No, this isn’t a post about Brexit, though it does feel strangely appropriate under the circumstances.
In the past I’ve written about an experience of grace, a time when I felt a deep and unexpected sense of God’s goodness towards me and my gratitude to him, and on another occasion an experience of encounter when I felt overwhelmed by God’s presence.
This is the flip side of that – the polar opposite.
Earlier this week, walking home from work I felt a profound sense of the absence of God. I felt that he was simply no longer there, or not interested at all; that no-one was listening to my prayers, and maybe no-one ever had been. The sense was very strong for maybe an hour or so, but lingered on in the background for a few days.
Whether this feeling was in any way accurate or not, I don’t know. I suspect it may simply have been caused by tiredness and a particular set of circumstances – but it felt very real.
I don’t write this looking for sympathy or spiritual advice, but simply to share an experience which I suspect is common to many people. It’s a deeply unsettling one, but not necessarily a bad one, or a sign of being hopelessly lost (I hope). I’m writing about it in the hope of processing it for myself and also perhaps offering some encouragement to others who undergo similar experiences.
Absence and abandonment
I’ve compared the faith journey to that of a love relationship, and this experience felt very much like the break-up of a marriage, or the loss of a life partner. Suddenly someone who I’d always relied on, always been able to turn to, knew would always be there for me simply wasn’t. I had to keep on talking to them, but they were no longer able or willing to listen – or so it seemed.
It felt shocking, disorienting, as though the sky had parted to reveal nothing but emptiness beyond, or as though the world I inhabited were revealed to be just a fibreboard film-set like in The Truman Show.
It seemed as though all the real meaning and purpose had gone out of the world. Everything carried on the same as before, everything looked the same, but it all felt strangely empty now, pointless, a bit meaningless – that the life had moved on and left only the hollow shell.
I also felt something of that sense that C.S. Lewis recorded in A Grief Observed – pounding on heaven’s door and being met not merely with silence, but the sounds of bolts being drawn against you. A paradoxical sense both that there’s no one at home, and they don’t want to talk to you.
So it’s an experience both of absence, that God isn’t there at all, and also of abandonment, that he does exist but has chosen to leave you.
On reflection, a number of obvious things led up to this episode.
Firstly, I’ve had several recent experiences of going to church (mostly mainstream evangelical churches) and feeling alienated, like an outsider. I’ve felt excluded by the songs, the sermons, the prayers and the testimonies, and have come away with the sense that I’m just not a true Christian.
And this has merely reinforced a nagging longer-term feeling that I simply don’t look, think, talk, believe or act as a real Christian should. I sometimes feel (rightly or wrongly) that my Christian faith is little more than a façade or charade; that deep down I’m more of a pagan than a Christian – certainly if conservative evangelical Christian theology and practice is what we’re aiming for.
And then recently a difficult set of family circumstances has arisen that I won’t go into here. While in the midst of this I’ve found it very hard to see God’s presence or activity in it (though taking a step back, I’m sure he has been in it). At the risk of sounding melodramatic (or just bonkers), at times I’ve felt almost under a curse, or simply abandoned by God – that he simply isn’t listening to my prayers. Being tired and losing a sense of perspective haven’t helped of course.
Some smaller things haven’t helped either. Watching The Woman in Black this week as escapism left me with a pervasive sense of darkness and evil, that the universe is ruled by hate and fear not love and goodness.
And finally, the last straw if a very daft and trivial one. Twice in the past two weeks, the cross I’ve worn around my neck for many years has fallen off, once in the middle of a conversation about faith in which I was already feeling like I wasn’t a proper believer. I know it sounds silly and superstitious (and probably is), but it felt to me like a sign or a judgement; God saying ‘you’re not one of mine any more’.
This was partly because it recalled a time many years ago when my then vicar prayed and prophesied over me: ‘God’s saying that like the fish symbol you wear round your neck, he’s holding you and will never let go of you’… and then a couple of days later I realised that the fish pendant had fallen off and was lost. It felt like God rejecting me.
So do I still feel this way a few days later? No, not really. From the outset, my journey of faith has been punctuated with occasional (mostly fleeting) moments of doubt, of the sense that God wasn’t there or wasn’t interested – this one was just deeper and longer-lasting than most. But it has equally been punctuated by moments of grace and encounter, of the sense of God’s presence and care, often despite circumstances.
I suspect that these are all necessary elements in the life of faith, and we need to learn to accept (perhaps even embrace) each of them in their season.
And in a way, this experience of absence has driven me to seek God more deeply, and to examine my own heart and life to see if any of the cause lies in me. Which it probably does.
In the company of Jesus
And of course, when we feel abandoned by God we’re in the best possible company. Jesus himself experienced such absence and abandonment in Gethsemane when God didn’t answer his prayers (‘Father, take this cup away from me’), and ultimately at Calvary (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’).
So perhaps there is a positive way to view such an experience – as sharing profoundly with an aspect of what Jesus went through to redeem humanity and the cosmos. I believe that many mystics and saints have experienced similar times and ultimately drawn closer to God through it.
Though in my case I suspect it was nothing quite so grand or noble. Probably nothing that a few good nights’ sleep wouldn’t cure.
And now, someone please tell me that Britain leaving the EU didn’t just happen…
- Faith and the absence of God
- Things to hold onto in hard times
- The day God became an atheist
- Embracing the void