Why Does God Seem Distant?: The Holy Pursuit of the Hidden God

Distance of God

There are times when God feels distant. There are moments, particularly in times of suffering, when God seems silent. To enter into the stillness of God and to attend to the silence of God requires patience.

God is not a Labrador retriever who comes when we call. God is sometimes like the rain that comes when it will, whether the grass is green or the crops are failing.  Jesus told us that if we ask it will be given, if we seek we will find, and if we knock the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8), but the timing of the giving, the finding, and the opening is not ours to demand. That God will answer prayer happen is guaranteed, but when God will answer is not determined by the one who asks. The timing is in the hands of the One who gives, reveals, and opens.

I believe this is at least part of the meaning behind Psalm 40:1, which says: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.” There is waiting in prayer and with God, who sometimes seems still and quiet from our perspective. This is echoed in 2 Peter 3:8-9, which addresses the timing of the parousia:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

It is actually God’s patience that causes the apparent delay here; a patience motivated by love for human lives. This reminds us that God’s distance, whether measured in minutes or miles, aims to stir something up within us.

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Sometimes that distance of God that we feel personally as waiting is an effort of God to bring a change within our lives, situation, or world. The Hebrew word most connected with the idea of change is shuv, which throughout the Hebrew Bible means to return to God (Hosea 14:1-3; Zephaniah 2:1-3). It is a highly relation concept, often paralleled by the word repentance, conveying that something is wrong between two parties that needs to be repaired; a breach that needs to be retraced through return. The distance of God, even the apparent hiddenness of God, is not random, as we often experience it, but has intention behind it. God aims to stir up our lives toward change and a longing for Him that outpaces anything else. It is a longing that should grip us so deeply that we feel dry and deadened without God. This is why the psalmist describes his longing for God in terms of dehydration in Psalm 42:1-2:

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?

“Clouds and thick darkness surround him” (Psalm 97:2) not in order to keep us away but in order to incite our desire for Him even more. It is a desire marked by fervent longing that is evident throughout the Psalms (e.g., 42, 63), but it is also more than that.

When we wait upon God in His apparent distance, we often find ourselves feeling increasingly helpless. Our crutches are stripped away and we become more and more in need. God is bringing us back to the humble naivety witnessed in a child who is not even aware of its utter dependence upon an adult. The psalmist once describes the soul as “a weaned child with its mother” (Psalm 131:2), and Jesus called His followers to receive God’s kingdom “like a little child” (Luke 18:15-17).

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While it may not feel like it, waiting on God—looking for God in His apparent distance—is a work of grace from God. In a world where we used to believe we were capable and held power in the palm of our hands, God’s distance brings us into the necessary desperation by which we recognize our utter need (2 Kings 5; Luke 8:40-56; 17:11-19; 18:35-43). We spend a good deal of our life trying to avoid recognizing our utter powerlessness and only God, the almighty One, has both the power and tenaciousness to work us into the place of facing into our need. It is in that place, where we recognize that nothing and no one else can satisfy our deepest desires. When God taps into this hungry need it keeps us awake at night, singing songs of longing for God (Psalm 77). It eventually burns us with awareness of our sin that sends shivers of regret through our broken souls that rises in longing for wholeness (Psalm 51, 80). This longing burns brighter and stronger, making even the smallest taste of God more satisfying than all other goods or pursuits in life (Psalm 84:1-2, 10).

The distance of God and the waiting we experience is a gracious gift that leads us back to an encounter with the living God. It is the promise of God’s glorious presence ahead of us that spurs on in these times:

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

It is this longing that sets us on a journey with a focused destination. Over time the destination becomes less about a place and more about a being; that is, God Himself. As in the Psalms of Ascent, we are spurred on from faraway lands to return to the center of all our hopes and joys, which are only satisfied in a holy God, who is both loving and sometimes apparently hidden. All the distance, all the stillness, all the silence cannot hold us back from giving all for the sake of that holy pursuit.

Joining Jesus in Prayer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer on Praying the Psalms

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One of my favorite theologians is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, author of Discipleship and Life Together. I encountered his writing very early in my life of faith when my older brother came home from college with Bonhoeffer’s book on discipleship. Shortly after that, I found a short book by him entitled The Prayerbook of the Bible, which transformed my reading of the Psalms by setting me on a journey of praying the psalms. Here are a few of Bonhoeffer’s introductory remarks on the psalms and prayer from that book, as a follow-up to my video update on the same topic from yesterday.

Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather, finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ….

If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.

Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words….

In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes God’s Word. When we pray along with the prayer of Christ, God’s Word becomes again a human word. Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayer, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.

If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible, and especially the Psalms, we must not, therefore, first ask what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ….

The Psalms have been given to us precisely so that we can learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ….

Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church. With its recovery will come unexpected power.

[Quotations from “Introduction” of The Prayerbook of the Bible, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, pages 155-162.]

Senior Pastor Video Update in the Time of COVID-19 (April 29, 2020)

Here is my latest video update for Eastbrook Church as we navigate the time of COVID-19. I will continue to re-post these weekly video updates here at my blog for those who have not seen it or who are not part of our church but could use the encouragement. You can watch it here or at the Eastbrook Church Vimeo channel.

 

In this video update I reference Psalm 131, which I am including below in its entirety. You can also read a reflection I wrote about the psalm yesterday, “Finding Peace with God: Praying Psalm 131.”

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord
both now and forevermore.
(Psalm 131)

Bibliography for God in the Ruins: The Message of the Minor Prophets

When I conclude a sermon series, I usually share the resources I used to help me study and prepare my sermons. Here is that bibliography for our recently completed series, “God in the Ruins: The Message of the Minor Prophets.”

Bibliography for “God in the Ruins: The Message of the Minor Prophets”

Elizabeth Achtemeier. Minor Prophets I. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.

________. Preaching from the Minor Prophets. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Robert Alter. The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019.

Joyce G. Baldwin. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. TOTC. Downers Grove, IL: 1972.

Stuart Briscoe. Taking God Seriously: Major Lessons from the Minor Prophets. For Washington, PA: CLC Publications, 1986.

Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton. “Introduction to Prophetic Literature.” In A Survey of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

Paul R. House. Old Testament Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2018.

Walter C. Kaiser. Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament: A Guide for the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003.

James Luther Mays. Hosea. OTL. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1969.

A. Schart. “Twelve, Book of the: History of Interpretation.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Eds. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.

Douglas Stuart. Hosea-Jonah. WBC. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987.

M. A. Sweeney. “Twelve, Book of the.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Eds. Mark J. Boda and J. Gordon McConville. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012.

Bruce K. Waltke. A Commentary on Micah. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

Nicholas Wolterstorff. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. P., 2008.

The Weekend Wanderer: 11 April 2020

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.


116036“Before Christ Rose, He Was Dead: The truth of Holy Saturday is that God is with us, even in our mortality” – There may not be a lot of attention in some Protestant churches to Holy Saturday, but that is the celebration of today. When Kelly and I attended an Anglican Church immediately during our latter years of college and both served on staff there afterwards, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday was a highlight of our year. Here is Travis Ryan Pickell reflecting on the meaning of Holy Saturday, and why it is so powerful for our faith.


merlin_170541216_a781cc8f-885d-4337-83d3-e626a77abebf-superJumbo“I Miss Singing at Church” – The Christian faith is a singing faith. Paul writes in Ephesians that believers should encourage “one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19). While our family does sing together, in the midst of COVID-19 one of the things I miss most is singing with other believers around me. Here is Tish Harrison Warren reflecting on the same sort of thing in The New York Times: “I miss the congregation singing at the church where I’ve served as a priest for three years. If I could hear them sing this morning, I wouldn’t mind if the person behind me was off key. I would even take a whole load of my least favorite songs, the ones I find plodding or cheesy or overdramatic, if I could just hear them sing with me.”


singing“People Are Remembering What Music Is Really For” – Speaking of singing, here is Spencer Kornhaber in The Atlantic highlighting the way people are engaging in good old-fashioned sing-alongs during this time. Perhaps it is a recovery of what music is really for. For those of us in singing churches, we likely already know this, but the implications for the broader culture are significant artistically and socially. “Here is the kind of crowd culture we can, when we’re lucky, enjoy during isolation. Everywhere, the coronavirus has turned empty streets into acoustically rich amphitheaters.”


Every Moment Holy“Every Moment Holy: New Liturgies for Daily Life” – I first became familiar with Every Moment Holy when our friends came over for brunch and we shared in one of these simple liturgies together. These simple liturgies open up aspects of everyday life to God, while simultaneously opening our awareness to God in the midst of everyday things. They have shared some free liturgies during the time of COVID-19 that you may find meaningful, such as “A Liturgy for Those Flooded by Too Much Information” or  “A Liturgy for Medical Providers.” Enjoy.


Priest taping photos in worship“With coronavirus shutdown, priest tapes photos of his parishioners to pews” – The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel offered this view into how different ministers are dealing with leading worship and preaching with empty pews during the time of COVID-19. Here is the rector of the Basilica of Saint Josaphat, Rev. Lawrence Zurek, borrowing an idea from creative priests in Italy, taping photos of his parishioners to the pews throughout the worship space.


Francis Collins“How NIH chief Francis Collins is trying to get people of faith to wake up to coronavirus realities” – Some of you may be familiar with Francis Collins through his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. You may not know that Collins is the longest-serving director of the National Institute of Health, which also makes him the supervisor of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has featured so prominently in the press briefings related to COVID-19. Here’s a taste from this interview with Collins at The Washington Post: “There’s a natural instinct for people of faith who are loving and wish to give themselves to others who are hurting to rush in the direction of people who are vulnerable or who are suffering. And over the course of many centuries, people of faith have, to their great credit, put themselves in harm’s way. Right now, they could focus their efforts on trying to supply, nurture and support all of their flock who are struggling right now. This is stressful. This may lead to people having fears, anxiety and other mental-health issues. Pastors ought to be doing everything they can to maintain that connection but not put people at risk.”


Anna Wilson“Anna Wilson: I’m more than a basketball player and more than Russell Wilson’s sister” – A friend shared this ESPN interview with Anna Wilson with me last week, and I found it to be a really interesting read. As the title suggests, there is so much more to her story than her Stanford basketball career and her life as a sibling to football star Russell Wilson. Anna recounts how her faith in Christ has shaped her life in very profound ways, even in the midst of personal suffering.


45005996815_d784be17f1_o-1536x960“2,500 Museums You Can Now Visit Virtually” – In the midst of these terrible circumstances of the pandemic, there are some beautiful things happening. With reference to 2,500 museums that you can now visit virtually, Hakim Bishara provides a sort of top twelve list of museums you can visit while under “safer at home” restrictions.  If you really do not know what to do while stuck at home, don’t miss the chance to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the National Gallery in DC, the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, or some of these other gems.


 

Music: Matt Maher, “Christ is Risen,” from Alive Again

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]