My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?…Oh my God, I cry by day but you do not answer; and by night, but I have no rest (Psalm 22:1-2). The psalmist cries these words, which were later taken upon the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross. Is there anyone who can’t feel the pain of abandonment in this prayer?
Anthony Bloom, in his insightful book Beginning To Pray, enters into the reality of prayer in perhaps an unexpected way. He talks about the absence of God. To thicken the plot a little, Bloom talks about God’s absence in lieu of God’s freedom. We cannot, in prayer, offer up some magical formula, an incantation, that would require God to be present to us. That would be no God at all. Or maybe it would be a god, but it would not be the God and Father of Jesus Christ, the Creator God who is over all things.
He continues with some illuminating reasons as to why this might be the case. When God presents Godself to us, it is always a moment of crisis—you are judged. In that judgment, you are either condemned or saved, says Bloom. He is taking a very particular, temporal view of judgment in saying this. He is not talking about eternal judgment here. Bloom is talking about what you are doing in the moment of God’s presence and what you have done up to that point. You are judged as being on the right path and so saved, or you are judged as going the wrong way and condemned.
This condemnation can be harsh on the spirit. God’s presence would not feel like light and life in this moment. Or to be more precise, the light might burn you. This is why Bloom intimates that God’s absence might best be seen as mercy sometimes. God is remaining aloof so as not to overwhelm you.
There is much to meditate on here. But I want to ask, at this point, “Can’t this absence be a kind of judgment, too?”
Bloom would agree. And maybe this is the key point here. He would say that there is judgment involved in this absence, but that it is a time where God is opening things up so that we can judge ourselves.
Henri J. M. Nouwen, the late great Catholic priest and spiritual guide, can only agree with this. In the late 1980s, Nouwen did some audio recordings of a workshop on the Prodigal Son. Bits of those recordings were recently collected into daily meditations for the season of Lent and called, From Fear to Love.
The Prodigal Son, a story found in the Gospel of Luke, is a powerful illustration of God’s relationship to his children, to us. A recalcitrant son desires his inheritance early, a smack in the face of his father’s honor. The father relents and gives it to him, whereupon the son goes away and squanders it in a far country. Having spent it all, the son comes to his senses and returns, penitently, to his father. The father, seeing him from a distance, runs to him—he clothes him, cooks a feast, and throws a party at his return.
Throughout his Lenten meditation, Nouwen takes this theme as the pattern for how we live life. We go away from our heavenly father, sometimes running, and fall into despair. Our heavenly Father lets us go and this is both a grace and a judgment. It is a grace in that we are given freedom to move away from our Father, to explore this world on our own. It is judgment if we move too far, to a place that will leave us hungry and destitute. But just as the Prodigal Son we have the hope that we will come to our senses. This will be the moment when we judge ourselves and know that we have left something good. We haven’t just set out to explore. We have abandoned our Father, going further than he intended.
But our Father’s arms are ever open. As Nouwen puts it, “The love of the Father embraces not just the return of the son but also the leaving of his child. That’s really important: the whole movement of leaving and returning is a movement done under the loving eyes of the father.” We are let go, if only to see that our way will not lead to anything resembling a home. We cannot make a life in the pig pen.
I remember visiting my aunt and uncle in Southern California, right after graduating high school. They let me drive their van around to explore the sights. It was great fun driving up and down the 101 and the Pacific Coast Highway, or PCH as the cool kids call it. My aunt told me not to drive on the beach, because the van would easily get stuck. So, of course, I was curious. And at the prodding of my cousins I went against my better judgment in favor of curiosity.
The beach was fun to drive on as we rolled past a bunch of surfers stoking their fire pits for the night. It was a lot of fun right up until we tried to turn around to go back. We were stuck, and I was embarrassed. We had to get some surfers to hook up a chain to their 4X4 and pull us out. Our episode in testing the boundaries turned out alright, but I was shoulder-slumped when I told my aunt what happened. With a little joking at my expense, she gave me a hug and told me that we were ok. She still loved me, and I learned a lot about respecting someone’s property.
There have been other times that I’ve gone off into my own desire. When I was finally old enough to have a pocket knife, my dad taught me how to use it safely. He showed me how always to cut away from myself. But I wanted to figure things out on my own. I cut every which way with that knife only to end up cutting my finger. Thankfully, the cut wasn’t that bad, but I began thinking about what I did. I deliberately went against good advice and wounded myself. My dad was irritated but saw that I learned my lesson. I ended up grounding myself and giving the knife to my dad for a time.
Sometimes we are merely curious; other times we are stubborn in our ways. Whichever the case may be, our Father gives us room. He opens up space so that we might grow and learn in the growing. We are never actually forsaken, not even in our Father’s absence. Even though it might be painful, his absence is love.