Ready to join the community of those who long for what they still lack?
Why do I feel timid, even somewhat embarrassed, about pronouncing these words? It feels like a taboo to state them in Christian circles. The idea of God being present has become so ingrained in our thinking, through sermons, testimonies, and songs, that we appear to have problems also acknowledging that He can be hidden and silent.
Still, I speak regularly with believers who find truth in also saying, “He is not here.” I see youth leaving the church because they are told they should experience God’s presence in their lives. But as they struggle to meet expectations, they find only the opposite, His absence. His silence and hiddenness are experienced as a personal and spiritual defeat. If God’s presence is a sign of His favor, but you experience only His absence, why then continue in faith if He has turned His back on you?
God’s Hiddenness in Scripture
As I read the prophets, I find that they struggled with similar questions. In fact, they could be frank about the silence and hiddenness of God. If you haven’t noticed, take a look at such examples as Isaiah 45:15; 59:1, 2; Ezekiel 39:21-24, 27-29; Daniel 8:13; Habakkuk 1:2; or Zechariah 7:11-14. Yes, the reasons for His silence and hiddenness are complex. Deuteronomy 31:17, 18 states that God may hide His face because of human sins. But the sons of Korah protest and claim that they have not sinned to deserve God’s silence and hiddenness (Ps. 44:18-20, 24, 25).
On the cross, Jesus Himself borrowed these painful words of David: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; cf. Ps. 22:2).* The thrice-documented angelic assertion, “He is not here,” at the empty tomb (Matt. 28:6; Mark 16:6; Luke 24:5) sums up Christ’s victory over death. This we can celebrate. But what about the first part of the angelic assertion at the ascension, that He is taken up from us (Acts 1:11)? Jesus Himself said that “if you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). And then we have the conundrum in John 16:7: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
Is there an advantage that Christ goes away? What room is there in our faith for also confessing “He is not here” and “He is taken away”? What room do we have for stating that God is silent and hidden?
How to Deal With the Wait
The promise that Jesus will return just as concretely as He left when He ascended to heaven is still an unfulfilled promise. After 2,000 years it’s reasonable to ask how long we need to wait (cf. Isa. 6:11; Dan. 8:13; 12:6; Hab. 1:2; Zech. 1:12; Rev. 6:10). Christians have related differently to this unfulfilled promise throughout history.
The early Christian movement arose in the vacuum following Jesus’ ascension. Its explosive growth was driven by an intense longing for Christ’s second coming. But as decades and centuries passed, the church settled into this world. The focus shifted. The church had to provide an experience of God’s presence. Some claimed that Jesus had already returned invisibly, and that the millennium had begun. People were told that Christ’s body and blood were actually present in the bread and wine. God was omnipresent. Spiritual exercises would give a sensation of His presence. The Second Coming was explained as the encounter everyone has upon death—through the immortality of the soul. The clergy and other spiritual leaders could substitute the role of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the lives of believers. But awe-inspiring rituals, cherished traditions, sophisticated literature, exquisite architecture, art, and music—they all cannot meet the deepest longing of our hearts.
The Seventh-day Adventist Church was born in a time when the intense longing for Christ’s return was in the forefront of ideas and currents. And yes, we too may and have also been enticed by the satisfaction of being established in this world, through buildings, institutions, the numbers of members, or the truth we confess.
But there is power in confessing that “He is not here,” but will come soon. Again and again in history, we have seen a major force in the love and longing for the One who is to come.
The opposite of presence is absence. But to me the Bible appears to prefer to speak of God being “with” and Christ being “in” us. The biblical authors never saw a contradiction between speaking of God being hidden and silent and Him being “with” and “in” us. There is no inherent inconsistency between the two. That God is “with” and “in” us is not necessarily synonymous with how we have accustomed ourselves to talk about His presence.That God is hiding does not mean He is absent. That God is silent does not mean He doesn’t exist. And to confess that God is at times hidden and silent does not exclude that He also answers prayers, acts, communicates, and is with us. We are grateful for these signs from Him, as shining stars in the immense spaces, as we long for the rise of the sun.
The hope of Christ’s return is not born out of dissatisfaction, a wish, or a need, but out of the promises given to us by God. It’s the promises of His return that define our hope. Rather than a community embarrassed about His silence and hiddenness, should we not instead openly confess it? Instead of creating problems for and driving seekers away from us, should we not welcome them into the community of those who long for what they still lack? Should we proclaim that “He is not here” and “He is taken away” more freely to be more fully grasped by the longing and hope that He will indeed return? Should we not freely recognize that we still miss the most essential in life, that we still live in exile? We will never quiet our hearts until we can share direct communion with Him, converse with Him in the cool of the day, and see Him face to face. Then on that day we can finally say:
“Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation” (Isa. 25:9).
* Scripture quotations have been taken from the NRSV.