As far as I can remember, I first felt the presence of God was when I was in the sixth grade. My church, like many others in the early 2000’s, had just added an additional worship service to its Sunday morning schedule. In this service, churchgoers wore polos and jeans rather than suits and formal dresses. The choir and choir director were replaced by a five piece rock band fronted by a charismatic college student who often closed his eyes and raised his hands as he sang. Instead of intricate, wordy hymns, we sang simple “praise songs” to God as if to a close friend or romantic partner.
I had been going to church and singing along for many years at this point, but something different happened at this new service. As I sang, “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” to borrow John Wesley’s words. It was better than anything I’d ever experienced. Seemingly out of nowhere, without warning, I was overcome with joy, filled with a peace “which transcends all understanding.” I felt both completely known and perfectly loved by God. It was like a light was switched on inside of my mind.
Perhaps like someone trying heroin for the first time, I was instantly hooked on this mind-blowing sensation. And like an addict, I became anxious if too much time passed between hits. When I sang the usual songs and prayed the usual prayers without experiencing the usual emotions, I’d begin frantically questioning myself. “Did I do something wrong? Is God mad at me? Am I not following the rules closely enough? Maybe I forgot to confess a sin. Am I not reading the Bible enough? Or maybe I need to listen to more praise songs outside of church.” I’d desperately devote myself to doing whatever I could think of that might bring about the next high.
Throughout the rest of my middle and high school years, my spiritual life was a series of high highs and low lows, spiritual fireworks followed by painful silence. God became a close friend who answered my prayers for direction and spiritual growth, even if God would sometimes seem to check out from time to time.
Crisis of Faith
When I went off to college, I immediately joined a campus ministry that was filled with two hundred people who seemed to care about their personal relationship with God as much as I did. As I developed close friendships with other members of this organization, my sense of God’s presence became stronger and more enduring. The in-between periods of agonizing absence became shorter and less frequent.
But then, without warning, I encountered a flood of doubt for the first time. Tough questions that I had been unconsciously suppressing for years exploded into my consciousness. The more I ignored them, the less I believed what I was told at church. The more I explored them, the more additional questions I accumulated. Nothing seemed to help.
During that first painful year of doubt, even when I felt the presence the God in fleeting moments of prayer and song, I couldn’t shake the gnawing fear that I was experiencing God for the last time. I believed that my relationship with God depended (at least in part) on my ability to give intellectual assent to some ambiguous core of “essential Christian beliefs,” an increasingly impossible task. According to my version of “justification by belief,” my intellectual doubt threatened to lock me out of God’s presence forever.
For the most part, despite my desperate prayers for direction, God went silent. As I struggled to navigate this strange new world of epistemology, the historical study of the Bible, and critical theology, neither my friends nor God had any reassuring or enlightening words to offer me. I had been frustrated by God’s absence before, but this time I felt outright betrayed.
St. John of the Cross
Much has changed since that difficult year. Some of my original beliefs have remained fairly intact, but many have taken some re-interpretation (please see the detailed Venn diagram below).
Yet beneath the surface of belief, surprisingly little has changed: I still read the Bible in search of God’s word to me. I still think of Jesus when I think of God. The Church is still my home. My relationship with God is still at the center of who I am; that relationship is what kept me from giving up on my faith after my original beliefs imploded. And even now, experiences of God still move me to joy and peace, and the absence of God still makes me anxious and afraid.
Indeed, this spiritual roller coaster ride is in large part what drove me to begin my ridiculous “God project” in the first place! My experiences of the presence of God require me to re-think (rather than abandon) God in light of my doubts, and my experiences of the absence of God require me to consult what other believers have to say about God.
All of this leads me, finally, to a book by the 16th Century mystic Saint John of the Cross. Its title, “Dark Night of the Soul,” captures with poetic precision my experiences of the absence of God, especially during my crisis of faith. In this book, John addresses the kind of uncomfortable absence that I’ve felt.
Due to the structure of this book, I will wait until I’ve read the last ninety pages before I attempt to appropriate its insights in more detail, so look out for a “Part Two” next weekend. But for now, having read the first half, I can say that St. John offers an exciting alternative interpretation of the absence of God. The felt absence of God’s presence is not a break in our relationship with God; according to John, God occasionally maintains this distance in order to help us grow in specific ways. Maybe, after some twelve years of fearing and blaming myself for the absence of God, I can learn to see it as a blessed opportunity to deepen my relationship with God.
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