Words I never heard in the Bible

The Insufficiency of Revelation

The absence of God

While the scriptures often admit that God is not doing his job, they nearly always return to praising his timely help:

God is our refuge and our strength

A very present help in time of trouble

Yes, but they also admit that there are more troubles than there should be, and that sometimes God seems to be off duty for a long time. And if the experience of God’s prophets is anything to go by, we might say that God is a very absent help in time of trouble, which sounds blasphemous but no more than the words of Jesus, “ My God, why have you abandoned me?” which are of course a quotation from Psalm 22.

Because the absence of God is so seldom explicit in the Bible, the reader can easily ignore it. So, in the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, it’s easy to forget his abandonment, easy indeed to turn an instrument of Roman brutality into a device of salvation. To his credit, St. Paul never pretends that the cross is comfortable: “we are crucified with Messiah,” “if we share his sufferings, we shall also share his splendour.” Even Paul, however, is shy of mentioning the absence of God.

Some theologians will object that what I am talking about is the absence of a humanly- constructed deity who does what people want. Any time I hear that stuff I want to face them with the words of Jean Barr whose teenaged daughter died of cancer, “ Honest, I didnae expect a miracle, but I did hope he might be near tae me and even more tae wee Julie, but I’m telling you, there wisnae a whisper.” That’s a more faithful witness that all the hallelujah gang claiming special intervention. Tell it to Jean Barr is my response.

In fact, once we start to admit the absences of God, we realise how many pious stories, prayers and strategies are simply ways of evading this truth. People are trained to “feel the presence” because, left to themselves, they would report honestly that God’s not usually around.

The great teacher of the absence of God is the 20th century German pastor and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“God is teaching us that we must live as humans who can get on very well without God. The God who is with us is the God who abandons us. The God who makes us live in this world without using God as a working hypothesis is the God before whom we stand. Before God and with God we live without God. God allows himself to be edged out of the world and on to the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the only way in which he can be with us and help us.”(Letters and Papers from Prison)

The wonder and courage of that utterance has been with me ever since I first read it 60 years ago, informing my discipleship and ministry. More lately since the death of my daughter another teaching of Bonhoeffer has become real to me:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of a dear one, and we should not even try to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that seems hard but it is also a great comfort, for to the extent that the emptiness remains unfilled, we remain connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it, but leaves it precisely unfilled, and so helps us preserve the relationship even at the cost of pain.” (Letters and Papers)

In spite of all I have said above, when my daughter died, I looked for comfort and found it in the sense that she was alive in the resurrection life. I imagined her in that life still communicating with me. I felt a gap and filled it with my child’s life in God. I realise that this was an unfaithful way of trying to smuggle her back into the world. Being faithful to her means making sure that the gap is kept unfilled. The dear one who is with me is the one who abandons me. Sure, like Dante or C S Lewis I am allowed to make up stories of resurrection life, but it must be clear that they are stories which point towards what cannot be known.

I should also probably abandon my fantasies of resurrection life for the vivid and painful memories of her life before death, for if she is indeed alive with God, she is not here. Perhaps there is a way of telling true stories about that life, as Dante has done, but then the storyteller must respect the gap and the mystery.

God helps me in two ways: firstly by being absent and leaving me to cope, for this is human stuff and God respects the capacity of his children to deal with what is theirs; secondly however, God is available to me as the word made flesh, in the weakness of Jesus and his church, and of those through whom his spirit speaks and acts. The bible, the congregation, the presence of my wife, are effective transmitters of the care of the present/ absent God.

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