This article is part of a series looking at the Oxymoronic names of God and how understanding them helps us to live as Christians in a fallen world. Click here to read the introductory article and to find links to other articles in the series.
I know of no Christian that does not occasionally doubt the goodness of God and whether He is present with them. Some Christians hide these doubts better than others, but they are nothing to be ashamed of. For non-Christians, the feeling that God is an absent Father prevents them from investigating the Christian faith and trusting Him.
Absent Father is included in this exposition of the Oxymoronic names of God because it reveals a grievance against God that Christians do well to understand, both for the strength of their own faith, and the faith of others. While the name Absent Father is not a term used directly to describe God in the Bible, it captures an age-old complaint that biblical, historical, and modern-day figures have wrestled with.
As I compose this piece, I am aware that nothing I write will convince you that God is lovingly present. All I can do is encourage you to take your doubts, questions, loneliness, frustrations, and hurts directly to Him. It’s even OK to scream, shout, and cry at God. He can take it. You can talk to Him out loud or silently in your head, sometimes it can help to write Him a letter. However you attempt to communicate with Him, I am certain that He will be delighted that you are seeking Him and would far rather be engaged than ignored.
It turns out that we are in good company when questioning the presence of a Father-like God. What follows is a selection of quotes and questions by well-known persons that I have found useful when I find myself wondering where God is. I hope you find some echoes of your doubts and questions in them.
Asking God when he will do something
David is a biblical character that came from humble beginnings and eventually became King of Israel. At one point he was driven out of his home and went on the run. He wrote Psalm 13 when surrounded by his enemies and fearing for his life. Note how he accuses God of being absent and forgetful. David was renowned as a man after God’s own heart, so it seems that speaking like this to our heavenly Father is completely acceptable and even commended by God.
How long, O Eternal One? How long will You forget me? Forever?Psalm 13
How long will You look the other way?
How long must I agonize, grieving Your absence in my heart every day?
How long will You let my enemies win?
Turn back; respond to me, O Eternal, my True God!
Put the spark of life in my eyes, or I’m dead.
My enemies will boast they have beaten me; my foes will celebrate that I have stumbled.
But I trust in Your faithful love; my heart leaps at the thought of imminent deliverance by You.
I will sing to the Eternal, for He is always generous with me.
These words were written by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Throughout my Christian life, I have been taught that the name ‘Abba’ means Daddy and that its use in the bible means we can approach God in a cuddly and intimate manner. In this case, ‘Abba’ is likened to the call of a child that is experiencing utter dreadfulness. If you are experiencing pain and abandonment, then be encouraged that you too can approach God in this manner. You do not need to pretend that everything is alright.
The Cry to God as ‘Father’ in the New Testament is not a calm acknowledgement of a universal truth about God’s abstract fatherhood.
It is the Child’s cry out of a nightmare.
It is the cry of outrage, fear, shrinking away, when faced with the horror of the ‘world’, yet not simply or exclusively protest, but trust as well.
all things are possible to thee….Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
The world you created is meaningless
Another biblical writer that expresses his disappointment with the world is the writer of Ecclesiastes. He is most likely to be King Solomon, a son of King David (mentioned above). We can read his scathing assessment of God’s world in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 and it certainly seems obvious to me that he is going through some sort of dark depression as he writes this. We should not be afraid of expressing our most dismal thoughts to God, he is not offended when we express honesty.
Smoke, nothing but smoke.Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.
What’s there to show for a lifetime of work,
a lifetime of working your fingers to the bone?
One generation goes its way, the next one arrives,
but nothing changes—it’s business as usual for old
The sun comes up and the sun goes down,
then does it again, and again—the same old round.
The wind blows south, the wind blows north.
Around and around and around it blows,
blowing this way, then that—the whirling, erratic wind.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
but the sea never fills up.
The rivers keep flowing to the same old place,
and then start all over and do it again.
Everything’s boring, utterly boring—
no one can find any meaning in it.
Boring to the eye,
boring to the ear.
What was will be again,
what happened will happen again.
There’s nothing new on this earth.
Year after year it’s the same old thing.
Does someone call out, “Hey, this is new”?
Don’t get excited—it’s the same old story.
Nobody remembers what happened yesterday.
And the things that will happen tomorrow?
Nobody’ll remember them either.
Don’t count on being remembered.
In the examples above, we have no record of how God responded to the accusation that He has been absent and uncaring. However, in the book of Job, we do find a reply. Job had gone through near-hell, he had lost all of his health and wealth, his family had died, and he was in physical pain. For a while, Job continues to trust in God before finally losing it. Firstly, Job protests his innocence, and then he accuses God of neglecting him and sending him to his death (Job 30:20-23). God’s response is awe-inspiring:
And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:Job 38:1-11
“Why do you confuse the issue?
Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about?
Pull yourself together, Job!
Up on your feet! Stand tall!
I have some questions for you,
and I want some straight answers.
Where were you when I created the earth?
Tell me, since you know so much!
Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that!
Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
How was its foundation poured,
and who set the cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang in chorus
and all the angels shouted praise?
And who took charge of the ocean
when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
and tucked it in safely at night.
God continues to remind Job of His incredible creation for another two chapters and finishes with:
“Now what do you have to say for yourself?”Job 40:2
Perhaps we too have no idea what we are talking about when we accuse God of neglect. His fantastic handiwork is all around us and we know so little.
Learning from other Christians
In a recent survey we asked readers of this website “When you feel distant from God, what helps you to reconnect with Him?” Here’s how our readers responded:
Several followers also took the time to leave comments. They suggested: “Waiting reading His word”, “Contemplation and working in partnership with other Christians. Lent groups and bible study groups”, “Thankfulness” and one person offered wise advice “All of these sometimes. Sometimes they have the opposite effect.”
A nation of wrestlers
Did you know that the name ‘Israel’ means ‘God-wrestler’? In the book of Genesis, there’s a somewhat bizarre story about a man called Jacob (Genesis 32). Jacob spends all night wrestling with an unknown man and refuses to let go until this man would give Jacob his blessing. In the end, Jacob recognises his opponent as God, and God changes Jacob’s name to Israel because God is impressed with Jacob/Israel for not giving up. Many years later, Jacob/Israel goes on to father the people of Israel who become God’s chosen nation, called upon to bless the world. Be encouraged that God enjoys those who question and wrestle with Him and do let me know if God gives you a new name because of it!
One final story
Jesus himself tells us to be tenacious with God. He told the story of a persistent widow (Luke 18) who repeatedly badgers a judge to grant her justice against an adversary. Eventually, the judge, who is described as neither God-fearing nor caring about what people thought, grants her wish just to shut her up. Jesus reminds us that God is far more loving and just and so we should not give up requesting him for what we want. If it is his presence and comfort that we desire, then keep on asking him for exactly that.
Wrestle, Pray, Repeat
Father God, we pray that you would reveal yourself to us and become lovingly present in our everyday lives. The world is frightening without you. We want you to be close to us. Draw near we pray. Amen
To return to the Oxymoronic God series of articles please click here.
Dislocated Christians exists to create and support a community of like-minded people. Our prayer is that you’ll find some echoes of your dilemmas with church and culture in these articles and it will encourage you to know others have the same struggles. Please like, comment on or share our articles if you’ve found them helpful. We’d be especially grateful if you could follow us, just click towards the bottom of the page.
Just as we are each a work in progress, so too is Dislocated Christians. Sometimes we’ll get things wrong and we hope that when that happens, you’ll forgive us and continue to stick around.