A couple years ago and back in a previous version of this that has been lost to the ether of the internet, I made a series of blog posts about the absence of God. My point of contention was that there is, essentially a distancing and lack of responsiveness from God that the Scriptures do testify to. This is a disturbing idea for many of us in today’s world, where we appeal to God has the basis for our security for who we are as persons; our modern psychological dilemmas of trying to feel we are in the right lead us to reject any portrayals of God’s absence and distance from us. Our modern insecurities necessitate us saying that God is always here, always near, always accessible in such a way that rules out the possibility that God can also be absent, distant, and silent. Not only does this make for a cognitive dissonance entailing hermeneutical gymnastics when it comes to addressing particular Biblical texts, such as the language of the psalms and the prophets; it also leaves people unable to well explain many of their experiences of life, where God certainly seems distant. While it is certainly true that God can be present and active in ways where we miss it, are the expressions of God’s lack of action, absence, and distance misleading metaphors or do they express something about God that is as true as God’s presence and activity?
I thought the latter true, because in the midst of reflection and struggling under some of the most painful events of my life, I could only ask why God would let me suffer from the pain of isolation and ostracization that lead to my post-traumatic stress; I was seeking to be faithful to God, even during the difficult times, and trying the best of my ability to love others and yet I was left out on an emotional island; I felt the seething of further pain as I thought about those who so readily discarded me and how they continued to enjoy companionship, despite their ugliness. Why did those who do evil enjoy prospering while I suffered? Why didn’t God, who knew my heart, my actions, and my words, intervene in some way? While I wasn’t as intimately familiar with it at the time, my heart felt the cries of Psalm 7:31-20. Where was God in all the mess? I could conclude only one thing: God was in some way absent in what happened.
But in saying this, it is important not to think about God’s absence the way we think about normal, human relationships. We are often inclined to think of people’s distance from us is a sign of disapproval, disdain, etc., because this is all too common truth about human relationships. Of course, we might imagine others reasons people might distance themselves from us, such as a parent giving more space to their college-age children, to give them the space to grow as adults. We might distance from someone because we might find that person wants or needs some time to themselves. Etc. But at the end, the default, all too human assumption we might make about distance is it is a sign of rejection. But, to evoke the common Pauline trope, this is to think about it in terms of the flesh, our default and natural human reality.
The very center of our faith as Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus echoes a type of distance from God that is not a rejection. While some theologians speculate about either some rejection of Christ on the cross, either as some sort of ontological breaking within the God-head ala Moltmann or as some imputive act of punishment upon Christ for the sins of the world, neither of these narratives really make sense of Jesus’ cry of dereliction in Matthew 27:36 and Mark 15:34 and the way the narrative is told afterwards. Neither Trinitarian ontology nor a theory of atonement was the focus of the Matthean or Markan narratives. Rather, the narratives make the forsakenness of Christ as a setup to the statement of the centurion: “Truly, this was God’s Son!” If I may interpret this, God’s can purpose to disclose Himself in the context of His absence. By failing to intervene in the injustice, God brings about something much better than simply keeping the world from committing a grave injustice; the realization of who Jesus is and the outbreaking of redemption came because God failed to protect His Son. Similarly, if we look to the sermon on Pentecost in Acts 2, the death of Christ creates the condition for God’s powerful vindication of Jesus, thereby serving as a source of conviction for the crucifixion of Christ; God’s absence provides the setting where the actions of people’s hearts were put into action, thereby showing who was truly on God’s side and who was against God’s purposes. Furthermore, Paul echoes a similar theme in saying that God chose to demonstrate his power and wisdom through weakness and foolishness to the world, both in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and also the demonstration of the Holy Spirit through Paul who was weak. God’s intervention to prevent injustice would circumvent such a divine disclosure and demonstration of power.
We see this foreshadowed in the story of Jacob’s son, Joseph. Joseph has dreams of his future authority and power, which the later realization of suggests it was a dream provided by God. Yet, he is sold into slavery by his brothers due to jealousy while covering the truth with a lie about his death. Then, Joseph becomes falsely accused and put into prison. The greatest sin you could really attribute to Joseph within the narrative was perhaps a little bit of self-absorption about his future, and yet he was discarded and wrongly punished. But as the narrative unfolds, these circumstances lead to Joseph’s rising to prominence under Pharoah through his wisdom and skill, which becomes both a source of deliverance for his family and also becomes a fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations through him. The telling of this tragic story that God failed to intervene, in fact God is rarely mentioned in the Joseph narrative compared to the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, turns out to be something God used for good, as the story of these events concludes with Joseph’s words to his brothers: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” The theme of God’s absence, represented in both the lack of intervention and the paucity of references to Him, is explained by the deliverance that comes through the circumstances that God’s absence allows to occur; God’s faithfulness to His promise to Abraham is accomplished through His absence.
I would similarly suggest this notion of God’s faithfulness through God’s absence undergird Paul’s letter to the Romans. There, if the invective rhetoric of Romans 1:18-32 and subtle references to Maccabean story in Romans 4:1 are any indication, Paul is primarily addressing Jewish Christians who feel the groaning of oppression under Rome. According to the historian Suetonius, the Jews had previously been expelled from Rome for what was probably a conflict between Jews about Jesus Christ. This is not to mention the dramatic differences in praxis and beliefs that could be a source of derision against of Jews. So, as they returned to Rome, they would have felt the anger and antagonism towards Roman power, which was a growing discontent amongst Jews both in Judea and in the diaspora. If Paul’s reference to Jesus being descended from David in Romans 1:3 is an attempt to build a rapport with the understanding of this Jewish-Christian audience, it is probable that many of these people were looking for Jesus to come as conquering king to defeat the Roman power and that they would join in such an action through a Maccabean like zeal. They wanted the Roman world judged for their depravity and to take their divinely promised place in the world, or at least what they thought to be the promise.
However, Paul’s answer to the oppression is not to celebrate the narrative of judgment in Romans 1:18-32, which Paul reflects in Romans 2 is so commonly joined with hypocrisy, but to look forward to a narrative of God’s faithful love in Christ in Romans 8:31-39. Paul’s reflection on the nature of the suffering and oppression is of such a strong statement, that even creation groans (συστενάζω) with the people (στενάζω) in Romans 8:22-23, echoing the groaning of Israel in Exodus 2:24 (LXX: καταστενάζω). Paul’s response here is complicated, but his language establishes a paradox of God’s simultaneous presence and absence: the Spirit that had been given to them is even interceding of their behalf, which is a reverse of the Exodus narrative where Israel’s cries rise up to a God who then takes notice. Yet, at the same time, Paul doesn’t try to establish that God is truly present amidst the suffering, but rather he says that these are not signs of rejection from God, as they are not separated from the love of Christ. This choice of language only makes sense if Paul is trying to offer an interpretation of God’s absence/inaction in the face of the oppression. The absence of God in allowing the oppression is not a sign that God’s love in Christ has ceased; rather the very giving of Christ serves as proof of God giving everything else, as if this is a reference to an understanding about God’s forsaking of Christ turning into vindication and glory frames the nature of God’s future provision for his people in the midst of the present absence.
Why is this the case? Because there is something purposeful in suffering with Christ, as it is through that that one receives the glory of God as in Romans 8:17. Why? As in Romans 5:1-5, for those who have faith, this suffering begins a chain of events that creates endurance, character, and hope. While Paul does not assign a redemptive significance of this absence and suffering that comes with Jesus’ own death or even the forms deliverance in the foreshadowing Joseph narrative, he still provides it a purpose. As Paul frames his argument more so in terms of the Exodus, it is through these events that the name of God is made known, which Paul references in Romans 9. This suffering thus contrasts with the blaspheming the name of God by the nations that results from the hypocrisy mentioned in Romans 2; this suffering is character forming, transforming His people so that they cease to be reasons why God is rejected by the nations. One might term this a divine disciplining, but Paul doesn’t express that formally. But at the end, Paul shows a clear consciousness of the impression that God’s people have on others, such that he envisions in Romans 11:11 a complete, faithful contingent of Gentiles to be the means by which the hardened portion of Israel will truly turn to God and be saved. God is forming his people, including through the suffering they are tasked to face, in order to represent Him.
In the end, I will say this: God’s absence is explicitly and implicitly strewn throughout the Biblical narratives. And while in some cases, like the prophets, God’s silence, inaction, and distance may be connected to disobedience and judgment, there are many other cases where God’s absence is the circumstances through which His faithfulness and power are disclosed. Rather than creating theological rules that forbids talking about God’s absence or translates it into some statement about our failure to see with faith, a more hermeneutical approach that pays close attention can provide a way for making sense of what so often seems to be senseless otherwise. This isn’t to treat all positive absence of God’s as being exactly like either Christ’s crucifixion, Joseph tragic circumstances, or Paul’s narrative of suffering; God may have other purposes than what is contained within those events. It is only to say that to use the language of absence, distance, silence, and inaction as referring to something fundamentally true about how God interacts and relates at times, but that the divine absence can still be talked about and understood as a part of God’s faithful love, as Paul says in Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”