Yesterday, Seedbed tweeted out a quote from Asbury Theological Seminary President Timothy Tennent: “Sin is our embrace of the absence of God in our lives.” This quote stuck out to me, as a little over a week ago, I myself had reflected on the theme of God’s absence as mentioned in the Bible. My reflection was on the purposeful God has in His absence as addressed in various parts of the Bible. But this struck me as being on our side of how we respond to those things we might call the absence of God. Just as we would say that God initiates His gracious action and we respond, and so grace has an impact on us in a synergistic fashion, so too might we say about the events and realities we might interpret as God’s absence. There is the divine purpose and there is the human response to it.
Now, I don’t know what President Tennent means himself. Without further context, there are many things one could read into it. But here is where his observation is quite fruitful: if we recognize that God’s absence refers to all the events in our lives that God does not intervene or control in such a way leading to evil comes out rather than good, then the absence of God is experienced by us in the maladjusted, wrongly ordered events and process that are not consistent with God’s will. God leaves things to go on as they are presently set up to do. Thus, in a world marred by sin and death, God’s absence leaves us in a place where we experience the full brunt of this reality, much as Jesus anguishedly expressed in His cry of dereliction.
Sin then can be said to embrace the world and our experience as it is in the absence of God. Not to simply accept its reality and to fine purpose within it while we prayerfully wait and long for something different, but to embrace the experience of life in this disordered nature as good. Whether it occurs with Pharoah and his power, who prior to the coming of Moses knew nothing of YHWH, who celebrates the present order where God has not intervened in the oppression of the people of Israel, or whether it is the people of Israel who were disheartened by their wilderness experience toward God’s promises and longed to go back to what they had in Egypt, the embrace of the world when God’s inaction leaves it as it is is a common reality. In fact, this is the default human reality, which Paul refers to as the flesh/σαρχ, which apart from an at of God and an attentiveness from people, we will continue to go along living with.
But as people of faith in line with Israel’s testimony, we don’t deny the idea of the absence of God through some abstracted notion of omnipresence. We recognize it expresses a very real reality that God does not always, or even much of the time, show up to stop the disordered process and events of the world. Sometimes, we experience these events in particularly devastating ways, as Israel did under bondage. But rather than deny the idea of God’s absence, we accept its reality, but we experience it with an attitude of faith and longing, looking forward to the day when life with be rightly ordered under God’s care, love, and faithfulness.
But as people on this side of the cross, we don’t experience this absence in the same way as Israel did under Pharoah. Whereas Israel’s cries were said to rise up to heaven suggesting their cries of anguish had a metaphorical distance to travel to reach to God, Paul paradoxically expresses a confidence in God’s presence within the persons in the midst of God’s absence within the wider world; the Spirit groans with the people’s groaning, as the Spirit intercedes on our behalf. We experience a groaning at the absence of God in the outer world with the presence of God within us. It is this outpouring of the Spirit upon the Lord Jesus’ people that allows us to resist the embrace of the world disordered by God’s absence, continuously calling us towards life and peace. As God’s absence calls forth a responses of faith form us, God’s own response is to be with us, strengthening us to resist being formed into the image of the world, but by the renewing of our minds from the disorderedness that the disordered reality inserts into us, we are made into the image of God through the glory of the suffering Christ.
And so, we wait, resisting all the impulses of the flesh that can lead to destructive actions, not wishing to go back to the way of life in Egypt, allowing the SPirit to lead us and with it to cultivate the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control, as we through the Spirit, by faith, wait for the hope of a rightly ordered world by God’s presence, both in ourselves and even the world.