Monday, May 7, 2012

When God Disappears in a Powerful Way


If a theophany is when God appears in a powerful way, then a reverse theophany is when God disappears in a powerful way. If a theophany is when God speaks a word, then a reverse theophany is when God is silent. I think that both are equally important and that the second is more common. But to disappear is not necessarily to actually be gone. To be present but unapparent is to be present in a particular way. Some of the most dramatic instances of both theophanies and reverse theophanies can be found in the Book of Job. When God speaks from the Whirlwind, it is certainly a dramatic appearance. When Job’s life falls apart, it is likewise a dramatic disappearance: “Behold, I go forward but He is not there, And backward, but I cannot perceive Him . . .” (Job 23:8).


Indulge a traditional spiritual story as a way of thinking of the disappearance of God as something equivalent in importance to the appearance of God. One day God tells God’s friend that God would like to play a game of hide and seek with humans. “Where do you think I should hide?” God asks. The friend answers, “Hide in the human heart. They will never think to look for you there.”


God hides in the human heart. Every human we encounter is some sort of a theophany. But this is not obvious by any means. Not many people go around glowing like Moses freshly come down from the mountain. Moreover, some seem downright abandoned by God, the godforsaken, “the least of these.” So what we might say, then, is that God is present in a particular way in those humans from whom God seems most distant. In some humans, God is particularly well hidden. Saying such a thing could amount to nothing more than triteness if we mean it as a cute saying to comfort those in pain. Of course, it is not a comfort. The reality of God’s presence in our pain is more often than not an addition to our discomfort. But the particular well hiddenness of God in certain circumstances may be important to recognize not for the sake of comfort but for some other kind of spiritual insight.


Consider the familiar story of Jesus about taking care of those in need which ends with this saying: “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me” (Matt. 25:40). If we may take Jesus literally for a moment, note that what he says is not that by doing good to those in need we have done good on Christ’s behalf but rather that we have done good to Christ. We visit God. We give God water. We sit and grieve with God. Another thing: it seems particularly important that in the story those who did things for God by doing things for the least of these did not recognize God while they were doing so. “When did we feed you, visit you, etc.?” they ask. What we see is not only that God resides in a special way in the downcast but also that that God hides there particularly well. We could not find people more “least” than those from whom God seems most powerfully absent. When God is in the least of these, it is so invisibly. That invisibility of God is what makes those persons least. But, by faith, we are sure to be with God when we are with them. We ought to go and be with these people not in order to assure them that God is there for them but rather to go, for our own sake, to be with God who hides within them.


In the Book of Job, when God disappears from Job, we may believe by faith that God is actually still present even in Job’s suffering body. The realization of this, of course, brings little comfort. If anything, it is all the worse that God is hidden right there while Job suffers. But knowing of God’s hidden presence does give us something worthwhile other than comfort. In his suffering, Job serves as a prophetic embodiment of God’s presence to his three friends. Job’s friends come to visit him with the idea that they are going to offer Job some comfort. This is similar to the people of God in Jesus’ story, offering comfort to the “least of these.” The friends are overcome by the sight of Job’s suffering. It is significant to note that their first response is one of true friendship and compassion.
When they lifted up their eyes at a distance and did not recognize him, they raised their voices and wept. And each of them tore his robe and they threw dust over their heads toward the sky. Then they sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word . . . (Job 2:11-13)
While the text makes clear that the reason for this response is their realization of the great suffering of their friend—“for they saw that his pain was very great”—it may well be worth noting that their actions would also have been entirely appropriate should they have been responding to the presence of God. (Consider, for instance, passages like 2 Chronicles 34:27: “‘Because your heart was tender and you humbled yourself before God when you heard His words against this place and against its inhabitants, and because you humbled yourself before Me, tore your clothes and wept before Me, I truly have heard you,’ declares the LORD” [emphasis added].) I want to suggest that Job’s friends were performing the proper response to the presence of God while, without their knowing it, actually being in the presence of God. Furthermore, their motivation, even though they thought they were only responding to Job, was the same as it would have been had they meant to be responding to God. They were motivated out of their concern for their friend which, if we apply Jesus’s rubric retroactively, translates to concern for God. It is only later in the book when they cease attending to the person in front of them and go off into their ideas about God that they actually cease attending to the presence of God and end up saying false things about God. But for seven days and seven nights, they attend well to the un-manifest presence of God.


The spiritual practice that these reflections may lead us to is that we ought to seek to be with and honor those who are suffering, those for whom God has disappeared. We ought to do so motivated out of our love for persons. And when we do, we may know that we are witnessing the disappearance of God which means that have found where God is hiding. When we visit one who feels abandoned by God, the meeting is between God in that person and God in us. We may go to be with God in that person as much as to be God for that person. When people suffer, it may not so much be our job to console them with the idea that God has not really abandoned them but rather to respond ourselves to the truth that God is within them. We may give such people the attention and awe due them as manifestations—or un-manifestations—of “God in human form.”


Who is more “least” than the one from whom God seems absent? Who else—by faith not by sight—more embodies God? Indeed, the One from whom God was most absent—“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”—is who we believe to be the One in whom God is fully incarnate.


RC said...

Wow! Great post, Paul. Thank you for investing in and sharing this. It is a very insightful and powerful inspiration for us to humbly and sensitively engage and identify with those who suffer. I am grateful to be involved with brothers and sisters who are seeking to practice this kind of spirituality in genuine, meaningful ways!

Anna Cotton said...


Maybe because I just came back from visiting Rickey’s mom and my mom and Catherine, all who aren’t fully present as we normally think of presence, this reflection meant a lot to me.

I thought it significant that you pointed out that Job’s friends “… sat down on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights with no one speaking a word.” The best response was silence. (Ah, I want more of this.)

Also, I particularly appreciated your insight when you wrote, “…invisibility of God is what makes those persons least. But, by faith, we are sure to be with God when we are with them. We ought to go and be with these people not in order to assure them that God is there for them but rather to go, for our own sake, to be with God who hides within them.” This seems valuable because it cuts across selfishness. It suddenly isn’t about me or my good intention. It is about being fully present to the pain as well as the joyful moments. In that place of meeting God in the other I am strangely strengthened and made more whole.

Thank you for your investment in writing such a thoughtful, rich, and meaningful reflection.


John Orzechowski said...

Paul, I'm sorry for my late comment. This was a really insightful post. Thank you for sharing it. Great reminder that "Every human we encounter is some sort of a theophany," even though that is usually "not obvious." I pray that I might be more aware of God's presence (and absence or hiddenness) in the lives of those I meet.

David Norling said...

I'm new to this community, so I'm very late in replying, nevertheless, I want to say thank you.

To think about God's hiddeness in this way will help me accept the automatic stories of people asking for change because they need to catch a bus to... whereever. The story is just another layer of separation. Maybe it can be both the wall that separates, like in Simone Weil's illustration, and the means of communication--the prisoners tapping out a code on the very wall that separates.

Anyway, to see the wretchedness as a kind of presence, that helps me keep looking.

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