Saturday, 6 August 2016

When God goes into hiding

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? Psalm 10

That great question “Why?”

Jesus asked it on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Job asked it as he staggered under an avalanche of personal tragedies: “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” (Job 3:11). Habakkuk asked it as he despairingly surveyed the state of the nations: “Why… do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:13).

And I would be very surprised if you have never asked it. Unless you are an out-and-out atheist, adamant that the whole idea of God is nonsense, there are certain to be times when this agonising question forces its way into your mind. Even if that isn’t the case today, I’d hazard a pretty confident guess that there is somebody in your circle who is in just this place.

And even if that is not the case either, can any of us be unaware of – or indifferent to – the plight of millions? The child dying of an incurable disease. The refugees fleeing their bombed city. The innocent victims of a terrible atrocity… Why, Lord, why?

It’s years now since I read CS Lewis’s “A Grief Observed”, the memoir he wrote following the death of his wife Joy. A man who had written so much to explain the Christian faith and to make sense of mysteries like prayer and pain – here he was, floundering, angry, lonely and bewildered, in an ocean of misery. What sticks with me is that question, almost an accusation: why is it that when you need God most he just isn’t there?

Well, the Bible never gives us a fully satisfying answer, and nobody in the twenty centuries of Christian history since has succeeded in doing so either. So what hope is there that I can say anything helpful? Not a lot! But here goes.

Some things are, I hope, obvious.

First, no platitudes!

My dictionary defines a platitude as “a flat, dull or commonplace remark or statement; especially one uttered with an air of importance”. We Christians can sometimes be guilty of trotting out truths (yes, no-one’s saying a platitude can’t be true) in such a way that they come across as just empty words. Even the great truth of Romans 8:28, for example (“…in all things God works for the good of those who love him…”), can seem like so much self-righteous verbiage.

Wasn’t this the problem with Job’s “comforters”? Much of what they said was quite correct, no problem. But it didn’t connect with the state Job was in – it didn’t, as the saying goes, scratch where he itched. The Bible encourages us to be brutally honest in expressing our doubts, even our feelings of anger at God. He understands. His shoulders are big enough to take it.

Second, no judging!

There’s a strand of religious thinking that assumes that if something terrible is happening to you, it must be somebody’s fault. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” ask Jesus’s disciples (John 9:2). To which Jesus replies straight away, “Neither…”.

If someone is living in the world of Psalm 10:1, the last thing they need is a great load of guilt dumped on their shoulders. Certainly, if there is wilful, unconfessed sin in our lives, we must expect to feel the absence of God. But that isn’t what Psalm 10, or those other passages I’ve quoted, is talking about.

The greatest truth of all in this whole question is one that needs to be demonstrated in action rather than put into words. It is that God in fact hasn’t gone away, but is only “hiding himself” for a time. He will ultimately act on behalf of his own. And that is the point when understanding of his purpose will be given: “we’ll understand it better by and by”, as the old song puts it.

I was reading the story of Joseph in Genesis just this morning. I’ve got to the part where he is sitting wretched in prison, the victim of cruelty and malice. But, of course, I know what he at that point doesn’t know – how the story ends. The sunshine of God’s love will shine on him again, and he will be vindicated.

And that’s how it is for all of us. The fact is this: if the gospel is true, then every Christian’s story has a happy ending. Jesus himself is the supreme example. Yes, the man who cried out “My God, why have you forsaken me?” was raised from death and rules now as lord of all creation.

But wait a minute… haven’t I just done what I said earlier we shouldn’t do? Haven’t I just trotted out great truths and turned them into platitudes? Well, perhaps.

So let’s suggest some action – and I hope it doesn’t sound irreverent. If somebody is living in Psalm 10:1, then it’s your job and mine to stand in for the God who is absent. 

Simply by being there for them, and with them, they can know that the hidden God is there after all, and will bring them through.

And if it should be you that is living in Psalm 10:1… may there be those also who will do this beautiful thing for you.

O God, please make yourself known, please come out of hiding, for those who are in despair at this moment. Amen.

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