When God Seems Absent
1 February 2023 Hits:1679
Have you ever felt that God has gone AWOL on you? I have, many times, and invariably it has been during the darker times of life.
I had always felt very blessed by God’s presence. From the moment I surrendered to Jesus at the age of 21, I was overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. But there have been significant occasions when God seemed absent to me. I’ll tell you about one of these.
It was the early 2000s, and Bayside Church was growing very fast. We’d conducted a successful building campaign and purchased the warehouse we still meet in. The congregation had doubled in size in 18 months. At the same time, Christie and I welcomed our second daughter. We were a young family with a baby, a toddler, and a teenage church. All of that would have been enough, but I was unaware (at that time) of a blind spot ~ I was a classic under-estimator.
There’s no doubt that God has used the gung-ho, ‘she’ll be right’ part of my nature in establishing Bayside Church and pioneering many other things, but it hasn’t been without cost to myself and others. Through the Enneagram and loving feedback from my ministry team, I’m aware of this blind spot and can recognise it when tempted to over-commit. But in the early 2000s, that was not the case.
You Did What?
Two decades ago, in addition to the things mentioned before, I (we):
- Started a Sunday evening service and then a Saturday evening service.
- Planted a campus followed by another one a few years later.
- Developed a media ministry and a TV Program, Bayside TV.
- Commenced with Melbourne’s new Christian radio station as an announcer and Music Director.
- Changed denominations.
Add to that the responsibility of increasing staff members and all that organising and managing a team entails.
I realise now that I had overloaded myself and no doubt experienced burnout. God’s seemed absent. I was in a church gathering one day and could see the Spirit of God at work all around me, but I could feel nothing. It lasted for about six months. It was awful.
My theology informs me that God wasn’t absent and is never absent. It is impossible for an omnipresent being to be missing from anywhere. God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” The apostle Paul asked, “Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love?” He answered with a resounding “NO.”
Towards the end of his suffering, Jesus cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was likely comforting himself with words from a familiar Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.” It’s a gut-wrenching prayer about abandonment. I’m suffering, and God seems absent. He left me just when I needed him most. That’s how I felt two decades ago.
And here’s the good news. Jesus knew exactly how I felt because he had suffered the same thing. He felt abandoned by God. So did I. The fact is, God had not forsaken Jesus any more than he had deserted me or you.
Some preachers have said that the Father turned away from Jesus because he is too pure to look at sin. Habakkuk 1:13 is quoted (out of context) to prove the point. The argument goes like this:
The Son had the sin of the human race laid upon him. God is holy and can’t look upon sin. And so, the Father abandoned his Son. Really? What kind of Father would desert his child in their hour of need? This interpretation of the Bible makes God out to be pretentious, fussy, and, well, very ungodlike. God is not scared of sin. Jesus proved this by hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners” during his life on earth.
The Father didn’t abandon the Son, but the Son felt abandoned. God didn’t forsake me, but my experience for several months was that God seemed absent. I hasten to add that this time was one of the most productive and fruitful periods in our church’s history. It became evident that “we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”
The absence Jesus experienced on the cross is the same as we may feel when we’re suffering. Where is God? Jesus knows what that’s like. God did not abandon Jesus. It wasn’t that God couldn’t look at sin. Jesus doesn’t reveal a God who is scared of sin; he displays a God who is comfortable in our skin and relaxed around imperfect people. If only more Christians were like that!
The Perfect Saviour
Dr Bradley Jersak says, “In the crucifixion, Jesus shared fully in our experience of absence, assuming it and thereby utterly redeeming it.”
God became a human being and resided amongst us. He experienced everything we do, tempted in every way. We have a high priest who can empathise with our weaknesses. He knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God, to go through times when God seems absent. I hope you find that as encouraging as I do.