An experience of divine absence

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.

Contributing factors

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.

Moving on

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…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
This entry was posted in Atheism/agnosticism, Dark night of the soul, Scepticism and doubt, The faith journey and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to An experience of divine absence

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    I am glad your sense of abandonment was temporary. I once experienced more than a year of agony grieving over the loss of God; but the end result was that my entire perspective changed and I became a stronger believer than I ever had as a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical.

    I didn’t find the experience at all pleasant, but it caused me to ask big questions and seek big answers. And it made me who I am today. I don’t think you are talking about this degree of abandonment –but I definitely felt abandoned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tim – wow, that must have been an incredibly difficult time. I do think that sometimes we need to go through periods like this as we grow away from the rigid certainties of our former faith and experience a sense of loss and uncertainty. For me, that’s been a long slow process over many years and the sense of grieving and agony has been lower-key than what you went through, but I can still relate to what you describe.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        Harvey, my situation was precipitated by a specific issue: I realized for the first time that Paul was not inerrant. Inerrancy of the Bible was the foundation of all my belief, so I lost everything–including God. However, after that terrible period I found Jesus, not the Bible, as the foundation of all my belief. So I think it was very much worth it.

        I wrote about it here: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/about-tim-chastain/my-spiritual-crisis/

        Liked by 2 people

        • Yes, that definitely sounds worth it, and I look forward to reading your post. 🙂

          I’ve blogged about this before, but I find that so many evangelicals get hung up over whether or not a given thing is ‘biblical’. These days I’m not hugely interested in whether something is biblical – given that slavery, genocide, racism, homophobia and the subjugation of women are all biblical in a sense.

          What concerns me is rather whether something is ‘Christian’, or rather Christlike – whether it’s something Jesus could sign his name to. Yes, ‘WWJD’ is a bit of an over-simplification and often gets hijacked by groups with agendas I strongly disagree with, but nonetheless I think it’s a fairly good starting principle! Of course in practice it’s not always so easy to work out exactly what Jesus would do, but if we start with grace and compassion I think we’re probably along the right lines.

          Liked by 2 people

          • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

            Yes, I agree that it is more important to try to be Christ-like than ‘biblical’ in the way that some people mean it–which often involves narrow proof-texting without considering the broader context.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Terry says:

    I remember going on my first ever retreat a few years ago in order to get some focus on where God was leading me and my family. The first morning, I woke up and sensed . . . nothing. It wasn’t anything dramatic; just a sense that maybe God doesn’t exist, etc. The sensation didn’t last long – just a few minutes, in fact – but it was a jolt.

    Mostly, I just find myself apathetic. My Bible of choice these days is Netflix . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interestingly, I think I had my first such experience during our C.U. house party in our 1st year at King’s… it was during a time of worship when everyone else seemed so engaged with the Lord, and I felt somehow separate, not part of it, observing from outside with a strange sense of unreality. Again, it didn’t last long, but it affected me for quite a while.

      And I could probably join you on the Couch of Apathy now…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Greetings Harvey,

    I have appreciated and enjoyed reading your Evangelical Liberal posts. But this is the first to which I have replied. That is because the “experience of divine absence” is a subject that is central to my life and close to my heart.

    I am a United Methodist pastor, 61 years old. I have been disabled with major depression for a little over 20 years. I have lived with a longing for God since age 17 when I first joined a youth
    group in a (liberal) U.M. church. This yearning has always had a melancholy edge to it. I think that is because it has been directed towards a God whose presence (except for rare, fleeting, sacred moments) I have not felt or known.

    Not long after I entered seminary in 1978, the shadow of melancholy in which I lived escalated to full scale clinical depression. Since then, medication and many years of psychotherapy have helped me get through the worst it. None of it was a cure. But they have certainly diminished the pain.

    Over the years, after much reading, introspection, and conversation with trusted persons, I have come to understand that my experience of divine absence cannot be equated with depression–even though it feels like it.

    Recent reading about Christian mystics and contemplative prayer has done much to reverse my long-held conclusion that my struggles with depression, and God’s seeming absence for over 40 years, somehow represented a spiritual failure on my part–and rejection or abandonment by God. Most astonishing to me was one particular notion that I encountered in my reading. Namely that this dismal, arid, divine absence is actually an invitation to deeper relationship with God. “Some invitation,” I thought at first. “I think I’ll pass. I’d rather have a root canal.”

    But as I read more, the message that came through about this experience of the “Dark Night,” was this: It is an invitation to give up my longing for the consolations of God (i.e. comfort, intimacy, and felt experience) and replace it with the simple, trusting love of God alone, for God’s own sake, without any benefit or reward. Loving God alone, in utter blindness, with no sense of God’s
    presence, is quite different than loving the consolations of God which (so I hear) are quite wonderful. …I think it might be something akin to the beautiful closing words of your post, Faith and the Absence of God:

    “…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.”

    I don’t pretend to understand what it means to love God alone, for God’s own sake–without any sense of who this God is. Yet, on a level that I can’t explain, it rang true. This strange truth that–my long experience of the Dark Night does not mean I am a spiritual failure, or that God has rejected me–has been a source of profound relief and hope for me. I feel a strong pull within to learn more about this difficult “invitation” to love God alone, for God’s own sake.

    David T.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Dear David, thank you so much for taking the time and trouble to write so profoundly and honestly.

      I too have struggled with depression and related conditions over quite a few years, though not I think quite to the extent that you describe. And yes, at times I too have felt that this represented spiritual failure on my part, as well as abandonment by God – which I’m pretty sure isn’t the case.

      I’ve also found the idea of the ‘Dark Night’ helpful, though I don’t think I’ve yet experienced it in quite so profound a way as you have. And I love your initial response of ‘I’d rather have a root canal’! That would be my own sentiment exactly.

      It is a great mystery, why some seem to experience God’s presence and hear his voice easily and others never do despite long and earnest seeking. But I suppose there’s a physical analogy – some people cannot see or hear physically, through no fault of their own, and have to learn other ways to engage with the world. And their experience of reality is different to that of other people, but no less valid or important, and may be deeper in certain ways.

      I think it’s wonderful that you feel this strong pull to learn more about the difficult ‘invitation’ to love God alone for his own sake, and I do encourage you to follow that. I hope I might be able to do the same.

      Thanks again,
      Harvey

      Liked by 2 people

  4. tonycutty says:

    I’m afraid I always used to refer to such times as a ‘Divine Sulk’. I still don’t know why they happen, except that usually I just get on with it as if He is still detectable, and find out later that all along He was there. Just because I can’t feel him there doesn’t mean He’s not there. I guess it’s just an exercise in Trust; trusting that even when the lights are off and I can’t see Him, it doesn’t mean He’s not there and I just have to trust His promise rather than my feeling. Usually within a few days, things are back to normal….During these times I find both thanksgiving and worship to be helpful. And here’s a song your readers might enjoy:
    http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2015/12/12/i-will-trust-in-you/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Tony – and I’ve corrected your typos so you can breathe easily again!

      Danny Daniels – now that’s taking me back a bit. I don’t know that particular song so will enjoy a bit of nostalgia and something new at the same time.

      I think what felt different about this experience for me was that it wasn’t just a general sense of God not being around (I have that more often than I’d care to mention), but a more powerful sense that He’d really properly left the building and wouldn’t be back. I don’t think that was true (I really hope it wasn’t!), but for a short time it was pretty disorientating and scary. On reflection now it’s past, I suppose it felt like a bit of a wake-up call if anything.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. tonycutty says:

    Sorry, couple of bad typos in my last. For a perfectionist like me, that’s inexcusable….

    Like

  6. … and just a more general comment – I suspect that our experiences of divine presence and/or absence, and how we interpret and deal with them, may be quite linked to our individual personalities. For myself, I’m naturally inclined towards self-doubt and uncertainty, and also quite eager for divine reassurance, so I’m probably more likely to notice these ‘absences’ and to interpret them as being my fault. Part of growing up spiritually for me may be learning to accept these times as part of the journey, and not as signs of divine disfavour.

    Liked by 2 people

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