We all know the feeling. We know that feeling of emptiness, the feeling that God isn’t there. When we pray it feels like we are praying to the wall, to an absent God. We desire more of God’s presence only to feel absence. Or we look at the suffering and pain in our lives and wonder if God has simply abandoned us. These feelings leave us wondering how it is possible for God to be present with us. If He is truly present in our pain and suffering then where is He? If He truly is present in our lives as Christians, then why does He feel so far sometimes? How is it that I can experience a taste of the presence of God, and yet still feel like He’s not there?
The Absence of God
If you’ve ever wrestled with questions like this, you’re not alone. Spoken word artist, David Bowden, knows these feelings and has asked these questions. For many years he wrestled with the feeling of God’s absence. After college he began to study what the Bible had to say about the absence as well as the presence of God. He found that “even though it is a book about God’s presence, there is still ample talk of absence” (xii). The more he studied what it meant for God to be absent, the more he learned about what it meant for God to be present. Through his study he found that “God is absent in the way we most desire, but present in the way we most require” (xiv).
In his book, When God Isn’t There, Bowden unpacks this theme and helps us understand what it means for God to be absent and how that absence is meant to lead us into His presence.
He shows how the presence of God that we desire is “the face-to-face, unencumbered, completely revealed and unmediated presence” (15). We want the presence that was in the Garden of Eden. But because of sin and the fall we are unable to experience that presence. Because of sin there is a barrier between us and that actual presence of God. Bowden goes onto argue that the separation from God and that absence of Him is actually a form of grace. Because of our sin any contact with this direct presence of God would destroy us. God withdraws from us to spare us. Bowden goes on from here to demonstrate the complexities of the absence and presence of God. He explores how it is possible for God to be absent and yet everywhere at the same time, as well as why God often seems to be absent in our lives, churches, and worship. Ultimately, Bowden comes to one answer for the absence of God, Jesus. In Jesus God is able to come to us and allows us to experience His presence again.
God’s Presence in Suffering
Bowden also dives into where God is in our pain and suffering. This is, of course, a very tricky subject to navigate. Trying to find God when everything seems to be falling apart can often lead to anger and frustration. It’s hard to see how a good God can be present in suffering. But, Bowden reminds us that God is there. When we ask where God is in suffering, Bowden’s response is that “he’s right where you’d want him to be. On the cross to intervene and take the pain of our suffering” (140). He reminds us that God knows suffering. As Bowden says, “Jesus was completely present in his suffering so that he would not be absent in ours” (197).
Not a Self-Help Book
It would be easy to over-complicate the absence and presence of God. Bowden, however, works through this deep topic in a way that makes it easy to understand. He does this by constantly pointing back to the gospel. It would also be easy to over-simplify the absence of God. It would be easy to just give people a list of things to do to experience God. But Bowden stresses at the very beginning of the book is that it is not a self-help book. He does not lay out specific steps to experiencing the presence of God or give us empty advice. He simply turns to Scripture and in the end finds Jesus as the answer to the absence of God. Even in our pain and suffering Bowden points back to the gospel.
In the end When God Isn’t There is a very grounded and realistic book. Anyone who has wondered where God is or has felt like God has simply disappeared will benefit from reading this book. Anyone who has felt the absence of God will walk away encouraged to keep seeking His presence.
- The most important application to take away from When God Isn’t There is that “God is absent in the way we most desire, but present in the way we most require” (xiv). We may not have the presence that was there in Eden, but God is reconciling us, giving us the presence of His Son, which is the presence we need because of our sin.
- Don’t stop seeking the presence of God if He feels absent. This absence is meant to lead us to seek Him more.
- God is present in our suffering and knows our suffering through the cross. Jesus can relate to our suffering and He is proof that God is present with us.
Official Product Description (From publisher or Amazon)
Why does God feel so far away? Why is my worship so empty? Has God left me?
David Bowden knows these questions firsthand, having wrestled for years with God’s apparent absence and studying what the Bible says about it. In this new book, Bowden tackles the subject head-on, finding the key to understanding it in the Bible’s depiction of a God who is infinitely far from us, free to move where he wants, but who chooses to come near in the person of Jesus.
A resource of encouragement for those who struggle with feeling God’s absence and a wake-up call to those who take God’s presence for granted, When God Isn’t There will forever change your understanding of why God sometimes seems to vanish and how he can be found again.