Friday of Holy Week.
Jesus is gone.
When I started this series, I said I would do a week on God’s absence. I don’t have that in me. I don’t write these from a distance, so steeping in my experiences of feeling abandoned by God is risky.
But as we draw close to celebrating Easter, I feel committed to the people who won’t celebrate, who won’t see resurrection. And I feel committed to speak up on their behalf. Or at least with them in mind, if they don’t want me as their spokesman…
Funny, I know, since I write my blog primarily to encourage people that God is real and present and that God’s grace is greater than we comprehend.
But I’m not writing this because I disbelieve in God. I’m writing it because some Christians (or say-they’re Christians) dismiss anyone who doesn’t believe as foolish or weak or blind. I’m writing it because Jesus’ followers often lack compassion and just as often lack imagination.
Every single disciple gave up on Jesus after they saw him get crucified. They had watched him walk on water, calm storms, cure lepers, heal the blind, restore the paralyzed, cast out demons, and raise dead people back to life. Jesus explained that he would be betrayed and killed and rise again. He repeated it. His disciples didn’t understand. But they did understand what their eyes told them. They understood what torture and death looked like. They understood that dead people are dead. They knew the power of their Roman occupiers, the hatred of Roman soldiers for Jews (“The King of the Jews” the sign said–behold your king, Jews!), the hopelessness of resisting a corrupt government when you have no voice.
Now at this point in the Easter sermon, the preacher turns to the hope that changes everything. While the disciples’ suffering and sorrow are real, the struggle coming up to witnessing the resurrection fades away, becomes irrelevant, when Jesus walks into the room.
But Jesus is gone.
Faith is not seeing Jesus with our eyes. Faith is something else. After Thomas took his stand (and won his nickname) because he had not seen Jesus with his own eyes, had not felt Jesus’ puncture wound with his own fingers, Jesus “appeared to” the disciples and he said to Thomas, “Do you believe because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
And I think, “Hell, yeah, they’re blessed. They better be! What is believing because you’ve seen? Seeing is believing!”
When do we see Jesus?
Easter Sunday. A whole bunch of people shout, “Jesus is alive! He has risen! He has risen, indeed!” “In truth,” they say and sing and shout, “he has risen.” They get up early on Sunday morning to climb hills and watch sunrises and sing.
Can you see Jesus?
Our son, Isaac, died while I was crying and begging God to heal him. We asked everyone we knew to pray. Some of them were deeply grieved at Isaac’s death. Our closest friends suffered his loss with us.
But no one else suffers your loss as you do. Everyone else gets up and goes about life the next day, some of them with heavy hearts. But life stopped for us. For me, for the next three years, God disappeared. Jesus was gone.
Jesus is gone, and it doesn’t matter what other people say.
Some of them say horribly stupid things that they think help.
Some of them are wise enough to stay silent.
There were people who needed me to say that I was alright. They needed me to comfort them. My pain was not something they could bear.
God’s absence happened to me when my son died. I don’t know how the disciples felt, but I know what I experienced. Remembering Jesus’ death on Good Friday, though a meaningful part of our yearly cycle, is not experiencing God’s absence.
Some people walk with Jesus for years and then find themselves in a dark night of the soul. God is inexplicably gone. Others experience trauma that wipes out their sense of God’s intimacy. If our relationship with God is personal, so is the loss of that relationship. It doesn’t happen from reading tragic news or even watching our friends suffer.* The disciples weren’t reading about Jesus, they weren’t hearing about his miracles in the local tavern, they didn’t just happen to see him walk by with an excited crowd following. They lived with him; they shared life with him. Why do we have their story?
We don’t have their story to shake our heads and cluck our tongues because we know we would have done so much better. If you read Peter’s denial that way, you might be doing the same thing he did when he insisted, “I will never forsake you, even if all these weaklings do.” When we let them, they serve as mirrors for us. The crucifixion happened to them, in the sense that Isaac’s death happened to me. Don’t judge their response unless you’ve been there.
Have you been there? Are you there now?
Jesus is gone.
What is the next prayer after, “Save my son?” and God doesn’t? How do you start the conversation again?
A doctor came into our room after Isaac had died, when we were still in full shock. He said, “Well, we gave it our best shot.”
There are no “right” words and I’m not a doctor, trying to console parents of a dead child. But I couldn’t bear these words. A close friend of mine who is a doctor was trying to understand why that upset me.
“We” gave it our best shot. We really tried. There was just no saving him. The old college try failed.
But you’re going to go home and have a glass of wine with your wife and maybe tell her our sad story, or maybe not mention it, and then you’ll go to bed and tomorrow will be another day. Our best shot failing, that’s really too bad, isn’t it?
It’s a little more than that for me and Kim.
I don’t know what you’ve been through. I know enough to know I haven’t been through the same thing and I don’t know how you feel. I don’t know when Jesus was gone for you, if he was ever present.
For me, Jesus was gone for three years. But that’s a historical description, like saying, “Jesus rose again in three days.” You only get to say that when you discover there will be an afterward. I didn’t know God was coming back. So put another way, for about one thousand, one hundred days, I woke up, each morning to the complete absence of God. No one could tell me that this would ever end. I became convinced it wouldn’t.
Had I seen God’s miracles? I had. I had seen God change me. I had experienced forgiving my father. I knew God was real in my life, in my marriage, in my work. I had gone to seminary and become a pastor. I’d committed my life to God and was trying to live that every way I knew how.
Then Jesus was gone. I know not everyone experiences God’s presence or “hears” God’s voice (however that works), but I had. Then Isaac died and it was all closed off. Period. Nothing. I was still trying to preach and to disciple young adults, but God had left the building.
Objectively, did God leave when Isaac died?
Here’s my answer: don’t ask that unless you’ve been there. If you have, you will ask this only in hushed tones and never as an accusation.
C.S. Lewis describes his experience of God’s absence after his wife’s death. No, theologically I don’t believe God stopped existing. Did he withdraw from me? Something changed.
… Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be — or so it feels — welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
I tried to put some of these thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’…
Of course it’s easy enough to say that God seems absent at our greatest need because He is absent — non-existent. But then why does He seem so present when, to put it frankly, we don’t ask for Him?
I felt this, too. I didn’t stop believing in God, I just concluded that God was nothing like I had imagined. God had betrayed me and I was the fool who had gotten suckered in. I was ragingly angry at him and I took his absence to mean he was withdrawing from me, as well.
I describe that time in my life as being “in the tunnel.” Dark, enclosed, no end in sight, no indication that this will ever change.
Lewis’s conclusion, or perhaps just the next step in his understanding, also rings true for me:
Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear.
On the other hand, ‘Knock and it shall be opened.’ But does knocking mean hammering and kicking the door like a maniac? And there’s also ‘To him that hath shall be given.’ After all, you must have a capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity. …
“Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.” One could ask other questions in response. Why does God leave us helpless–allow our own passion to destroy the capacity when we need him most? Seems a dubious design, one might object. “The brakes work great, unless you’re going over 70 and the car suddenly starts to go out of control–then the speed temporarily destroys their capacity.” Uh, no thanks. Maybe the Tesla.
What I can never describe adequately, though, is exactly this passion that does destroy our capacity to receive from or experience God. I remember driving and, when someone cut me off, I thought “You are messing with the wrong guy. I seriously don’t care whether I ram you or not.” I remember talking with a friend who was sincerely trying to understand and all the words she used had previously made sense but now sounded like gibberish. Literally, her words seemed like nonsense. They no longer squared with my reality. The Psalmist describes it as “I was a brute beast before you.” Yes.
People grieve differently and I wouldn’t assume my path of grief was “normal.” But both intellectually and emotionally, I could no longer find God. The gate definitely seemed bolted. Even sitting here now, this many years later, the strange thing is not that I felt that way but that I could find my way back through that to believing again.
I’m not there anymore. Like Lewis, I can look back and reflect dispassionately now on what happened to me. In retrospect, I don’t feel God abandoned or betrayed me. But that took time and healing and many miles down hard roads to believe. If future me had gone back and tried to explain it, past me would have told him to —- off.
Good Friday. Jesus is gone. Will he be back?
I don’t know. Because today is today.
To conclude this, I’ll be blunt:
If you don’t know if he’ll be back, then I hear you. If you once knew but are in pain and can’t tell anymore, I get that.
If you know for certain that Jesus will be back on Easter morning, then rejoice–that is God’s grace to you.**
If you know and are trying to share this hope, don’t expect (require, demand) that people without hope can just come to where you are. That way may be blocked. How can you go to them? Not with words to fix everything, but with just yourself, to sit with them in that place?
*I can’t make this an absolute. Seeing a close friend suffer or die–or commit suicide–has done this to some.
**”For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”