Absent God

Jan 17, 2008 |David Barshinger
Absent God

When injustice is most acute, too often it seems He's nowhere to be found.

"I had faith until I got to Iraq.... I haven't gotten it back since. Once you get there, you wonder how God could allow anyone to go through that."Quoted in Eve Conant, "Faith Under Fire," Newsweek, May 7, 2007, 28.

Those are the words of an Army specialist after serving two terms in Iraq, a man who weighs honestly his observations of war and faith. How do you reconcile mass bloodshed with a loving God? God seems absent at the very time when His intervention is most needed.

We've all heard this question in one shape or another, and if we're honest with ourselves, most of us have asked the question, too. Like the Army specialist, the mass evil we see in our world — such as Hitler's genocidal program, the Darfur crisis, and heartless terrorism aimed at innocent civilians — disturbs us to the core. We cry out, "Where's God? I see no signs of Him anywhere."

If you've asked the question, you're in good company. King David, the man after God's own heart, posed the question, too:

Why, O LORD, do you stand afar off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Psalm 10:1).

Questioning God's presence isn't wrong. It's human.

The Roots of Questioning God's Presence

The feeling that God is absent stems from perceived injustice and fear. Injustice can anger the calmest soul. Who of us doesn't get riled up when someone gives us a biased, unfair evaluation of our job performance, demoting us and then advancing a lazy colleague because he's family?

Global injustice raises even harsher charges of God's absence because it affects such a widespread populace. Reports of 12-year-old girls sold into sex slavery makes our blood boil. People who take advantage of the poor and oppress the powerless spark in us a burning for just recompense.

David described the same injustice in his day:

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor....
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression....
In hiding places he murders the innocent....
He lurks that he may seize the poor....
The helpless are crushed, sink down, and fall by His might" (Psalm 10:2, 7–10).

The wicked person believes he has gotten away with his injustice because he thinks "God has hidden His face" and "will never see it" (Psalm 10:11). In other words, believing God to be absent, he justifies taking advantage of the weak and powerless. What makes these violent, oppressive actions particularly repulsive is that the wicked man's "ways prosper at all times" (Psalm 10:5). Sex slave traders don't expect to ever answer for their crimes; they're just out to make money.

Leading New Testament scholar N. T. Wright argues in his popular book Simply Christian that justice is one of the basic yearnings that define us as humans. Though we contrarily desire justice when we're wronged and beg for mercy when we're guilty, Wright concludes that we nonetheless long for "putting the world to rights"; we hope for a time when injustice will cease. Lacking pervasive justice, we ask, "Why, God, do you hide yourself in this time of trouble?"N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), chapter 1.

Fear intensifies our questioning of God's absence because we fear that injustice and the accompanying pain will strike me.

On a corporate level, the U.S. is largely fearful of terrorists and increasingly at odds with the rest of the world. And at this national crossroads, our fears seep out in our political process. Many Americans place tremendous hope in presidential candidates. The American people spend hundreds of millions of dollars on their presidential hopefuls because we believe so much hangs in the balance. Fear grips us and we grasp for someone to fix our dilemma. And some panic: "What if my candidate loses? Our nation could plunge into moral, economic and social chaos!"

David knew the intricacy of politics. He waited nearly 20 years to receive the kingship God promised him, fought extensively to secure it, lost it briefly to his son Absalom in a coup, and watched his children fight over it before he died.Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 244. He knew, left to itself, the Israelite kingdom could implode. Fears could become reality then — and the same is true today in the U.S.

But David offered perspective that helps the people of God answer the burning question "Where is the Lord?" in any circumstance. He gave hope in the face of injustice and fear.

Walking by Faith, Not by Might

Psalm 10, from which the above descriptions were taken, is part of an acrostic poem in Hebrew that begins each line with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet. The acrostic begins not in Psalm 10:1, but in Psalm 9. The two chapters are originally intended to be read as a unit.In fact, the Septuagint (the famed Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) combined Psalms 9 and 10 into a single psalm. For more on the literary structure of the psalms, see C. Hassell Bullock, Encountering the Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 41, 43.

In other words, the dreary picture of injustice painted in the first half of Psalm 10 is framed with the portrait of God painted in Psalm 9. Any question of God's absence must wrestle with the full nature of who God is. Psalm 10's first section shows that God in His sovereignty allows the unjust to experience prosperity for a time. Psalm 9 and the rest of Psalm 10 give a fuller picture of God's nature.

God will deal out justice to the oppressors. He will make the wicked perish and will "[blot] out their name forever and ever" (Psalm 9:5):

But the Lord sits enthroned forever;
He has established His throne for justice,
and He judges the world with righteousness;
He judges the peoples with uprightness" (Psalm 9:7–8).

In a particularly satisfying dealing of justice, the snare the wicked set is turned back on them: "The nations have sunk in the pit that they made; in the net that they hid their own foot has been caught" (Psalm 9:15).

God is also "a stronghold for the oppressed" who does not forsake those who seek Him (Psalm 9:9–10). He cares for the needy, and "the hope of the poor shall not perish forever." He is a gracious God who grants salvation and listens to the afflicted, a God worthy of praise (9:11–14).

The oppressor believes God won't see his injustice, but David says in contrast, "But you do see" (Psalm 10:14), and thus he implores, "Arise, O LORD! Let not man prevail; let the nations be judged before you!" (9:19) And again he says, "Arise, O LORD, O God, lift up your hand; forget not the afflicted" (10:12). David calls not on armies, but on God, who is "king forever and ever" (10:16).

In our world, might matters. But in God's economy, might is shattered. To us, might wins. But to God, might too often sins. It oppresses, murders and steals. But despite what God's Word teaches us about the dangers of power, we continue to place great hope in political and military might, don't we?

We live in the 21st century, which has followed millennia of nations rising and falling. Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, Spain, France, England, Germany — all nations that have held overarching power in the world at some point in time, but fell from supremacy. The United States is by no means immune to falling either.

The psalmist David describes a transcendent hope that weathers the ups and downs of politics and that promises true justice, not just a cheap imitation disguising a power-hungry opportunist. When we face injustice or fear, our solution as Christians is faith and hope — to believe in the God revealed to us in the Scriptures who is still in control and will one day deliver ultimate justice, and in uncertain circumstances to place our hope in Him. Believing and resting in the God of the Bible when the world's events say God is distant gives us the perspective we need in today's global upheaval.

Christ, Our Living Hope

This doesn't mean we shouldn't engage our world. God doesn't call for apathy and laziness, but for vigilance, action and prayer. That is, in fact, what Psalm 9–10 is: a prayer addressed to Yahweh, the God of Israel. David was clearly a man of action, even war, but also of prayer. His words reveal a faith that rested not in his spear, but in the Creator of the trees that humans shape into spears.

This same God, the Creator of all things, the God of David, revealed himself centuries later in the person of Jesus Christ. Christ gives us a fuller picture of the God who we charge as absent.

What kind of God could allow anyone to go through the horrors of Iraq — the corruption, treachery, hatred, violence and death? A Christian response recognizes humanity's ultimate culpability (God doesn't force mankind's violent hand), but also points to a God who submitted himself to all that suffering and more. Jesus Christ the Son of God endured despising and shame, betrayal and unjust execution so that we might have life. He bore the sins of the world, took our penalty, and died. He rose to conquer decay, and He lives to set the world to rights and to set all fears to rest forever. We hope in this God, in Jesus Christ, the God who reveals himself as present and active in our fallen world.

No matter what injustice reigns in our workplaces and cities, no matter what candidate takes the Oval Office, no matter what war strikes our home, no matter what nation rises and falls, no matter what befalls humankind, God reigns. And we hope in Him. As David says,

The LORD is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from His land.
O LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart;
you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more" (Psalm 10:16–18).

By God's grace may we have the perspective of Elisabeth, a 16-year-old girl enslaved for a time in a Thailand brothel, who though enduring multiple rapes as a sex slave, scrawled on the wall of her brothel room in her native tongue these words from Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"Gary Haugen, "On a Justice Mission," Christianity Today, 51, no. 3 (March 2007), 42–43.

God's ways are not our ways. As David says, "your judgments are on high, out of ... sight" (Psalm 10:5). God's timing may not make sense to us, but with the promise of ultimate justice, we can hope in the great goodness of His plan. Christ's first coming makes that clear. In His time, He will render justice where it is due and grace to those who believe and hope in Him.

Copyright 2008 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.

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