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When God Does Not Show Up

There have been so many times in my life when God has not shown up. So many times when I am at my wits end, when it is forth and long, ninth inning, I put up a last hope three pointer and the ball hits the tape and falls gently on my side of the court. My mixing of sports metaphors is not an accident. It represents the confusion I often experience as I mêlée through the options of rescue God could use. After all, he must win the game in one of the metaphors. But not only do I lose the tennis match, but the football, baseball, and basketball game as well. I just can’t seem to sync up my game with his. You know . . . the ones where victory is claimed (not just proclaimed).

Half the time is seems that things simply function just the way one would expect if God was in heaven playing darts. Our lives are filled with so many things that go from bad to worse. The hardest part about it for me is that the things we request are very often good things. On our best days, we seek God’s renovation. We long for it. We lay down at night and dream about it. Our eyes sting due to tearful begging for it. Who could argue that someone praying for a better marriage, obedient children, a quenched addiction, a calm spirit, an obedient heart, or a bill responsibly paid are outside of God’s will? Who could argue that praying for the ability to gird up our will and make serious changes in overcoming sin in our lives is wrong? I know that there are “those” stories out there. You know, the one’s where a person becomes a Christian, then all of the sudden everything has changed (for good!). I have a love-hate relationship with those stories. I love them as I love an epic movie where the hero has saved the world. I love to know it is out there. But those are just stories. I have very few (if any) of those stories. Most of mine involve a seemingly never-ending pattern: stumble, fall, dirt in mouth, think about staying down, renewing hope, getting back up, trying again, stumble, fall, dirt in mouth . . . ad infinitum. In fact, I am still in many of these stories. 

At this point a mob forms in my subconscious rallying to find a way to express my anger and frustration with God. Yet no form of this finds a definite incarnation either in my words or deeds. “Why do you put up with this guy?” the mob yells. “Yeah, let’s take him to court. We can win!” Win what? A settlement with God? What would that look like anyway? I don’t have any grounds. There were no guarantees that he has failed to accomplish. The hope that I grope for was never here.

And those things we do get can taint reality in every way.

Entitlement. That is the word. Entitlement. I am entitled to have a good marriage. I am entitled to have financial stability. I am entitled to have health. I am entitled to be able to get a good night’s sleep. I am entitled to a sound mind. I am entitled to have children. I am entitled to a new television. I am entitled to be employed. I am entitled to never have an overdraft fee. I am entitled to have a family that follows the Lord. I am entitled to have a little more and the next cool thing out there.

Entitlement. Where did we get this? It certainly was not from Jeremiah. I love the way (relatively speaking) that he speaks of being on the run from the Lord. 

Lam. 3:10-14
He [God] is to me like a bear lying in wait, like a lion in secret places. He has turned aside my ways and torn me to pieces; He has made me desolate. He bent His bow and set me as a target for the arrow. He made the arrows of His quiver to enter into my inward parts.

I think that Jeremiah just felt entitled to being safe from his Saviour. His Shepherd was now, from his often entertained perspective, a predator seeking the carnage of his soul. In “secret places” God hides, ready to make his next strike. Not only was God failing to show up and rescue him from the harm of those outside, but he was, to Jeremiah, the one bringing about the harm. I wonder if these thoughts represent the mob of Jeremiah’s subconscious. His mind eventually turn back to reason (Lam. 3:21-23). But I am glad he had a parchment and pen handy to write these down. I am grateful for his transparency here. Jeremiah was the first great blogger. (How would you like to see the comments on his blog? I fear to go there.)

When I am at a loss, it rarely comes from the “big” things. Normally, it is the little nagging things that seem so meaningless. You know, the things that it would be easy for God to take care of. Maybe it is not the dinner bill that he fails to provide for, but the gratuities that we have to cover which eventually break us. I get tired. Then I read this:

Jer. 12:5
If you have run with footmen and they have tired you out, Then how can you compete with horses?

I have often said to the Lord: “But Lord, the footmen are wearying me. Footmen! I can’t even keep up with them. I can’t compete with horses. I can’t. Ever. I am sorry.”

Back to Lamentations: Is it okay to say that God is a bear lying in wait? Is it okay to think that? Is it okay to think that God is not going to show up? At least in the way we think? I don’t know, but rarely do we humans pull off the okay.

Then there are those who encourage us. We need to be encouraged, so we listen. “Things will change,” they tell us. “You just have to believe that God will pull off a miracle.” I have mustered up “belief” before, but it was empty, vain, and totally destructive to my spiritual well-being. The damage done by mustering up hope in promises that God has never made stay with many people until death. Disappointment with God for not fulfilling commitments he never made. How much spiritual depression can be summed up in that?

Sometimes we need to take a cold hard look at Jeremiah, the weeping prophet, and see that life is hard and it will be until the end. Not always. But often. But our ultimate hope and God’s faithfulness are very specific, being positioned to take the world at the final stand. Our duty is not to mêlée for God to show up in places he is not supposed to or to do things that are outside of his program, but to wait with eagerness and expectation for the kingdom which is to come. The carnage that we see in us and around us, like it was with Jeremiah, are allowed for now. But not then. Then God will show up and we will have no doubt that it is him. That is what we are entitled to. Keep the faith with me until then?

Lam 3:21-2421
This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness. The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “Therefore I have hope in Him.
 

27 Responses to “When God Does Not Show Up”

  1. What can I say but, “Amen?” The futility of this fallen world is wearying. But the Lord Himself is our portion forever.

  2. Very depressing.

  3. Your blog speaks into mu situation today. The difficulty lies in translating head knowledge into heart acceptance.

  4. Michael,

    What a contrast to “Your Best Life Now” and “Sun Stand Still” type of Christianity that is making unfortunate inroads into the American Evangelical psyche. Many on our Elder board have prodigals who have long ago left the faith. Many in our congregation struggle with marriage issues, financial despair, and personal sin. Though your recent submission can bring a believer to despair, ironically it does just the opposite. This piece more accurately describes the true yearnings of believers in America today. We struggle with issues that our unbelieving neighbors and co-workers can not possibly understand. Who cares if a person has a problem with lust or envy and what does it matter if your children go to church on Sunday? But these are the issues that break the heart of many believers. As you stated we do have a real hope. All of our earthly struggles will one day be vindicated but there is never any promise that this will happen during our brief stay here. Take courage in that though God hasn’t shown up nearly as much as you desire, that the present sufferings we endure are not comparable to the glory that awaits. You are not alone. Blessings to you and the Credo House.

    Don

  5. Your article is a bit Jekyll/Hyde in your reconciliations about God and his presence and work. I believe your thoughts on this matter will refine themselves over time and your theological reconciliations, different.

    I suspect there is an underlying view of God (possibly the “divine sovereignty = absolute sovereignty = absolute control” definition of divine sovereignty) in your theology which imposes itself on texts such as the Lamentation of Jeremiah which enables you to take it beyond its reach. Yet, as I said earlier, while you use this to talk about God not being in places or doings things according to his program, you immediately state that later, Jeremiah returns to “reason” and says God is always faithful. Which is it?

    In other theological expressions there is the view (I believe most harmonious with Scripture) that though evil is present and may even take our lives, it is not a matter of God not “showing up” or even “doing something”. He is present and he is doing something and that presence and doing is always perfect true. The divine showing up and doing, however, is taking such events and working them for his purposes as you know and alluded to in your own words.

    So to use the expressions, “when God does not show up”, I believe misinforms people immediately about God; who indeed is always present and doing. And this includes your conclusion that only when the coming Kingdom arrives may we view God as having fully (my word) shown up. Yes, God will do things differently then but it should not be expressed that he isn’t showing up because he isn’t enforcing immediate judgments or whatever reason one has to view God as absent.

    But I do appreciate your approaching the topic and seeking some resolve in the matter since this is dear to the minds of all believers.

  6. The issue isn’t entitlement. That’s the ‘Sunday School’ answer. The problem is that we are called to be stewards and yet at the same time we can’t know what God’s plans are. Thus the believing Christian is forced to do all responsible planning as if God won’t be there. That’s the frustrating thing. It’s not a complaint about an unfulfilled promise God has never made. It’s desolation that one is forced, if you are going to take the responsibility of being a steward seriously, to always act as if God isn’t there.

  7. Michael, thank you for making an honest and transparent breast of feelings and perspectives that all of us have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience in our Christian journey here on earth.

    Of course, the answer is that God does not need to “show up”. He has, is, and will always be “here” for His people.

    My problem is that while I assert noble motives to attaining objectives and purposes of what seem to be undebatable in themselves, my spiritual eyes are often mired with the cares of this world and making certain that “my will be done” instead of making the unequivocal commitment of submitting to God’s will and purpose in all things. Do we have a better case in our circumstances than Jesus had when He said, “Thy will be done”?

  8. Alex, James,
    Alex,
    Can you explain how to understand the verses in Lamentations according you your understanding of God’s working in the world?
    I am specifically talking about 3:10-16. Verses 10 and 16 stand out to me: “He was to me as a bear lying in wait, and as a lion in secret places…. He has broken my teeth with gravel stones, he has covered me with ashes.”

    James,
    I think you may have missed Michael’s point regarding “entitlement”. His point was that “entitlement” is wrong; and if it is as you say, the “Sunday School Answer”, that is the problem.

    Also you said “The believing Christian is forced to do all responsible planning as if God won’t be there.” What? Really? Where do you find that in the Bible? God calls us to be persistent (Luke 18) because unlike the unjust judge in the parable, he cares about us. Can you help me understand why you say “we should plan as if God won’t be there”? I am one who desires to serve God as a Bible Translator, should I assume God isn’t going to work through my ministry and my witness? According to what you have said, why then should I have hope in God or think that he should save and sanctify anyone?

  9. I also want to make one quick comment. Obviously Michael isn’t expecting the whole Christian life to be “Godless”. Michael recognizes there are real times when “God shows up” and works mightily. Michael is simply showing one aspect of how life can be “WHEN God doesn’t show up”. It would be wrong to say “this is how life is and should be.” Yet, rather it is not always so.

    I am certain that Michael also has the hope of the Psalmist: There are men who may be very wicked, but their portion is in this life. God blesses them with many children, but they will die and leave their stuff to them. However, we have God, who has given himself to us and loves us. Our riches are in Christ and not in health or wealth now. (Psalm 17, v14-15 specifically).

  10. Aaron,

    Indeed, the very first words reveal its intent and context:

    “He was to me”

    Jeremiah is speaking with lament or emotional sorrow and describing from HIS human perspective, not from the Divine perspective of what he was experiencing.

    To which do we prescribe ourselves as the source of the truth about God? Our human experiences of the declarations of God about his eternal presence?

    Jeremiah wasn’t attempting to communicate a doctrine of God but a human experience. And as even MP states, “he returned to reason”.

    Why God has this as part of his divine revelation is considerate to me. It allows us to know that at times, though we feel as Jeremiah did, the truth is otherwise. It does not condemn such difficulty or the accompanying thoughts and turmoil but it does not commend it as the truth, rather it presents it as a true difficulty and struggle yet, answered by the truth, ultimately which is that God is always showing up, always present and always working.

    BTW MP recently wrote a dissimilar article which championed God’s never being absent. I read it as well. As I said, I suspect his views will refine themselves and this is part of the process of us all in our theology and I appreciate, greatly, his approaching the topic.

  11. God shows up.

    He’s in His Word…and Sacraments. And He is involved in the day to day life of this world, and in our day to day lives.

    He may not ‘do’ what we want Him to ‘do’, and when we want Him to do it. But He is here with us.

    “I will never leave you, nor forsake you.”

    “We walk by faith and not by sight.”

    Two of my favorite passages in times in need.

    Thanks.

  12. Alex,
    Thank you for your reply.
    I do seriously want to consider your position, but it is hard for me to see the shift you are suggesting. …I say this because Jeremiah never says these things weren’t from the Lord. In fact, he goes on to say that they were: v32 “though he does cause grief…(v33) he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men, to crush them under foot.. (37-38) Who has spoken it and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”

    “We have transgressed and rebelled… you have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us, killed without pity.” (v42-43)

    If anything, I would see it wrong for Michael to use the passage of Jeremiah because my understanding is that Lamentations is a lament for the whole nation because of their punishment for sin. But Michael isn’t necessarily talking about sin.

  13. I am not sure the statement, “Jeremiah never says these things weren’t from the Lord” reflects the received view of Scriptural inspiration, inerrancy and interpretation. It seems you are implying God made Jeremiah think those thoughts and put those specific words in his head, dictatorially.

    And here there is a poetic metaphor being used by Jeremiah which must be interpreted this way, as a lament and as a description of an event from his perspective.

    As to finding various expressions together, it is not unusual for metaphors to be accompanied by clear concrete statements. Anyway, thanks.

  14. Thanks for writing this. I needed to know I wasn’t the only one who felt like this, today.

  15. Christopher Rushlau January 23, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    Let me take a crack at this. It seems to be the consensus of spiritual directors from all traditions that prayer is a discipline of doing nothing. Letting whatever will come into your mind come into your mind. I said this to a senior lady who replied, “I would go insane.”
    She seemed to me then and later like she was already insane, and precisely for the reason I described. My failure was that her remark scared me off. I should have said, “I’ll bet my life you’ve never tried it, and further that you decided this course when you were maybe three years old, because things were just too horrible to face and it was a guaranteed fact that nobody around there was going to listen to you–so you could only suck it up, shut it out, pretend everything was alright, out-bull-sling the bull-slingers, and maybe later you’d check back and see what you’d missed while under self-imposed lockdown.”
    What do you say about the preacher who got the people’s attention (world-famous donkey trainer, graduates serving in top positions in academia, the military, business, and government, to Dan Rather, explaining the two-by-four in his hand: “First you must get their attention”) and then got shy?
    “The hottest corner of hell is reserved for the one who, in time of crisis, fails to make a decision.”
    If that doesn’t work for you, try this. Who do you think put you in that desert? I mean right now, right in the midst of it, right now–who put you there right now?

  16. Christopher Rushlau January 24, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Here’s a factoid of relevance to you successful evangelicals out there. “Faustus”: as in Dr. Faustus, the medieval hero of the fable about the fabulously successful guy who sells his soul to the devil so he can get the girl (Helen of Troy) not for filthy earthly purposes but so her beauty will inspire him to higher and greater public achievements, but in general just to get the best that life has to offer because you only go around once and he incidentally is a very distinguished scholar but in any event is very well intentioned and is just that perfect balance of rationality and passion–in a word, highly respected: the word “faustus” means “lucky” in Latin. What would you pay to be lucky?

  17. “At this point a mob forms in my subconscious rallying to find a way to express my anger and frustration with God….”

    this is right where I am, where I have been for a long time….thanks for your honesty. Thanks for letting me know I am not the only one who thinks these thoughts..

  18. Christopher Rushlau January 24, 2012 at 11:35 pm

    If it’s in your subconscious, you’re not conscious of it. You can’t hear it.
    You make Jeremiah sound like a little ninny. He’s talking about guilt. Or whoever wrote Lamentations is talking. Chapters 1-2 are all about the sins of the nation.
    Our nation has been committing plenty of sins lately. I was in Iraq to witness some of them in 2004. Racism is a sin, as is the making of aggressive war, in that these bear bad faith to one’s fellow human, breaking the trust that we solemnize in democratic legal institutions–and thus we corrupt those institutions.
    Psychological science is no escape from guilt. Rather, it explains how guilt makes itself present even to one who tries to destroy her own mind to suppress the guilt. The attempt at psychological self-destruction shouts the guilt from the house-tops. She says to people, “I have no awareness of any wrong-doing,” but what they see is that she has blinded herself to everything that does not fit her denial–to everything that is not scripted in her self-justification–her face is in a set expression so that it looks like it is cast in brass–“brazen”. For God to reach her conscience, God would have to break in, burglarize her condominium, stab her in the heart with remorse, in order to restore her to her senses–so that she may see the wrongs she has done. So then she could be truly grateful that God has remembered her even in her sin.

  19. Why does god not heal?

  20. I believe God is always with us through the good and bad times. I also have seen God do wonderful things in my life when the time was right for me. I had to be at the right stage, maturity and faith. He knows when the right time is for us all. We may want it now but deep down inside we may not be ready or it may not be what he wants for us. Like I always wanted to marry a tattoo artist who could draw and play the guitar. I know crazy but I got my wish. Then that same man beat the life out of me for 1 year. So in retrospect, I got what I wanted and it was a lesson I had to learn. God will only let us fall but so far before he steps in and blesses us a bit at a time. Keeping faith and knowing that in due time we will have what is best for us.

  21. Christopher Rushlau February 15, 2012 at 10:24 pm

    To Stephanie Cox,
    Amen.
    But “theology is faith seeking understanding,” so the analysis is aimed at knowing what you want.
    I would have to bring the scripture about the block of wood sawn in two, half painted, adored, and heeded, the other half burnt to cook lunch over. I recently dispossessed myself of a desire I’d pursued for years. The point here is that it seemed an obligation. I am well aware of the rule that “the doubtful obligation does not bind” and that we do terrible damage to ourselves not to mention others with our mistakes about our obligations. But I think I got lost in the distinction between “the desires of the heart” and an obligation. A mere filing error?
    What I failed to do was really live with the urge, goal, idol, affection, whatever it was. What let me, or goaded me, to drop it (or, having just cooked dinner, I could say, throw it at the wall and see if it sticks), was being silently present in my mind/heart with the person it was attached to or concerned (as it seemed to me), and discovering that actually it had nothing to do with this person. It was my projection.
    So when the desire of the heart is to help someone, and it seems an obligation, be sure that this person is not just my archery target for my own practice. You know, a sin is “missing the target”. So we need to practice, right? Wrong. You know when you sin. It comes back to you with a big hollow clang, like the cymbal in Corinthians 13, I think it is.

  22. Christopher Rushlau February 15, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    No, that’s wrong at the end. What came back to me, finally, was the lack of any gratitude, either from this person to me, or from me to this person. It does seem a good rule, that you can’t help someone without their actually helping you in the same action. It is a sharing.

  23. If God’s loyalty to us is only manifested in heaven, then what is the purpose of earth? If the purpose of earth is to “test” us, and it is known from the start that we’re most likely born with flaws, why waiste the time of angels by having them look over us? Instead, maybe God should manufacture (produce) human life from a factory, with angels at the end of the production line armed with 2 labels; “accepted” & “rejected”. This way, those who are deemed to live a troubled life, marked “rejected”, can bypass hurt, pain, and injustices and procede to their final resting place. Those “accepted” can live in joy while keeping hope alive, and those rejected can bypass the torments

  24. Christopher Rushlau April 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Why exactly are you concerned, or about what?
    If you’re trying to throw the rogues out of the temple, welcome to the church.

  25. Marvelous. But God is not playing darts my friend…he’s playing video games. LOL. He has a perfect rating on Call of Duty with 16,000,000,000 kills and no deaths.

    The strong determinism of Calvinism (reformed theology) would have very little to say here. However weak libertarianism may help. On this view God may intend certain things that he can not actuate due to man’s free will. God might intend that you get favor in a job or career but someone who is your boss may make immoral or foolish decisions that compromise your success and God’s intent.

    I actually believe that God didn’t intend for Christ to have to come and die for our sins. He intended Adam and all mankind NOT TO SIN. However, due to man’s free will God was constrained. Similar to how he is constrained in that he cannot create a married bachelor or cannot destroy time because even if he annihilates the universe and time there will always be a “time when time existed”.

    So back to your main point: the circumstances where God could freely act, there are no other moral free-will actors to interfere with his intentions, and scripture supports the fact that God intends to help and has helped others in the past. Well … once again… my video game analogy seems to have overwhelming explanatory power. Also this is the reason that many evangelical Christians are functioning as Bible-Deists.

    “God doesn’t really heal, cast out demons, use the gifts of the spirit anymore,” they would say. They would be quick to say He can. But don’t actually believe it. What should we say then…Christian life if futile…may it never be.

    Gordon Fee has a book “The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospel” that might help with many but not all of the false expectations that creep into our world views.

    Lamentations is the right book to highlight and Job 38-41. But remember what Jobs says in 42: 5 “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee.”…

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