Faith and the absence of God
Is faith the magic quantity that prevents bad stuff from happening? Or is it the quality that enables us to survive and grow when bad stuff does happen?
Is faith what guarantees us a happy, successful, trouble-free life? Or is it what gets us through the times when life is none of those things?
Is faith the happy knowledge that if you’re right with God, keeping up your end of the heavenly bargain, then everything will pretty much work out smoothly, and that God will bless you, keep you safe and answer your prayers?
Or is faith the dogged, gritted-teeth clinging on to trust in God even when he appears to be absent, silent or even against you; when everything’s gone wrong and nothing makes sense and you cry out in vain to an apparently empty universe?
Is faith believing confidently that God will give you what you ask for (if you only ask in the right way and with the right attitude)?
Or is it trusting God that he can give you what you ask for, and will give you what you need as he sees best, even if it looks like the exact opposite of what you were hoping for?
Actually, of course, I think faith can have aspects of both sides of these polar-opposite pairs. There are times when, for some people at least, God seems close and active, when he seems to delight in blessing us and in answering our prayers. If none of us ever experienced anything like this, I suspect there wouldn’t be all that many believers around. But sadly I don’t think it’s the norm, or what we can expect most of the time.
I’ve never much liked the story/poem/thing ‘Footprints’ – the one that starts ‘One night a man had a dream…’ and goes on about the two parallel sets of footprints in the sand, one the man’s, one God’s. As you’ll recall, the man notices that at the darkest times in the man’s life, there’s only one set of footprints and, hurt, he asks ‘Lord, why did you leave me at the bad times?’
To which God for some reason doesn’t reply (as per Job) ‘Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without understanding?’ Rather he says something horrendously cheesy like ‘My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. Where there is only set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.’ All lovely, and we’re meant to go away feeling cosy and cared for.
But if I were the man in the story, the reply I would want to give to God is, ‘Then tell me why, if you were carrying me, did it feel so like you were absent and I was utterly alone? What actual good did your “carrying” do me? What’s the use of your presence if it’s effectively no different to your absence?’
At which point, perhaps God in the story would lose patience and use his brilliant Job put-down, and probably not before time.
But nonetheless, it is a question that vexes me.
Answers and the unanswerable
The thing is, I can grudgingly see some truth in the story, cheesy though it be. I can accept that God is with us through the dark times, even the times of his apparent silence and absence, when we cry out to him for help and hear nothing but the dull echo of our own voice. I can even see that perhaps at these times God is in a sense ‘carrying’ us, in the sense that we do eventually get through these times, we do survive and even surprisingly often grow.
Indeed, I can even begin to see that perhaps in these times God may actually be working his hardest in our lives; working through the difficult circumstances to bring about transformation and redemption. I can see that his presence, even if not felt or known at the time, may prevent us from falling or straying too far, and may ultimately give meaning to our suffering.
So perhaps I’ve answered my own question to God. But nonetheless, I think the question should be allowed to stand without thinking we can fully answer it – or indeed that God will fully answer it. (Which is one of the reasons I don’t like Footprints – it implies an answer where in reality none may be given.)
We need to acknowledge that sometimes things just don’t seem to make any sense; that we can’t fit all our experiences neatly into our theology. We need to learn to accept mystery, to live with unanswered questions – even deeply troubling and painful ones. We even need to learn to live with the apparent absence of God.
Faith in the darkness
So to come back to my original questions then, what is faith? In the face of trouble and suffering and God’s mysterious absence, I don’t see that real, honest faith is necessarily a victorious claiming of God’s promises. Faith in these times may be nothing more glamorous than a dogged refusal to give up and let go of the God who has vanished from view.
Or as the well-known and slightly glib phrase has it, ‘faith is practising in the darkness what we learnt in the light’. It’s living without God, but as though God were there; living as a Christian though Christ seems not to have been raised. It’s the faith of Holy Saturday, of the Dark Night of the Soul.
But isn’t this simply blind faith, a refusal to accept the ‘reality’ of God’s non-existence? It can certainly feel that way. There are times when everything in my day-to-day experience shouts at me that God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t care.
And yet… though I can produce no proof, I know that I have also known God’s presence and love, his reality and goodness. Though all trace of them has been removed from my sight, they were there. It is this knowledge which makes their absence the more galling, the more bitter. But it also gives me hope that they may return.
And though at times I’m strongly minded to walk away, Peter’s words to Christ echo in my head: ‘Where else can we turn? Only you have the words of eternal life’ (rough paraphrase of John 6:68). Even if God isn’t there, I really have nowhere else to go. So as Puddleglum puts it in The Silver Chair, “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.”
I’ve seen the other options – even tried a good few of them – and they offer no real or lasting hope; not to me anyway. So at the darkest times this is what my faith boils down to – that I cannot, will not give up on God though he remains stubbornly absent. I stay only because I’ve got nothing else.
And perhaps this faith is actually grace – that God is not letting go of me, though he is nowhere to be found. I’m holding on to him because, unseen and unfelt, he’s holding on to me. And it’s in this sense, perhaps, that he is ‘carrying’ me.