The Bible is about God’s presence. His creating presence, his intervening presence, his sustaining presence and his incarnate presence all resonate through the pages of Scripture. But the Bible is occasionally about God’s absence: his presence withdrawn, his presence withheld, his presence expected.
I recently released a book that examines God’s absence throughout the Bible called When God Isn’t There. People are regularly caught off guard by the book’s title and topic. But feeling like God isn’t there is a feeling with which many Christians are familiar. Below is a very small sampling of verses about God’s absence.
Verses about God’s absence should elevate our view of God. They should make us feel more full of awe and fear. They should increase our appreciation and love for God, since he became present with us even though our presence is something he did not need. Verses on God’s absence should also make us long for his presence, not just in the here and now, but in the full majesty of the long-awaited second coming of Jesus.
1. Jeremiah 11:14 – God Stops Listening to Prayers
“Therefore do not pray for this people, or lift up a cry or prayer on their behalf, for I will not listen when they call to me in the time of their trouble.”
Israel has fallen into paganism, idolatry and rampant polytheism. In his anger, God rightly says that, “the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble” (11:12). Therefore, in an ironic twist, God decrees that he will act like the false gods and worthless idols by, likewise, not listening to the prayers of his people. Even though the prayers are coming from the people God once called, “a green olive tree, beautiful with good fruit” (11:16), and a nation he planted himself (11:17), God promises that he will not listen to their prayers. God wrapped himself with a cloud so that no prayer could pass through (Lam. 3:44). God repeats this idea in Zechariah 7:13: “As I called, and they would not hear, so they called, and I would not hear.” This is an extreme example of God becoming absent in prayer.
2. Ezekiel 5:11 – God Leaves the Temple
“Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw.”
The temple was the one place God had chosen to dwell with the people of Israel. But Israel broke their covenant with God due to their sin and idolatry. Therefore, God promises upon his own existence that he is leaving the temple. His presence will withdraw. Because of the promises of God, Israel thought they could tie God’s presence down and live however they wanted. The liberty they took with God’s presence, led to God’s absence.
3. Psalm 13:1 – God Hides His Face
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
David, the Psalmist, is going through a season of feeling far from God. He depicts his feeling of God’s absence as God forgetting him and hiding his face. While it is impossible for God to forget anything, David felt forgotten by God. This expression refers to a period in which one feels estranged from God. The face of God is a metaphorical way to speak of God’s presence. David felt God’s presence being hidden from him. Psalm 13 is not the only place in which David laments these feelings. Psalm 88:14 expresses a similar struggle: “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?” Psalm 30:7 phrases this pain most succinctly: “You hid your face; I was dismayed.” There are times when God feels hidden.
4. Romans 8:23 – Groaning for the Future
“And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Paul describes Christians as those who groan, aching for the future. They have been given the Spirit, but the Spirit points them to something they don’t yet have. The presence of the Spirit of God points to a current absence of God. So, they groan. Paul explains this same truth in 2 Corinthians 1:22: “[God] set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” When God becomes present with a Christian on earth, it makes them long for a richer experience of his presence in heaven.
5. John 16:7 – Jesus’ Absence is Good
“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
For the last several chapters of John, Jesus has been trying to comfort his disciples. They are confused and afraid because Jesus has told them he is going away. Yet, it is to the disciple’s advantage that Jesus goes away so that they may receive the Holy Spirit. This absence is advantageous because the Spirit will testify about Jesus and bring to remembrance everything he said. However, this was never meant to be a permanent condition. In this same final talk to his disciples Jesus said, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (14:3). Even though we have the Spirit (an inexpressibly great treasure), Jesus is absent from us in the way we most desire. Our deepest longing is to be present where he is.
What Does God’s Absence Mean?
Working through the real pain and theological difficulties of God’s absence is no easy task. However, it will be sufficient to make these three observations given the texts above.
1. When we take advantage of God’s presence, we should expect his absence.
2. Feeling like God isn’t there is a Biblically verified reality.
3. Since Christians are waiting for the return of Jesus, even the current expressions of God’s presence can occasionally feel like absence.