The deep-seated impression of a parent in the life of a child is a subject well traversed. From pop psychology to history to anthropology, the giant place parents occupy from birth to death is as plain as the life they initiated. Of course, the massive giant which occupies this place may well be the absence of that person, inasmuch as the person him or herself. “It doesn’t matter who my father was,” Anne Sexton once wrote, “it matters who I remember he was.”(1) The looming memory of an absent parent is every bit as big as a present one, maybe bigger. For me, it was a spiritual revelation: Absence itself can become something of a presence.
It is little wonder that the deepest struggle many of us have with faith is in the absence of God. We learn early that absence is a characteristic connected to despair, wrought from disconnectedness, or born of devastation. We do not see our experience of God’s absence as a subject for lament—like the psalmist’s “Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand; do not forget the oppressed”—but as a sign of doubt. And so, we often do not know how to reconcile the God who appears in burning bushes and dirty stables, who descends ladders and rends the heavens, but whose crushing silence feels every bit as profound. We don’t know what to do with the ruinous sensation of neglect when God comes so close to some but remains far off from others. We hold in mind the one who came near to the rejected Samaritan woman, but we uncomfortably suspect that we might have been given something else, or worse, that God has for some reason simply withdrawn. The sting of abandonment is overwhelming; with Gerard Manley Hopkins, our prayers seem “lost in desert ways/ Our hymn in the vast silence dies.”
Though it does not always come as a consolation, the Bible recounts similar difficulties and suspicions from some of God’s closest followers. “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you,” says the prophet Isaiah, “for you have hidden your face from us.”(2). “Why should you be like a stranger in the land,” demands the prophet Jeremiah, “like a traveler turning aside for the night?”(3) There is something consoling in knowing that any relationship—even that of a prophet of God—goes through the ebbs and flows of intimacy with the divine. Even the Son of the God cried out at the sensation of the Father’s withdrawal: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Nonetheless, knowing that we are not alone in our pain is not the consolation we seek. Misery’s company does not, any more than reason or rationale itself, have much to say to the child who wants to know why her father left; this is not what she is looking for.
A far better consolation would be the assurance that he never left in the first place. Of course, anyone who has known the sting of abandonment will understandably find such a claim near impossible to fathom. A distant God is every bit as real and hurtful as the disruptive presence of the absent parent. And we have surely known his absence. We have lived with the injurious silence of a one-way relationship. We have known the cold echo of an empty room, unanswered cries, the ache of loss.
But what if the absence of God was not at all like that of an absent parent? What if the moments when God’s distance was most palpable were in fact moments most full of God’s mysterious love? As Alister McGrath suggests in Mystery of the Cross, “God is active and present in his world, quite independently of whether we experience him as being so. Experience declared that God was absent from Calvary, only to have its verdict humiliatingly overturned on the third day.”(4) What if the darkened experiences of God’s distance were filled with the promise that Christ has gone only momentarily to prepare you a room?
Such a leave of absence is no more permanent than the absence of a father who has gone off to work in the morning with the promise to return before bedtime. Such a distance is marked not with isolation and disconnection, but in fact with love and communion. It is the kind of absence, in fact, that takes on the characteristics of a presence. It is the kind of distance that is somehow brimming with the promise: I will never leave you or forsake you.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Anne Sexton, “A Small Journal,” in The Poet’s Story, ed. Howard Moss (New York: Macmillan, 1973).
(2) Isaiah 64:7.
(3) Jeremiah 14:8.
(4) Alister McGrath, The Mystery of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 159.