On several occasions I have read or listened to the classic work by Brother Lawrence (d. 1691) titled The Practice of the Presence of God. I don’t always make it through each subsequent reading or hearing, yet it always stirs me. I never tire of rehearsing the same lesson after each pass through: when living “as if there were no one save God and me in the world,” then every task, great or small, can be done for the love and worship of God. There are no mundane duties, no wearisome moments of boredom. None. Whether active or passive, busy or idle, God is present and accounted for at all times and in all things.
Awareness of God’s presence is both sustaining and animating (Mt. 28:20; Col. 3:17). It also has the profound appeal of intimacy. But what about times when God is not present; experiences when, by all accounts, God is absent? To be completely honest, there are circumstances when I simply ignore his presence, which is tantamount to practicing the absence of God. Whether a fit of foolish emotion or a gloss over an act of injustice, I admit practicing the absence of God.
The idea of God’s absence is not at all foreign to Holy Writ. It is in fact strangely comforting to read that Scripture is up front and on point about the entire human condition (see, e.g., Psalms of lament Ps. 6; Ps.32; Ps. 38; Ps. 102; Ps. 130; Ps. 143). Jesus’ cry from the cross about being God-forsaken (Mt 27:46; echoing Ps. 22:1 or possibly Ps. 42:9) or David’s longing to reconnect with God after his sin (Ps. 51:11) are perhaps paradigm instances of God’s absence. In Jesus’ case, he was without sin and utterly a victim of it (see Is 53:5; 1 Pt 2:24). This could not be said of David. The backstory to Psalm 51 is 2 Samuel 11-12 where David’s moral failure and abuse of power are documented. The only victims in David’s “excursion” were all the characters in the story except David!
But notice: in both instances of Jesus and David, sin was present when God was absent — sin that was committed against Jesus and the sin that was committed by David. Could it be that wherever sin manifests, God has departed? Maybe our perception of God’s presence is diminished by the concomitant darkness of sin. Regardless of how we slice it, God’s absence is ever-present where sin is. That much seems clear.
Not only is blindness a natural consequence of sin’s presence, so too is separation. In the wake of moral failure, a real breach in a relationship occurs. It is in and from this breach that alienation and the accompanying sense of isolation manifests. Separation. Alienation. Isolation. These are not merely spatial or geographical. They sum the quintessential existential crisis. Sin, and its consequences, fractures relationships, dismantling the bond that once was. Intimacy is not just reduced; it is utterly lost.
Left unattended, a breach will eventually define a relationship, much in the way divorce defines a relationship that must continue out of the presence of children born to parents. Intimacy is clearly not part of any arrangement where biological offspring are the only common denominator. Likewise, if the divide is not closed, then the practice of the absence of God will only further fracture and widen even more the gap that exists. And we all know that seeking to fill the void with poor choices or enslaving habits only further opens the wound that God alone can heal.
What is to be done? What can be done? Returning to David and Psalm 51, I see a roadmap back to intimacy with God. David records steps he took to restore his relationship with God. He first appeals to God for mercy and cleansing (Ps 51:1-2), taking ownership for his sin (Ps 51:3-6). He petitions God for purity and restoration knowing that his source of healing comes from God alone (Ps 51:7-12). David then outlines what repentance will look like in response to God’s forgiveness (Ps 51:13-15), all the while keeping his brokenness before him (Ps 51:16-17). I’m unconvinced these steps must be executed in any certain order, as each often enfolds upon the other, as awareness of sin can increase because repentance has occurred. Still, these steps taken together, make up a concerted and relatively comprehensive effort to show ownership of sin as an offender and intentional ways for restoring a relationship.
But there’s more. When victimized by sin, we must also consider Jesus’ response. While hanging on that cross and feeling deeply abandoned by God, Jesus’ commitment of trust in God ran deeper still. The cry of dereliction (“My God, My God…” Mt. 27:46) was not his last word. Despite feeling God-forsaken and immediately before his last breath Jesus uttered, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Lk. 23:46; echoing Ps. 31:5) No truer words could be spoken that intimate total trust in God. By way of contrast, if I felt genuinely forsaken by someone, the last thing I could do is give myself over to them — unless there were some deeper running current in my relationship with them. It must be the case, therefore, that Jesus’ feeling of abandonment, no matter its depth, did not and could not override his confidence in God’s care. Otherwise, it’s hard to make psychological sense out of Jesus’ final words on the whole. Feeling forsaken and being forsaken are closely connected, but they are not the same. The language of suffering expresses this angst.
Moreover, Peter gives us further insight: “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” — 1 Pt. 2:23. Jesus did not seek revenge nor did he set out to equal the score. He trusted God. Full stop. That he cried out to God because he felt abandoned by God does not mean at some deeper level Jesus abandoned his own trust in God the Father. Darkness and distress can and often do have unimaginable results on those who suffer. As Eleonore Stump observed, “a person in great psychological or physical pain can experience as absent even those gathered around him in love to care for him” (for a fuller development, see her impressive Wandering in Darkness).
At some time in our lives, we have most likely cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, whether as a victim of sin or quite possibly an offender driven by it. Regardless, there is a path back to God, just as David shows. And Jesus gives us another helpful angle by teaching us that we would do well to remember the experience of suffering — even the language of suffering (see esp. Job 23:1-9) — does not have to eclipse the undercurrent of our own sense of God’s care for us. The deeper our trust, the greater our intimacy. When we embrace these perspectives, then, like Brother Lawrence, we will rest in the truth that there really is “no one save God and me.”
Paul Adams, Holy Trinity Member