On the Silence of God: When He Doesn't Show up Like You Need Him to
As far as I can tell, a lot of kids growing up in Southern Protestant churches are given one of two promises.
If you grew up Southern Baptist, Methodist, or Charismatic, you were probably promised that you'd be able to feel God somehow at some point.
If you grew up Presbyterian, DTS/Bible Church, or maybe Anglican, you were more likely to receive a promise that God could be proven with facts and your mind.
These are broad generalizations, and I don't mean for them to be watertight--some Baptists are deep into apologetics, and some Presbyterians are more mystical. But just for kicks, let's allow for outliers here and dive into some of the problems these two promises can create.
Why do that? Because more and more lately, I'm seeing young adults who grew up in the shadow of these two promises hit a crisis of faith. When gets super hard, hurting people go back to those two expectations and shout out across the canyon of their deep doubt, asking for God to show up in the way they were promised he would.
But all they feel is silence.
That silence is scary because many people don't feel like they can take it back to their churches and say, "Hey! This thing you told me didn't work." Instead, they hold it in their bellies and fear and churn. The silence makes them lonely, and it makes them wonder if they believe in God at all.
These two promises produce different sorts of disappointments, so let's look at those individually:
AT THE END OF THE "FEEL" PROMISE
At the end of the feel promise, you reach out to God because you desperately need him, but he doesn't seem to show up. You can never honestly say, "I had a peace about it." The warm fuzzies never hit. The world feels empty, and you feel like you're praying out into a vacant universe.
God feels cruel because what kind of all-loving Father would ever do that to somebody? An earthly parent won't even ignore her child when he needs help... would it really be so hard for God to get involved?
AT THE END OF THE "PROOFS" PROMISE
At the end of the proofs promise, you find out that something Lee Strobel wrote just wasn't right historically, and you feel betrayed. Or you find out that a certain historical document conservative Christians use to validate the faith was actually doctored by a monk. Maybe you discover that other religions that predate Christianity also had a virgin-born messiah figure with twelve disciples. You run into verses or passages that contradict logically. You get worn out from trying to make them all jive.
WHY I'M INTERESTED IN THIS
First off, I've been there. At the end of both of these promises, I've hit the skids, and I have retreated into myself, terrified that I was slowly becoming an atheist. Some people might look at that fear as proof that faith is an artificial comfort, created to manage dread of the unknown. However, I don't think the fear of losing your old perspective is singular to Christianity. Whatever your worldview is, it's disorienting to have that rattled. I've felt similar fear when my opinions on other matters (like politics or the inner dynamics of marriage) have changed. I've also seen atheists fear when changing over to a posture of faith. Change is just a disorienting experience, right?
And when I couldn't get away from the fact that God was real, I've wondered if he was mean to keep so far back. Why would someone who COULD be obvious choose to be hidden?
So, before I say anything else, let me say that you're not freaking me out if you have hit this point. I get it. I know how frustrated and scared you are.
I can also tell you that so much good has come from these dark stretches of doubt in my life. At the time, they literally felt like the end of everything I knew to be true. But now that I've walked through this crisis of belief, I can put my arm around people who are there and say, "It's okay. I remember. And here's some more stuff to think about as you process the silence of God."
I'm not sure if everything I am bringing to you is right. I'm still a learner here, so check all this against the Bible and against your trusted mentors. But even if you make some corrections to this post, I think sometimes just seeing someone, ANYONE talk about this can be encouraging. It can crack open the freedom to raise your hand and say, "Me too!"
WHAT DID GOD ACTUALLY PROMISE US?
If we step away from the extreme promises our denominations sometimes make to us, it's kind of startling to see what Jesus did and didn't say about belief in Him.
He never said, "Hey! You're going to find TONS of historical and scientific evidence, and reading Scripture is always going to match up in a way that you understand it."
He never said, "You're going live at a ten on the warm-fuzzy scale, and whenever you doubt me, you're going to see my face appear on a pizza-flavored Dorito."
In fact, we see lots of places in Scripture that indicate that belief will (at least sometimes) be tough.
God sometimes refers to the truth as a secret that he intentionally hides from certain types of people. If empirical evidence alone proved the gospel, you couldn't ever veil it from anyone, right?
And to Thomas who said he was never going to believe unless he could actually see physical proof that Jesus was alive, Jesus showed up and then said, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed"
In other words, he's not always going to prove himself in that same extreme way to every human being. He might not even use a proof that works like other proofs we have used before.
I'm embarrassed and frustrated by some of the scientific, historical, and logical errors passed around inside certain versions of Christianity. But despite those mistakes, I'm pretty nerdy about research, and I still think empirical/historical/logical evidence points strongly to the reality of Christ's life, his death, and his resurrection. My research doesn't remove the gap, but it narrows it an awful lot. I think what remains is intentional on God's part.
In terms of feelings, sometimes God does show up and direct us. Sometimes we do see clearly for a season. But even the Apostle Paul had moments that were so hard that they led him to despair. ("We were under a burden far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.")
Think about that. This guy who had experienced this major flash of God showing up directly, the guy who told us to "rejoice in all things" and said that "the peace that passes all understanding will guard your hearts" still got down the road to a point where his emotions weren't jiving with his beliefs.
YOU'RE NOT WEIRD. YOU'RE NOT ABANDONED.
I promise. You aren't weird if these disappointments have hit you.
In fact, it's taking every ounce of self-control I have to streamline this post because if I knew that I could glue your eyeballs here, I would unpack tons of the Bible and tons of examples from the lives of Christians to show you that hitting these two skids is often just part of a thinker's journey. A huge could be written about this topic. I'm trying to hit the highlights.
These hard spots don't mean your faith is dying. I know it might feel like everything is falling out from underneath you, but this season often just means that you're growing up, and sometimes growth hurts.
If you ever get a chance to listen to Monty Python's John Cleese read The Screwtape Letters on YouTube, DO IT. Do it. Do it. They are hilarious and so good. Anyway, in Chapter 8, Lewis talks about times of doubt just like this. He calls those the "troughs," and he explains why sometimes God removes evidence of himself so that we can mature in faith.
In another piece of writing, Lewis says that sometimes God lets us experience struggle so that *we* can realize what is really inside us. He knows all along what our gaps are--we just don't. So times like what you are going through right now can help you learn yourself better while also helping you learn God in a deeper way.
After that verse about Paul's despair, he says something so interesting. Get this: "Indeed, we felt we were under the sentence of death, in order that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and He will deliver us. In Him we have placed our hope that He will yet again deliver us..."
This means Pauls despair was actually a classroom that taught him not to depend on the strengths of his emotions or his logic but on the living person of God.
ONE LAST THING:
One of the worst things (I think) about the extremes of the "feel promise" and the "proof promise" is that they can sometimes decrease our sensitivity to the realm of the Spirit. While God did give us some pretty solid evidence for the faith, and while he also gives us feelings sometimes, there's also a realm of the Spirit in which confirmation isn't just a logical conclusion or a surge of endorphins.
This realm isn't often discussed by folks because it's difficult to describe. I think of it almost as a sixth sense. If we were animals, I'd use the term "instinct," but it's more than that, and it's also more than intuition. I think it's actually part of the "imago Dei"-- or the capacity for God that God put inside humans and no other animal.
Instead of hacking through a ton of theology, I just want to mention this capacity in a simple phrase. "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me."
I don't think that's describing a simple emotion, and I don't think it's referring to empirical proof. I think it's whatever word we should use for the unspeakable connection of the human spirit with the divine Spirit.
Yeah. That's going to get too complex to address here properly. But maybe saying that much will help somehow, too.
Know you aren't alone. Please know that. It's okay if you are here. Lots of people have been here. I certainly have.
It's the scariest most disorienting thing in the world to wonder if everything you have believed isn't even real. And it's hard to wonder if God is cruel or indifferent if he does exist. But over time, I've realized that a lot of my problem was rooted in expectations that God never actually put on me. And just relaxing there, admitting the truth of my struggle, and taking a big breath has helped so much.
You want to know something super ironic? When I read my Bible now, sweet, confirming emotions that fear had frozen in me for years have returned. (For several years, I dreaded reading it because I was afraid it would just frustrate me all over again.) And when I research historical and intertextual evidence now, I don't freak so much when I see bad proofs. Yeah, it still embarrasses me when Christians make errant claims. But I usually just move forward now, looking at primary sources and strong logic for what does hold water.
Now that the fear is gone, I can approach both emotions and proofs with a more relaxed spirit because I'm learning to depend on God instead of my own self. Paul was right. There's a way through the fog, and that way is a Person.
As hard as it was, I'm increasingly thankful that I walked through that dark night of the soul these days. What felt like the end of everything was actually only a new beginning. I had to shed an old skin before I could begin to emerge from it.