarterly 11 (1997): 291−307.