I began writing this series especially for those of you to whom God seems far away. Today, in this last post of the series, I want to specifically address those who don’t just feel as though God is far away, but actually feel betrayed by God. This may be more of you than you might think.
I was around 14 when I recall sitting in my attic bedroom pondering whether I believed in God and considering what that God might think of me. Looking back, I recognize these moments as the first flutters of spiritual life within me. Yet like an undetected fertilized embryo, this faith of mine took a fair amount of time before it finally proved viable. Truth be told, there have been a number of times over my 50 + years as a Christian that the viability of my faith came into question. Times when I felt betrayed by God. Looking back, what I now understand is that the God in question wasn’t really God, but the God-of-my-present-understanding.
This phrase, “the God-of-my-present-understanding,” implies that our God-image will likely evolve over our lifetime. We may begin in our youth with a notion of God as a loving, bearded grandfather or a policeman with a whistle in his mouth. Whoever God is to us then will (hopefully) change and deepen over our life of faith. To be clear, God's nature doesn’t change. But our image, understanding, perception of God changes.
When God seems far away or, worse yet, has abandoned or betrayed us, it’s often because “this” God hasn’t acted as we thought God should. In reality, it’s the God-of-our-present-understanding who is letting us down. That’s when it’s time to upgrade “this” God for a better one—One that approximates the actual God revealed most vividly in Christ. (Hebrews 1:3)
Let me tell you about a time when this was the case for me. The biggest “betrayal of God” for me happened nearly twenty years ago now. I won’t go into the circumstances involved, but what I realize now is how my faith tradition had set me up for this disillusionment. It taught me that God was somewhere “out there” and if I called persistently and loudly enough, “he” would come to my rescue. Well, that didn’t happen. Life didn’t go as I had hoped it would. From my perspective, the bad guys won and I lost.
For the next several years I wandered in a desert wilderness lamenting the loss of faith in a God who had let me down. I had a difficult time praying or reading the Bible. The most palatable resource was a prayer book by Philip Newell, a Celtic Christian author. It contained daily liturgies that were sparse and generous. Each day’s prayer included a phrase something like, “Beloved, open to the God who is both within and all around you.”
As I began to pray this line of the liturgy and open myself to a God within me and all around me, over many weeks, something quietly shifted in my awareness of God. I began to experience the sensation of being enveloped by God, rather than locating God somewhere “out there” and summoning that God to come near. Since that time, and through much practice and reflection, I’ve come to imagine a God who is “in all and all is in God.” (St. Ignatius)
You might wonder at this point why this is even important. Why do I care so much about how God seems to me? And why should you? Well, I don’t think you have time for me to tell you all the reasons, so I will share just one.
I suspect that we all sense the deep shift within our culture as it relates to the Christian faith and the church. More than at any other time in our American history, the church has been pressed toward the margins of society, not having the same respect and influence it once had. So we’re scrambling a bit. Yes? It’s an uncomfortable and unfamiliar situation to be a Christian on the margins, wondering how to remain faithful to Christ in a post-Christian era.
Karl Rahner, a German Jesuit priest and theologian, anticipated this moment in history and predicted in the 1970’s that,
The devout Christian of the future will either be a “mystic,” one who has “experienced”
something, or he will cease to be anything at all.
What Rahner is intimating is that it will not be enough to simply “believe” in the Christian faith; rather if believers cease to experience God, the loving presence and involvement of God in their lives (I.e. be a mystic), then they will likely abandon the Christian faith. Now that would be tragic! And it explains why this is so important.
If you are one to whom God seems far away, I’d like to recommend a couple of resources that have helped me understand what may be happening and how to amend a broken link with God. Please let me know if I can help in any other way. I would also add that meeting with a spiritual director can provide enormous support if you are experiencing this kind of disillusionment. You can peruse our list of affiliates or I’d be happy to recommend someone if you care to reach out through our website.
For help and further reading:
When Everything’s On Fire: Faith Forged in the Ashes by Brian Zahnd