2007, it has turned out, was the year of God's absence. God's absence was lamented by a modern saint and celebrated by famous atheists. We learned that Mother Teresa experienced long stretches during which she had no sense of God's presence. Because she had experienced startling epiphanies earlier in life, these stretches of divine absence were excruciating for her. And we heard arguments from Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, among others, that God hasn't made himself known because, well, there is no one to be made known.
I like to think I'm more like Mother Teresasomeone who longs to experience more of God's presence. I pray for that experience. I open myself more to that Presence. I sometimes wonder, though, if I know what I'm asking for. While we read many prayers in the Bible pleading for God to make himself known, we have many other instances in which devout believers hide or flee from God's presence. It started with Adam and Eve.
We take up the story after the blessed couple had eaten of the forbidden fruit. They intuitively sensed something tragic had occurred. They did not have to be taught that God is holy and not to be trifled with. They are so intimate with their Creator that guilt and shame are immediate reactions. Naturally, they try to escape God's presence when they hear him rustling in the trees: "They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord" (Gen. 3.8).
This is the first installment of a subplot that runs throughout the Bible. To be in the presence of a holy God, the biblical authors tell us, is not necessarily like a trip to the beach. The holiness of God and the sinfulness of man do not mix. As Moses put it, no one can see God face-to-face and live. And yet it is also clear that it is impossible to escape that Presence. God's presence, as the Psalmist put it, hems us in (Ps. 139:5). At one point, the prophet Amos hears the Lord speak these alarming words:
If they dig into Sheol,
from there shall my hand take them;
if they climb up to heaven,
from there I will bring them down.
If they hide themselves on the top of Carmel,
from there I will search them out and take them;
and if they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea,
there I will command the serpent, and it shall bite them. (Amos 9:1-3).
The corruption withingreed, lust, selfishness, injustice, that is, all the self-imposed diseases that infect our soulscombined with the inescapable presence of a holy God can only result in a conflagration in which we are consumed. This is the reality of our existence, which people of spiritual discernment have always recognized. It's the reason Martin Luther at first only hated God's presence.
Such Presence is not something a sane person prays or longs for. Which suggests something about my prayers: I may not be in touch with reality as much as I think. I imagine that being in God's presence is the equivalent of walking on an open beach, basking in sunshine that warms me through and through. Instead, the reality is more like darting nervously around a prison courtyard at midnight, with God's glaring searchlight following my every step, exposing my every move.
I don't think I am alone in my denial. This is why I think people like me secretly cheer the atheists, and their patron saint Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche who coined the phrase "God is dead." By that he meant nothing metaphysical as much something practical and spiritual: Religion was no longer a source of authority. "God says" or "the church says" or "the pastor says" no longer motivate people, he argued. He concluded that we must become our own gods, each our own source of moral authority.
I don't know about you, but to me this is sometimes a consoling thought! No more toeing the line regarding ancient moral codes. No more wallowing in guilt and shame for failing to live up to impossible commands. No more having to bend the knee to an exacting Divinity who says, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect." Instead, I can become my own moral authority.
If I truly opened myself up to God's presence, if I allowed the light of his holy grace to shine into my life, that light would expose what Jeremiah described as a desperately wicked heart. I'd have to acknowledge how much I hate God's rule in my life. I'd have to confess sins I'd just as soon deny exist. I'd have to turn my life around.
That there is a way of escape from this frightening reality goes without sayingalmost. We Christians have been saying it for 2,000 years. We're about to begin another seasonAdventin which we pray and sing and celebrate the first coming of Christ because that coming made it possible for us to enter into the Holy Presence without getting killed.
But that doesn't mean entertaining the Holy Presence is pain-free. Before the healing of forgiveness comes, there is the pain of God's probing deeply into our souls and discovering the ugliness of diseases that fester there. It includes a redemptive suffering as God cleanses the tender wounds opened by his love.
Though we say we want God's presence in our lives, most of the time we're more like Adam and Eve than Mother Teresa. We secretly resonate with the atheiststhank God he is absent! And so most days, we pick another piece of fruit, sit down beneath the tree in the midst of the garden, and try to read yet another book on the problem of God, trying desperately to ignore the rustling in the trees around us.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today, and author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker 2006). You are invited to comment below or on his blog.
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Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site.
Articles on the new atheists, including Hitchens and Dawkins, are in our special section.
Christianity Today's articles about Mother Teresa's dark night include:
Dr. Luther's Tribulation | Feelings of God's absence didn't plague only Mother Teresa. A Christianity Today editorial. (October 31, 2007)
'I Thirst' | What was going on with Mother Teresa? (September 17, 2007)
Book Uncovers a Lonely, Spiritually Desolate Mother Teresa | "There is no God in me," she wrote. (August 30, 2007)
John Paul II's Canonization Cannon | Why and how this pope has made over 470 saints (October 1, 2003)
Flash: Mother Teresa Was Human | Letters reveal the Catholic nun had doubts about God (February 1, 2003)