God’s absence makes us uncomfortable. I titled a book When God Isn’t There, and people kept asking me, “When God isn’t there? Don’t you know God’s always there!”
It isn’t easy to think about God being absent, but if we avoid the tension created by God’s absence and presence, we forfeit joy. I’ve learned to state the tension like this: God is often absent in the ways we most desire, but present in the way we most require.
God has been, and still is, present with us in all the ways we require: sustaining the world, revealing his word, making covenants, sending his Spirit, and, preeminently, giving us Jesus.
Not Yet Here
But God is also, simultaneously, often absent in the ways we most desire. While we live on this earth and inhabit unglorified bodies, we cannot see the face of God (1 Corinthians 15:35–50; 1 Timothy 6:16). The Bible uses God’s face to refer to his tangible, unmediated presence (Revelation 22:4). This is the presence of God that we will only experience when Jesus returns, glorifies believers’ bodies, and brings the new heaven and new earth (1 John 3:2). It is this form of God’s full presence that we most desire (Psalm 73:25). “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Until then, we are like Moses, asking to see the glory of God but running into the limits of what our fallen, human existence can bear (Exodus 33:18–20). Until that day, we are like the woman from Song of Solomon, hearing the king at the door only to fling it open and find that he is gone (Song 5:4–6). Until Jesus brings the full presence of God, we are like King David, who knows that fullness of joy and everlasting pleasure can only be found before God’s face and at his right hand (Psalm 16:11). We are like Paul, groaning with all creation for the day of Jesus’s return (Romans 8:22–23).
His Absence Is No Accident
You are experiencing God’s absence this very moment. You want more of God than you can currently have or experience. Such news can actually come as a sweet relief. You may feel guilty, as if you were a second-class Christian, because God feels far. All manners of doubt flood your heart when you bump up against your longing for the actual presence of Jesus. You fear that you are lacking in faith because God’s nearness isn’t as immediate as you know it could be.
But such guilt, doubt, and fear do not necessarily follow from God’s absence. God is absent in the way you desire, but present in the way you most require. Knowing this can give shape to how you experience God in this life, while still extending all the hope and assurance you long for.
God’s absence is not an accident. God engineered all reality (1 Chronicles 29:11–12; Isaiah 46:9–10; John 1:3), including this reality. Therefore, since God always seeks his glory and the good of those who love him, we can know that our experience of God’s absence in this life is actually for God’s glory and for our joy (Isaiah 64:4; Romans 8:28). Consider four ways God’s absence is for your joy.
PLEASURE IN PURSUIT
We do not pursue what we already possess. We do not chase that which we already hold close. God uses the distance of his full presence to provoke us to strive for him. Running after God is one of the great joys of the Christian life (Psalm 34:10).
Does God feel distant? Perhaps God is using his absence to draw you into a chase. Take pleasure in pursuing the one most worthy of your energy and effort.
ELATION IN EXPECTATION
Do you remember what it felt like to be a kid on Christmas morning? You would wait eagerly in your bed for that moment when you could run downstairs and discover what untold treasures lay beneath that tree, hidden behind wrapping paper. God made us to experience great joy in expectation.
As our desire for God’s nearness rises in this fallen world, our expectancy of his coming fullness grows. God will elate your heart in a unique way as you uncover the gift of expecting his return. “Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).
WONDER IN WANTING
I miss my wife when I’m not with her. Why? Because I love her. That may seem like an obvious statement, but we miss this logic all the time in our relationship with God. We think that something is wrong with us when we don’t feel as close to God as we want. We desire God’s presence, but something is just not right. He feels distant. Could it simply be that we love him and miss him like a loving wife misses her husband?
Your desire, or wanting, is not necessarily proof that God is far from you in a bad way. Perhaps you just want him to be nearer to you. Your sense of lacking, or wanting, proves that your desires for God are strong. In this way, God’s absence helps prove that you long for his presence, which is a gift of the Spirit. Allow yourself to wonder in amazement at his work in your wanting.
MERRIMENT IN MYSTERY
I love a good mystery story. I love discovering things about my wife I never knew before. I love seeing a new bit of truth in a biblical text I’ve read a hundred times. Humans love mystery. But most mysteries come to an end. When the mystery resolves, the thrill of the mystery fades. And there is no greater mystery than God (Romans 11:33).
The fact that there remains an elusive element to God’s presence can fill us with joyful wonder. What will his glory look like? What will the full revelation of his mercy feel like? The unresolved mysteries of God, which we get to experience more acutely in this present absence, is for our joy.
Foretaste of Forever
Beyond the mystery is the discovery. Each layer we peel back reveals just how deep the journey of discovering God’s majesty truly is — and that discovery is never-ending. This constant uncovering is but a glimpse into what we will enjoy for eternity. We will never cease discovering the depths of God’s goodness, mercy, faithfulness, justice, and power.
What a gift of grace it is that God gives us a foretaste of this eternal discovery as we press into those places in our lives where he feels absent. What an amazing truth it is that God has given us the down payment of his future presence in the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:14).
Even the fullest joys we experience now in his absence — in pursuing, expecting, wanting, inquiring, and wondering — are but an appetizer to the never-ending feast of revelation we will receive when his full presence comes.