Do you ever long for God to reveal himself to you without all the mystery and hiddenness? Do you ever wish he would just show up like Morgan Freeman across the table—someone you could touch, a voice you could hear with your ears, a face whose subtle lines and expressions you could see with your eyes?
It would make our lives easier, wouldn’t it? No more wondering what God meant in his scriptures; you could just take him out for coffee and ask him to explain. Something bad happen? You could call him up, have him come over and fix it, just like Jesus did when he walked the earth. Nothing was too hard for him. Nothing stood in the way of Kingdom Come when Jesus was around. But he’s gone now and we’re left with this awful quiet: what seems like the absence of God.
Is God really absent?
Is God really absent or does it just seem that way to us? Is this a matter of perception or is it really true?
Consider the parent teaching the young child to ride a bike. The child needs help while she learns to balance the unstable bicycle and so the parent runs a little behind the bike with his hand just under the bicycle seat. The parent’s power and influence are there: the bicycle doesn’t fall over even if the child stops pedaling. But when the child starts to peddle on her own, she begins to wonder if the parent is still there. If I stop pedaling now, will the bike fall over?
In some ways we are asking similar questions. In this age when most of us value only what we can see and hear and touch with our senses, an invisible God might as well be an absent God. If we can’t perceive the chain of cause and effect leading from God’s good intentions through to his actions and finally to the flowering of concrete, tangible good in our lives, then was it really him or just happy coincidence? We’d prefer to see these links, to glance back and see God’s faithful hand on us whenever we doubt.
Or so we tell ourselves. The fact is, when God came to us in the flesh, we didn’t take it so kindly. Yes, we celebrated his wonder-working, his wedding wine and bread and fishes; but we didn’t appreciate so much the words he spoke. With barely a glance in our direction, he knew every motivation of our selfish hearts and he told us the truth about ourselves.
The reality of the matter is, most of us wouldn’t know what to do if God was visible to us all the time. Most of us are simply not ready to meet God in all the revealing brilliance of his glory. Most of the time we prefer to hide from God, just as Adam and Eve hid in the garden after their eyes and souls were dimmed by sin. For us, timid creatures that we are, God’s invisibility is a mercy.
How so? Consider that his invisibility permits him to be everywhere and always present without overwhelming us by his presence. He can go about his transforming work in our hearts without exhausting us with the constant, crushing knowledge of the full weight of our sin. He can defend us from the deadly spiritual forces arrayed against us without the never-ceasing terror of battle.
So is God’s absence just a matter of perception?
Not quite. God is everywhere present (what theologians like to call “omnipresence”) and there is no place beyond his watchful gaze and careful shepherding. But in one important sense, he is sometimes effectively absent.
Let’s return one more time to the bicycle illustration. If the parent never let go of the bicycle, could it ever be said of the child that she had learned to ride a bike?
As much as God is always and everywhere present, there are many times when he chooses not to intervene. This is a way God sometimes uses to mature us, so that we might learn to grow up into our responsibilities as his image bearers.
We’re not just little mirrors meant to passively reflect God’s glory. Rather, his intention was for us to receive his love, to comprehend and internalize it, and to cherish that love. Then, in grateful response, we bend all our own meager strength to multiply that love to everyone around us.
This is how the true beauty and lasting glory of creation is achieved. If God rushed immediately to do everything we ever needed, God would deprive us of the opportunity to love one another. To love God and thereby to love others is to grow up into our true selves, to grow into the immense power he has delegated to us in order to brighten and magnify his own love in the world.
God’s absence is often his gift to us, withdrawing himself to create a space in which our love and resulting actions matter in the world.
Ask, seek, knock
Still, all of this may come as small comfort to those longing for a glimpse of God’s presence in a dark time. Pious thoughts and doctrines are of little help on such occasions. Hold on to such longings, for by them we are paradoxically drawn ever nearer to God’s presence. This is one part of what Jesus taught on the sermon on the mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he says. Listen for and dwell in that longing, permitting the deepest parts of you to speak. Make such longings known to God in prayer even if it seems like no one is listening.
If you need encouragement in this regard, remember that Scripture is salted with examples of his people calling out for him to show himself, to act, to draw near in times of need. These are worthy prayers, well attested in the Psalms and throughout Scripture. Jesus himself said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7).
God may seem absent to us, but he is never far. God may back away for a little while to permit us space to grow up into his glory, but he is ever the loving parent, ready to hear and answer when the time is right. The rest of Jesus’s words further clarify the promise: “For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
A little later in the same book, Jesus says “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) In his last words before the crucifixion in the gospel of John, he said, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me.” (John 14:16-19)
I hope you’ll trust these words from scripture. I hope they will prompt you to ask, seek, and knock. Because if you do and follow where Jesus leads, you will find a deeper experience of God’s presence and a greater understanding of what he’s doing in the world.