But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble? (A Grief Observed, 6)
C.S. Lewis penned these words as he struggled to deal with the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. Lewis here expresses the experience of many who have struggled to deal with genuine evil in their lives and have turned to God only to find him seemingly absent. This experience has sometimes been called the problem of divine hiddenness.
So, what causes this “absence” of God, as periodically experienced by so many, myself included? And how might we reckon with his absence so that we might find him again?
Willing the Absence
We can come at the question of divine hiddenness from two directions: first, from the “lived-absence of God,” and second, from the reality that God is not immediately apparent to our senses. Let’s take them one at a time.
For many, the absence of God is felt so profoundly because they are actively living as if God were absent in their day-to-day life. As odd as it may sound, this type of lived-absence of God occurs in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. Stephen Charnock describes this dynamic with the term practical atheism (The Existence and Attributes of God, 1:137–255). Many people, even self-professing Christians, live their lives as if there is no God.
Indeed, one cause of the deep impression of the absence of God may be the presence of unconfessed and unrepentant sin. Charnock suggests that to sin is to secretly desire the nonexistence of God. Thus, it should not be surprising that we experience a deep sense of the absence of God if we live in unconfessed sin. For this form of divine hiddenness, the appropriate remedy is the confession of sin and turning back to God.
Modern existentialism has turned this version of the lived-absence of God into a “philosophy.” In his work The Problem of God, John Courtney Murray describes how the modern existentialist affirms the absence of God: “He says that God must be absent. He asserts his fundamental will that God should be absent. The reason is obvious. . . . If God is present, man is being made by God, and he is being made a man . . . [with] a destiny which he himself did not choose” (117).
The modern existentialist affirms the absence of God, not because he has looked for him and failed to find him, but because, if God is present, then man is accountable to him. “Therefore God must be declared dead, missing, absent. The declaration is an act of the will, a basic will to the absence of God” (The Problem of God, 117). Here we find not existential dread in not finding God, but man actively willing the absence of God, so that he can live his life without divine constraints.
Abandoned and Alone
Another way we might sink into a lived-absence of God is related not to personal sin, but to a sense of having been abandoned in evil circumstances. Again, this absence is common to believers and unbelievers alike. We may become aware of divine hiddenness when evil suddenly looms large and, turning to God, we are shocked by his apparent absence.
This feeling is what Lewis describes in A Grief Observed, and what Elijah seems to have experienced when he fled from Jezebel to a cave in the desert (1 Kings 19). Joseph Minich captures this appearance of absence perfectly:
That we don’t see Him when we pray, that He often seems distant, that sometimes our prayers bounce off the ceiling, and especially for suffering people, that sometimes we can beg for Him to just “show Himself” to us, and He doesn’t — all of this causes us to feel or at least be tempted to feel that maybe His non-existence is the most “natural inference.” (Enduring Divine Absence, 3)
Invisible Not Absent
We see the second way of approaching divine hiddenness when the atheist sardonically points out that God could very easily resolve the question of his existence by simply “showing up.” Like Elijah when he confronted the prophets of Baal, the atheist mocks the believer, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27). So, where is he?
Faced with such doubts and ridicule, many believers begin to wonder whether there is a God, while others withdraw from the discussion altogether, ashamed that there does not appear to be more irrefutable evidence of the presence of God. The doubts increase when we consider that God appears to have demonstrated his presence in the distant past through mind-blowing miracles, but we apparently arrived late to the show.
“We too easily overlook God’s presence precisely because it is so obvious.”
How, then, should we understand the distinct impression that God is missing? Fernand Van Steenberghen notes that we must first recognize that if there is a God (such as the God of Christianity), then we should not expect him to be “visible” (Dieu Caché, 348). Rather, suggests Van Steenberghen, “The living God is necessarily a hidden God. He is, by nature, the Inaccessible, the Invisible, the Impalpable, for He is Spirit (he escapes, indeed, all sensible experience) and he is Infinite, which is to say transcending the entire order of finite beings, of which we are an integral part” (Dieu Caché, 348, author’s translation).
In other words, we should remember that the God of Christianity is, by nature, not perceptible to the senses and far surpasses the very weak capacities of the human intellect. As such, though God’s presence is undeniable, it is also imperceptible except through the effects he causes.
Always, Already There
Furthermore, notes Van Steenberghen, God is hidden, even in his providential governance of the created cosmos, because his ways are a mystery to our finite minds (Dieu Caché, 348–49). Indeed, it could be said that God does not “intervene” in the created cosmos because he is always already present within it as its originating and sustaining cause (The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, 74–77). We too easily overlook God’s presence precisely because it is so obvious.
If God is always already present, then he does not “intervene” (act from outside) as the owner of an aquarium might reach in, on occasion, to clean up a mess. Christianity teaches that in every natural event — whether it be the leaves falling from trees in the fall, snow falling in winter, flowers blooming in spring, or grass turning brown in the summer heat — God is always already present and active.
We don’t “see” God because the divine nature is invisible, but we do see God’s work, in every waking moment, in creation. As John Calvin said in his Institutes, “I have only wanted to touch upon the fact that this way of seeking God is common both to strangers and to those of his household, if they trace the outlines that above and below sketch a living likeness of Him” (1.5.6). For Calvin, God is so manifest in creation as its cause that man can scarcely open his eyes, or even daydream, without perceiving God’s causal efficacy in everything that presents itself to his senses.
In the end, recognizing God’s presence is less a question of perception or intellect, and more a question of volition. The sardonic question of the existence of God may be answered by willingly and openly considering the many wonders of this world, which, when we reflect upon them, demonstrate that there is a God and that he is always everywhere present.
Seek in Silence
Having examined the causes of divine hiddenness, how do we come to grips with the lived-absence of God? If, as we’ve seen, God is always already present, then why does he feel so absent when I “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4)? Isn’t God supposed to be my very present help in times of need (Psalm 46:1)? He is! Thankfully, the presence of God does not depend upon my ability to sense his presence. Whether I am aware of God’s presence or not, God is always already there.
There are many remedies for the lived-absence of God, one of which was discussed above: repentance and confession of sins. If, however, like Job, I have repented and confessed, and God still appears to be hiding from me, what can I do? One musician put it this way:
The way I feel keeps haunting me;
It’s stronger than it was before.
When darkness is fighting the light,
I will be reaching out to you;
I will be screaming out your name.
No matter how far I fall away,
I promise that I will reach for you. (Spoken, “Nothing Without You”)
Christ’s promise to those who cry out to him is that “the one who seeks finds” (Matthew 7:8). So, when we are plagued by the perceived absence of God, rather than sink into despair, we cry out to God, we wait on him in prayer, we raise our eyes to him in worship, we run to the church — Christ’s body — for support, we look for him in his word, and we remind ourselves of his presence by taking the Lord’s Supper.
Sometimes, perhaps all too often, God allows us to feel his absence because we have forgotten him. He allows us to feel his absence and silence, not as a refusal to answer, but as the compassionate gaze of the risen Christ waiting for us to remember that we need him.