St Giles Online
The presence and absence of God
Whether cast in sunshine or obscured by showers, in light or in darkness; whether encountered by sudden arrival or surprised by sudden departure, in full display or hiddenness; whether immanent or transcendent, something whispered intimately in the ear or trumpeted from a fiery summit: the presence and absence of God are the two sides of the coin of one single mystery and together define the phenomenon that has been, and is, the person of God to us; so that, for example, the supreme confidence which opens the fifth psalm, ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear?’ requires just nine verses before despair sets in: ‘O hide not thou | thy face from me: nor cast thy servant away in displeasure;’ and if true of the psalmist so long ago then equally true for ourselves as well, whose hold on the presence of God is always threatened by an unreachable absence.
The mystery is found not so much in either presence or absence but in why God is neither present or absent all of the time. How can it be that life’s creator is neither wholly and without cease present with that creation (following the path of providence), nor wholly and without cease absent from that creation (all necessary work having been accomplished)? The mystery is why God appears to play with us, appearing and disappearing at the same time or being present and absent simultaneously, a common experience of those who continue to feel the presence of a loved one but only through their absence.
We can attempt to control the mystery, and avoid the chilling suggestion that God has abandoned us to fend for ourselves, by insisting that in and through the first great act of creation (cosmos, elements, matter, time), then through the second great act of creation (Bethlehem, child, manger, Messiah), and finally through the third great act of creation, which is truly a re-creation, (death, new life, spiritual awakening), this world of ours and this God of ours are forever bonded in covenant and are, and ever shall be, inseparable, and that there was never a time, and shall never be a time, when God was not and shall not be wholly present among us: and, this being the case, it must then follow, and has been so argued, that the experience of God’s absence can only be attributable to human inadequacy, to the weakness of our spiritual insight, to the hardening of our hearts and to the narrowness of the self.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart,’ were Jesus’ words, ‘for they shall see God.’
If, then, we would know God to be always and everywhere and transparently present, then let us seek this purity. But, true as this is, the mystery of why we experience both presence and absence, and not just the one or just the other (though of the two I suspect the experience of absence to be the more common among us, for why, otherwise, would we still yearn so much for God, as did the psalmist?): the mystery of why we experience the double-sidedness of God, and fail to experience a perpetual presence, may be due not only to the way that we are made, but to how God is, being both free and sovereign in a way that we can never be, being the one who breathed us into being and called us to know that we are known; and might it not be that the absence of God is as necessary for us as, more obviously, when God is manifestly present, in order that we should both know and not know God, both feel close and reach out for God, at one and the same time?
Sometimes it is we who absent ourselves from God just as much as God who becomes absent to us.
But can it not be true, and is it not the case, that in absence we learn as much, perhaps more, of the one we have apparently lost than in presence; and can it not be true and is it not the case that in absence, and only in absence, are we shown more than was ever possible before; and can it not be true and is it not the case that, as Jesus promised, we shall be ‘guided into all truth;’ and was not Paul to discover the dispensation of the gospel to the Gentile world after long centuries of their neglect and in ways without any clear precedent to him before? So we embrace the two sides of the one mystery. Whether present or absent, God is, Christ is, the Counsellor is. We learn to savour the known and the still unknown and the soon to be revealed, and we cherish in equal measure what has been revealed and all that yet lies before us.