Present Absence

Posted by Margaret Manning, on September 5, 2017
Topic: A Slice of Infinity

For many Jewish people living after the Holocaust, God’s absence is an ever-present reality. It is as tangible as the concentration camps at Auschwitz and Dachau, and as haunting as the empty chair at a table once occupied with a loved one long-silenced by the gas chambers. In his tragic account of the horror and loss in the camps at Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel intones the cries of many who likewise experienced God’s absence: “It is the end. God is no longer with us….I know that Man is too small, too humble, and inconsiderable to seek to understand the mysterious ways of God. But what can I do? Where is the divine Mercy? Where is God? How can I believe? How can anyone believe in this merciful God?”(1)

This experience of absence, dramatic in its implications for the victims of the Holocaust, has repeated itself over and over again in the ravaged stories of those who struggle to hold on to faith, or those who have lost faith altogether in the face of personal holocaust. In a world where tragedy and suffering are daily realities seemingly unchecked by divine government, the absence of God seems a cruel abdication.

The words of Job, ancient in origin, speak of this same kind of experience:

Behold, I go forward, but He is not there,
And backward, but I cannot perceive Him;
When He acts on the left, I cannot behold Him;
He turns on the right, I cannot see Him.(2)

The story of Job is at least in part a story of the experience of God’s absence. While the narrator of the story and the readers of the story know the beginning and the end, Job finds himself in the silent middle struck down by unjust suffering. His story poignantly explores the silent mystery of a God who seems to go missing in the moments of greatest need. Job cries out: “Oh that I knew where I might find Him that I might come to his seat” (Job 23:3). Somehow, Job clings tenaciously to the hope that he will find God, and find a just God in his case. “I am not silenced by the darkness,” Job proclaims, “nor deep gloom which covers me” (23:17).

Job’s anguished cries against God’s absence paradoxically assume God’s presence. There is no hint of atheism in his cries. Rather, Job cries out of a tenacious faith in God who seems distant from his pain, silent to his cries, and absent from his world. In the face of his suffering, Job affirms God’s presence by taking issue with the injustice of God’s apparent absence. He pleads his case with God as one would with a neighbor.

Sadao Watanabe, Descent from the Cross, hand dyed kappazuri stencil print on momigami (crumpled) paper, 1973.

Surely, Job’s cries represent each and every person who protests God’s apparent abandonment in the midst of suffering. As one author notes; “in a roundabout way, man’s indignant protest against God’s silence would be deprived of meaning if there were no Presence behind the Silence.”(3) And here, an unexpectedly encouraging apologetic is found in this paradox.

C.S. Lewis suggests that “the defiance…hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.”(4)

Lewis goes on to argue that this is in fact a central offering from the book of Job. While no explanation of the problem of God’s absence in the face of unjust suffering is given, Job’s wrestling with God ultimately receives divine approval. Indeed, Job’s ‘righteous’ friends who attempt to justify God are condemned. Lewis concludes: “Apparently the way to advance from our imperfect apprehension of justice to the absolute justice is not to throw our imperfect apprehensions aside but boldly to go on applying them.”(5)

Perhaps in this season of natural disasters, political upheaval, and economic instability as we grope in the darkness of imperfect apprehension of God, or wrestle with the experience of God’s absence, we might come to experience the presence of God in a different way. Perhaps we too might proclaim with Job: “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye has seen you.(6)

 

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

 

(1) Elie Wiesel, The Night Trilogy: Night, Dawn, The Accident (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), 83.
(2) Job 23:8-9.
(3) Gary Henry, “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the Work of Elie Wiesel,” Public Broadcasting System, www.pbs.org, 2002.
(4) C.S. Lewis, “De Futilitate,” in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 69-70, cited by Gary Henry in “Story and Silence: Transcendence in the Work of Elie Wiesel,” appendix.
(5) Ibid., 69-70.
(6) Job 42:5.