When God Goes AWOL

From a sermon preached on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 and Psalm 22:1-15.

If I would have thought of a title soon enough for today’s sermon, it would have read like a headline. God goes AWOL: Leaves Job, Psalmist in Utter Darkness

But I wanted you to stay for the sermon, so maybe it’s best that the title didn’t get published.

Delayed disclaimer: The scriptures this morning aren’t the bright, cheery, “good news” sort of texts that are easy to hear or read. There is no release of the captives, sight to the blind…There is no jubilee here or great feasting.

Why hear them? Why take time to go into life’s dark spaces? Or maybe you’re still stuck at: Why does Valerie have to be such a Debbie-Downer?

Like walking outside on a crisp, autumn evening, we’ve got to give the eyes of our spirits a little time to adjust to the different environment we’re entering into today – the difficulty of looking into scriptures that make us deal with our darkness.

Particularly in the U.S. culture, I’m not convinced that we have found a way to express for ourselves our grief and our sorrow…our shadow sides. Ours is an optimistic, often superficial culture, where happiness is success and sadness is failure. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes in Learning to Walk in the Dark, “Emotions such as grief, fear, and despair have gained a reputation as the ‘dark emotions’ not because they are noxious or abnormal but because Western culture keeps them shuttered in the dark with other shameful things like personal bankruptcy or sexual deviance. If you have ever spent time in the company of the dark emotions, you too may have received subtle messages from friends and strangers alike that you were supposed to handle them and move on sooner instead of later.”[1]

What I hear from Brown Taylor is that most of us don’t know how to live with such dark feelings that Job and the Psalmist bring up – when we find them in us, we can feel such shame for our doubt, our uncertainty, our questioning our faith. We feel bad that we feel bad. And we don’t always know how to live with others who suffer – how to just be with those who are experiencing darkness; because we haven’t done our own work, we find it difficult to be empathetic.

Do we avoid such texts because they make us uncomfortable? Do they hold up a mirror to an unpleasant reality that goes against the grain of our socialization? How can we step into texts like Job 23 and Psalm 22 to exercise some underdeveloped emotional muscles?

Before going any farther, however, it’s important to note that “darkness” means different things for each of us, and maybe you would use a different word to describe your experience. I don’t want to throw that term around lightly. For myself, I do not know the darkness that comes with chronic illness or living in a war zone or broken family relationships.

I do not experience visual darkness. I can physically see relatively well and find I can generally make my way when I’m walking if I keep my eyes open.

The darkness that I know and hear in the words of Job and the Psalmist is a sense of spiritual darkness in which God is distant, or totally absent or silent. The darkness I speak of today is a space of deep spiritual doubt that knowledge/intellect often cannot bridge. There are feelings of anger or suspicion that this faith thing/worship thing has all just been a farce. What if God’s absence means there is no God? Some call this experience the “dark night of the soul.” A crisis for which there is no easy remedy or fix, but is seen within “the evolution of the spiritual life.”[2] Some would say it is difficult and it is necessary for spiritual growth.

I wanted us to look at Job and the Psalm because they offer wisdom, permission, and a template for expressing the emotions of spiritual darkness. They can help us see that doubt and uncertainty are normal; it is a part of human experience to question God’s presence and God’s compassion. And sometimes, we get stuck in this place.

Let’s take a moment to see what both Job and the Psalmist offer us.

A Moment with Job

I’ll do the Cliff Note version for Job: At the beginning of the book, Job is a man who has never sinned and has prospered as a result of his righteousness. He’s got ten kids, a wife, thousands of animals. He is, by Old Testament standards, The Man.

In this context, of course, we have to remember that it was understood that sinful people suffered. Or, to flip that idea around, if you’re suffering, it’s because you sinned. We struggle with such theology and are likely opposed to it in this post-modern era; yet, that theology still exists – infiltrates us without our knowledge, particularly those of us who have white privilege… though that’s another sermon.

Back to Job. God’s bragging about Job to the heavenly court. And one of the members of the court, variously translated as “The Accuser” or “Satan,” responds to God, and says, “Of course Job is faithful – you’ve never tested him! He’s got everything! Why would he not love you? I bet if you took everything away, he wouldn’t be faithful.”

And God says, “I’ll take your bet.”

The Accuser takes away everything. Everyone dies – all his kids and livestock – in a succession of freak accidents. And then the Accuser gives Job painful boils. And essentially what ensues is that Job’s wife and three of his friends question him, asking, “Why don’t you cut ties with this God?”

Job responds, “I will curse all sorts of things, including my very existence, but I cannot curse God.” This sort of back and forth goes on for the bulk of the book.

And just before what we heard today, Job’s friends said, “Look, you must have sinned. Just admit it.”

And Job’s like, “I can’t. I didn’t sin.”

In Chapter 23, Job is asking for an audience with God. He wants his day in court to prove his innocence and prove his faithfulness. He wants the suffering to stop, but he needs to be able to plead his case to God. And God is absent from the courtroom.

Job’s response is telling — From the Message version, the scripture reads

“I’m not letting up—
    My complaint is legitimate.
God has no right to treat me like this—
    it isn’t fair!
If I knew where on earth to find him,
    I’d go straight to him.
I’d lay my case before him face-to-face,
    give him all my arguments firsthand.”

[But where is he?]

“I travel East looking for him—I find no one;
    then West, but not a trace;
I go North, but he’s hidden his tracks;
    then South, but not even a glimpse.

God makes my heart sink!
    God Almighty gives me the shudders!
I’m completely in the dark,
    I can’t see my hand in front of my face.”

Where is the God who supposedly rules with justice? That God is no where to be found. How do you protest your innocence when God is absent?

Job is left alone, his questions hanging in the balance.

Can we let the difficult questions of faith linger? When God is absent, how do we keep praying? One commentator on this passage remarked that “The Christian life presents no greater challenge than finding one’s way forward with integrity and responsibility in the dark.” Can we, like Job, speak into the darkness, keep engaging with it, and let it hold our anger and pain? Can we continue to call out to God to give us a fair trial?

A Moment with the Psalmist

Turning to the Psalm, these words are familiar to us because in two of the gospels, they are the last words recorded of Jesus as he is dying on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

In the posthumous memoir of Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, it was revealed that she struggled with despondency and doubt. In letters to colleagues, she shared that for 40 years of her ministry, she felt a great emptiness and absence of God. In one letter, she wrote, “Please pray specially for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show Himself — for there is such terrible darkness within me, as if everything was dead.” To another she wrote, “I am told God loves me, and yet the reality of the darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”

It is no surprise that Mother Teresa wanted these letters destroyed. We get it.

We could question, and many do, why she stuck with it. How could anyone still have faith after 40 years of such darkness? Who among us would fault her for walking away?

One hint the Psalmist gives for their willingness to wait is the memories of when God did show up. Times the Psalmist knew, really knew, that God had been present.

In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved…

…it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.

Those two words again: My God. My God. A god once intimately known to the Psalmist. A God who had been so close and receptive in the past. This is not just any god; this is My God.

Even Christ, in uttering these words, knew despair, suffering, and abandonment and Christ cried out to God from that sense of darkness. Christ normalized expressing our darkness to God. If the logic follows, then God, through Jesus, understands the suffering of humanity and of all creation. God does not will it; but God understands it. That can be a memory for us when we need it.

Letting the Questioning, Darkness Linger

And though I do not want to wrap this sermon up neatly by giving some unhelpfully optimistic, classic U.S. American remark about needing to stay hopeful when we encounter the dark night of the soul…It does seem like there are three possibilities for response.

Spiritual darkness can make us wonder if it’s God’s will that we’re suffering, and one possibility is that we resign ourselves to suffering.

The second is that spiritual darkness can make us want to deny or abandon our faith.

The third possibility, what I see being embodied by Job and the Psalmist, is to resist suffering and resist abandoning our faith. But to do that, we have to be willing to linger in the questions. To grapple with doubt. For the time being, to make peace with our shadows.

If we are willing to do this, we can more easily stand in solidarity with others who suffer in darkness. Our capacity for compassion and empathy becomes more profound. We find we can be with one another, and not rush the ‘moving on.’

God who hears what is too deep for words, beneath all our prayers for healing you perceive the buried hope; behind all our questions you understand the hidden longing; amidst all our singing you hear the struggle to pray. God who hears what is too deep for words, have mercy. Christ have mercy. Amen.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 77.

[2] Kenneth Leech, True Prayer, 152.