does God seem absent?

All this came upon us,
though we had not forgotten you;
we had not been false to your covenant.
Our hearts had not turned back;
our feet had not strayed from your path.
But you crushed us and made us a haunt for jackals;
you covered us over with deep darkness.

If we had forgotten the name of our God
or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
would not God have discovered it,
since he knows the secrets of the heart?
Yet for your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.

Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?

We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love.

Psalm 44:17-26

Psalm 44 is an interesting and indeed puzzling psalm. When you read the account of Israel in Scripture, you see a disobedient people, prone to idolatry and evil, indeed breaking their covenant with God. But in this psalm it appears that the hardship suffered is through no fault of their own. Perhaps this refers to the righteous remnant who remained true through the days of apostasy. But they ended up having to suffer with the rest. Jeremiah would be a good case in point, along with others in the Old Testament.

At any rate, this is just another great example of how the Bible appeals to us. We may be seeking to remain faithful, yet have little to no sense of God’s presence and favor. Or there are Christians in the world undergoing horrific circumstances, perhaps deprivation and persecution (see end of Romans 8).

There certainly are differences today. Our warfare is never physical, but spiritual. We are to love our enemies. There’s some aspect of that in the Old Testament, but by and large Jesus brings in the new day which is the fulfillment of God’s will, and something of his original intention, and certainly God’s goal for his people.

Their dependence is on God, not on themselves. They look to God in prayer, regardless of what they are going through and suffering. God’s will for us as well in the way of Jesus. In and through Jesus.

the good’s shepherd’s presence in the midst of danger (or threatening circumstances)

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

We live in a time of upheaval when people for one reason or another feel threatened. And there’s no seclusion or real safety from the dangers of this world. Darkness threatens us in one way or another, the absence of light.

What is likely pictured here is evil in terms of life threatening enemies (see Psalm 23:5). The rod and the staff comforting the sheep with the awareness that the shepherd is present to protect them (see NET Bible footnotes).

Maybe we’re not faced with actual life threatening enemies. Darkness can still overtake us for many reasons. As Christians we know we’re up “against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:10-20). What is called “the dark night of the soul,” is a part of life. And there can be struggles with mental illness which from what I’ve read can be a choking deep darkness.

Whatever darkness or lack of light we face, we can know by faith and be assured that the good shepherd is present with us. That our experience is not what’s definitive, but God’s promise to us in Jesus. That God in Christ experienced the deepest darkness to help us through our dark places and bring us into his wondrous light.

Life and certain seasons of life can seem threatening, certainly not for the faint of heart. But our dependence is not to be on ourselves and what courage we might be able to muster. But on God, who promises to see us through everything, whatever it is. To the very end. In and through Jesus.

the cloudy days, the dark nights

There are times when we don’t see clearly enough. That’s because life is experienced. When we feel unsettled, that is when we can become prone to veer off course. Though at times that can be good, since we may not be on the right course. Unfortunately we can have a false light and peace as well, so we can’t live on our feelings. But the experience of our emotions is a part of life, of who we are as humans. One of the reasons that the psalms are so wonderful, since they help us work through our struggles with God.

Oftentimes the psalmist is beset by trouble, sometimes life threatening, or perceived as such. What helps us is to see the process. The psalmist doesn’t deny what they are passing through and experiencing. They question God, or even acknowledge that they feel lost, seemingly are lost. But they also acknowledge their faith in God, in God’s goodness, and in light of God’s might saving acts. And they end up by and by praising him.

That is what I’ve found again and again. Though it really is hard when we’re smack dab in the middle of the storm, or darkness. Or when we go through a long season in which we know the sun is present, but the sky is overcast, sometimes threatening. And the sun hardly if at all ever breaks through. But in time the trouble will pass. Or more precisely, God’s light and the peace that brings will break through. As we experience something of God’s saving work in and through Jesus.

Here’s one of the psalms that illustrate the point made here:

I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.

Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.

I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”;
in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”

What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?

I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.

Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord
in your midst, Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord.

a necessary empty darkness

I no longer want just to hear about you, beloved Lord, through messengers. I no longer want to hear doctrines about You, nor to have my emotions stirred by people speaking of You. I yearn for Your presence.

John of the Cross (1542-1591)

Oftentimes when reading scripture I feel as dry as a bone I would say, or more commonly put, dry as dust. I feel no life, but one might say, death. I certainly feel empty, oppressively so.

John of the Cross, quoted above is the one who penned “the dark night of the soul.” He evidently knew much of that firsthand, certainly witnessed to again and again in scripture, Psalm 88 perhaps being as good of an example of that as one can find. Jesus evidently felt something of it at the cross, even though the crushing, even consuming darkness on him, was not the result of the Father abandoning the Son, something utterly impossible given the nature of the Triune God, although teachers of that traditional view would chalk it down to mystery. Jesus with the psalmist (Psalm 22) voiced his experience of utter inward deprivation and pain as he drank of the cup of judgment, which is death, in order that we may drink from the cup of salvation, which is life.

Perhaps that is part of the work of scripture, of God, to help us see just how wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked we are in ourselves (Revelation 3:14-22). And to keep us on the straight and narrow both in terms of our own desire, and our readiness to receive God’s grace in Jesus.

In this life, as is pictured (and more than that) in Holy Communion, we partake of the heavenly food, the body and blood of our Lord, again and again (John 6). Both by faith and by sharing in the broken bread and cup.

Just as in the beginning of creation, there was an empty darkness which needed filled (Genesis 1), so it is in the new creation. The emptiness and darkness seems to be both a part of the normal existence in this present life of the world, the flesh and the devil along with the fact that we still sin, that indeed we are still sinners. And with just the nature of the fact that it is God’s work which we are caught up in, and all depends on him, in whom we are dependent for everything.

And so I can take some solace in my ongoing regular dearth of experience, as well as delight in and gratitude for when God relieves that with the joy of his presence in and through Jesus.