The Present but Absent God

In the introduction to her book “The History of God”, Karen Armstrong writes:

I wrestled with myself in prayer, trying to force my mind to encounter God, but he remained a stern taskmaster who observed my every infringement of the Rule, or tantalizingly absent. The more I read about the raptures of the saints, the more of a failure I felt. I was unhappily aware that what little religious experience I had, had somehow been manufactured by myself as I worked upon my own feelings and imagination. Sometimes a sense of devotion was an aesthetic response to the beauty of the Gregorian chant and the liturgy. But nothing had actually happened to me from a source beyond myself.

I relate to what she writes here and have often felt the same way about prayer throughout my life. I wonder if most of the Christians I was surrounded by felt this same sense of the “present but absent God” that I have felt.

21 Replies to “The Present but Absent God”

  1. But what about face to face communication with God? Where he actually gets some kind of message to us that really makes sense for us personally? Does anyone believe that is possible and expect it? Does anyone have an experience of this?

  2. “We are all trying to make sense of God, and if he does exist, it’s the only way he would make sense to me. But if I am correct, what’s the point right?” (Steve)

    Prayer for me is practically the worst subjct I can speak on – I am very limited in what I know about it (since the other 1/2 of it I have no clue about – if God answers any of this).

    Like you I think God respects the human free choice in all of this – but that’s not to say God cannot allow something to happen (or not happen). I know with prayer I feel comforted in some of my moments of anguish and maybe that’s all I really need? Maybe God leaves it all in our hands to make or break? How would I know though – like I said – very limited on what I can know on this topic.

    Recently I overcame a fear – of flying – and went to Greece with my wife (6 flights there and back – 2 10 hour flights). I am not sure if this is related to prayer but i did pray on that one also – not sure I was strong enough to face that kind of thing? But in the process of my own faith in God I felt it was going to be ‘ok’. It was – and it was a blast!

    Faith has given me more power to overcome my fears – and somewhere in that combination prayer is a piece of that. Does it validate prayer? Not really – but I notice it bolsters me to act out my faith in real and workable ways – and in kind ways since in prayer it’s really just me being honest with myself – and sometimes this is enlightening…and how God works in that is quite beyond me?

  3. You’re right Steve. This is a quandary that many of us have wrestled with. Unfortunately, you’re only quoting from the introduction of this book.

    Book intros tend to serve as the cursory conflict to draw the reader into the work. Many times a completely different conclusion is drawn.

    I’d be curious to know how the other 400+ pages of this book build upon or deconstruct this premise.

    btw- happy to see you’re still at it.


  4. “I find the line you wrote “at some point, you simply choose to believe what you believe” to be disconcerting. So will you validate my beliefs simply on the basis of my believing them?”

    It’s necessary to consider the context of that statement. It’s not an arbitrary choice. I think belief is a choice in the sense that it is based on the best interpretation of the evidences availablein the context of my own understanding. It isn’t an absolute truth. My obligation, however, is to be as honest as I can with myself to consider all the evidences that are available. I gauge my success in this regard by the number of church people who avoid conversations with me. : )

    So, while it isn’t for me to validate someone else’s beliefs, I will be satisfied if I perceive that they are honestly examining all the evidences at their disposal. Again, that’s all so very subjective, my satisfaction with your process should be all but disregarded. It’s too personal for that.

  5. Dorsey – before I forget to say thank you, I appreciate your response.

    I find the line you wrote “at some point, you simply choose to believe what you believe” to be disconcerting. So will you validate my beliefs simply on the basis of my believing them?

    SocietyVS – Also, as always, I appreciate your voice. First I am happy for you and your wife’s reconciliation. That’s great news. Personally I don’t think God had anything to do with it anymore than he had anything to do with my wife not choosing to come back to me after my earnest and heartfelt prayers. As you said, it was out of our control, our words were powerless to change it and ultimately the heart wants what it wants. I am glad your wife’s heart wanted to spend her days and nights with you.

    My wife decided to do what was best for her. In the end, we all make decisions and choices that effect the lives and loves of others. I don’t believe God interferes in those decisions nor can we change his mind by our verbal pleas. We are all trying to make sense of God, and if he does exist, it’s the only way he would make sense to me. But if I am correct, what’s the point right?

    Rebel Saint – As Karen Armstrong intimates, I am saying that much of what we detect as God’s voice is actually not originating outside of us, but is our own internal chatter helping us navigate the world around us.

  6. It’s like being on a call centre … how long do you hang on whilst “on hold” before you decide they’ve actually cut you off or gone home?

    Are you saying Steve, there’s got to be constant ‘on-hold’ music to ‘prove’ that you are still connected to God – that as soon as there is silence it’s proof that He’s not there. Some people seem to talk of experiencing/feeling/encountering God every day. Not me. Like Dorsey – I have a few very tangible experiences of where God seems to have taken me off hold [if you’ll excuse the continued use of the metaphor] and answered me directly … the rest of the time it’s just silence … or at best a bit of a crackle on the line! I remind myself of the times when I was taken “off hold” in the past and of how it was worth hanging on. And if all else fails I remind myself of the truth of Jesus’ life, death & resurrection.

    Where’s JimmyBob when you need him?!

  7. One more example – and with this one I have no choice about the outcome. This is the recent story about me and my wife and that whole ‘break-up’ thing.

    Well when she left I thought I would never go on – but I prayed about it (and I rarely pray mind you) – and I was brutally honest with myself and with God…and stated what it is what I desired but maybe even my desires may be tricky. I realized at that moment – do I know what it is I am asking for? Is this what I really want? I decided it ‘was’…and I will deal with outcome.

    Needless to say – the prayer looked unanswered to me – she did not come back when I said – not even like a week later or so…so I decided to ‘give up’ and move on with my life (since this was the internal urge I felt to do).

    At was it this moment and later on – that everything just changed. I realized nothing I could do could win this girl back – but I felt she wanted to be back (thus the prayer in the first place). She came back and made me realize that God is way more mysterious than I imagined. I don’t know how it all works – all I know is I laid it out there for God and let it go – and when I felt their was no hope left – that prayer came to fruition.

    But it wasn’t easy and shouldn’t be – I didn’t pray this one just out of selfishness – but out of selflessness. I realized in the process my love for this woman was much greater than I ever let on – or ever showed…also lining up with another prayer I mentioned earlier (about love). In this process I have learned about living what I believe – my prayers – my forgiveness – my responsibilities – about how woman function – etc.

    Now these are example of 2 types of prayers – one where I do not decide the outcome and another where I learn to live a little more from the more I am shown. I am totally involved in the process – my actions are everything in what prayer is going to mean. Cause I can easily as reject learning about love as easily as I can accept it.

    In the end, prayer is absolutely mysterious to me – and what I can grasp and relate – means something to me – but may mean nothing to another. I am ok with that – I didn’t pray it for proof – but for sincere concerns. And if sincerity isn’t a good enough reason to do it – then I suck at it I guess (lol).

  8. I kind of lean to the Dorsey way of thinking on this subject. Proof is how you want to view it – where some will see overwhelming proof of nothing – some don’t neccesarily see that. Plus someone needs to define the limits of prayer – no answer today so no proof? Or do some things take much longer? Reminds me of a statistics arguement really.

    I have had those experiences like Dorsey – in which it is hard for me to determine it quite any other way. It is some of those experiences that have effected me (for the better) – but they were not momentary either – revelaing to me maybe some prayer is longer effort than even I imagined.

    What if someone prays to know love – because they admit they no none? Then they have a moment at the beginning that changes them quite dramatically and change their whole viewpoint from that moment on? Is that not answered prayer?

    But even with a prayer like that – the momentary experience is not the end – there is more in life that will come and teach the person – since they desire to know about ‘love’. So the prayer lasts for years to a lifetime.

    Some can say – well that’s quite generic and anything will teach us about love. But have you ever grown up without love? It’s very rough. We cannot discount someone’s prayer because it does not line up with our viewpoints…we have to admit we are limited.

    Of course the above story is about an incident in my life – and if someone chooses to discount it – so be it – but they cannot discount the effects of such a prayer on my life from the moment I uttered it (and meant it). The path of my life changed that very day until now. It’s hard for me to discount it – because I see answers where I had none (at like the age of 19). And that’s only grown and will continue to evolve over time.

    Have I prayed something and find no answer? This is going to be an odd answer but ‘no’. Did I see an answer at the moment of the prayer – no…but was I reminded I said it when it actually came about to teach me – yes. So what is the time limit on a prayer?

  9. Josh – Glad you chose to comment.

    So why have you come to this conclusion? Why is it better to live that way?

  10. I don’t comment a lot so I’ll be short: I’ve had pretty much the same experience, and since there’s no proof, the conclusion that I come to is that it’s better to live as though it were true than not.

  11. Lest we get hung up on semantics, let me define my understanding of these terms. In common usage, evidence is a fact that suggests something is true, but which does not rule out every other possibility. Proof, on the other hand, is the objective demonstration that something is true to the exclusion of other possibilities. So I do not believe that evidence is the incontrovertible demonstration that something is true, but proof is.

    And, to be clear, my outcome WAS the experience. There wasn’t any flash of light or feeling of warmth, or anything else. They prayed, the fever broke, I got up, showered, and went out. That’s it. Nothing spooky.

    Additionally, I think context renders most perceptions subjective. In the context of my faith in Jesus Christ, my healing is evidence that God Is. However, it is not proof. The Naturopathologist, in the context of his/her belief in the power of the mind, will say that my healing is evidence that my body mended itself as a result of my mind setting the processes in motion upon believing that it would happen. And I’m sure there’s someone somewhere who would suggest that it was all a coincidence, that my fever just broke at the very moment those men touched my head and prayed. None of this is proof of anything. At some point, you simply choose to believe what you believe.

    And yes, I’ve prayed a great many unanswered prayers. And yes, you could, if you choose, consider that evidence that God isn’t there (certainly not proof). Or you could interpret it in a number of other ways. You could lay it off on not using the right prayer formula, that there’s some sin in your life that hinders your prayer, that you don’t have enough faith, or merely that , in the words of the prophet, you can’t always get what you want. ; )

    In truth, I assume that most of the prayers I ever prayed were selfish, anyway, and had little business being answered. But I don’t want to go there, because there are a great many good and selfless prayers that have bounced off the sky, too, and I don’t want to diminish those. Personally, I have no idea why many (actually, I’d say the vast majority of) prayers seem to go unanswered. I just don’t know. And, at this point in my life, I don’t see much sense in banging my head against a wall about it.

    The last few years, I have found myself very much in the mindset of Solomon in Ecclesiastes: Everything is meaningless. Nothing matters. But the end of that book says,

    “Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
    Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the whole duty of man.

    For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.”

    I interpret that to mean, “Dorse, don’t worry about all this crap. Your only job is to love God and love your neighbor. (S)he will sort out the rest of it.”

    There’s a lot of freedom in understanding that even if I could understand every mystery, there’s just not much point in it.

  12. I recognize that longing to have “something actually happen to me from a source beyond myself.” We need to have that burning bush experience where God calls us out by name. We shouldn’t settle for anything less. I remember coming to the end of myself and telling God I wasn’t going anywhere until I heard from him. It came in an unexpected way. And it was very personal.

    In my experience it hasn’t usually come during my own personal prayer but from prophetic prayer with others where someone speaks into my heart something that only God could know. It has also come from uncanny circumstances and from guidance within myself that seems separate from me, if that makes any sense.

    I think the key is to desire it like a treasure and to recognize it when it happens.

  13. Dorsey – I would contend that proof and evidence are the same thing….interchangeable actually. At least that’s what my dictionary/thesauras says. And I don’t believe that evidence is subjective necessarily – we may not know the answer but one exists for why you were healed. The experience you had was certainly subjective, the outcome (fever going away) is not.

    I know we’ve talked about it before but it’s still worth kicking around so indulge me please… Have you ever prayed for something that didn’t happen? I assume you have and if so, why isn’t that non-answered prayer not evidence to you of God’s non-existence?

    And I am not sure on what basis you are saying that you have “more evidence” that God healed you. Is it just because you believe (or feel) he did?

    Please know I am not being antagonistic (those days are gone for now), I am truly trying to grasp this concept.

    Jameson – Welcome!! I enjoy what you shared. I don’t think it’s possible to have a “personal relationship” with God or Jesus. I never liked that phrase nor understood it even as I used to preach it.

  14. I have only recently been introduced to SCP, and I find it fascinating. I think it stirs worthwhile conversation.

    I have often wondered in what sense we ever really know God is there. It’s amazing to watch children progress through the stages of infancy and then early childhood. They know their parents are there. They learn the language of their parents, because they always have the voice of their mother right near them, constantly.

    I just wonder, in what sense is this kind of intimacy with a transcendent being possible? Maybe His transcendence means that every experience of nurturing, including a mother’s love, is from Him. Maybe knowing Him is all about knowing and trusting all the good things in life. I don’t know. It is easy to mistakes what’s good for what’s evil, and vice versa.

    Who knows? These are just thoughts, not answers. What kinds of proof are we even supposed to be looking for, anyway?

  15. There is no proof. There is only evidence, and it is highly subjective and often individualized.

    We’ve talked about this before, but twenty-some years ago I was instantly healed from a 5 day-long 105-degree fever when the elders from the church laid hands on me and prayed. As far as my own faith is concerned, this event is something that I cannot deny. Yet, when I spoke of it aloud, there were those who refused to believe that God had healed me, saying that there must be some other explanation. All in all, I’d say I had more evidence that God Is than they did that there must be some explanation.

    At it’s core, belief is a choice. No one is objective about it. The decision to believe or not is a posture of a person’s own will.

  16. I think we’ve all shared Ms. Armstrong’s frustrating experience at some point. Still, whether or not I feel God has no bearing on whether He Is. Are you still demanding proof?

  17. sounds about right. i know i occasionally say a prayer of safety but with the understanding that i’m saying it to feel safer/at peace regardless of if it goes anywhere.

  18. The kind of relationship you want through prayer requires many hours alone with God. Most people can’t stand being alone with themselves for more than an hour.

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