Thursday, December 28, 2006

God's Hidden Face

This was the devotional for the week of December 25:

God's Hidden Face

For nearly eight months I lived with one single biblical passage. Although I read others, almost every day I came back to Lamentations 3. Here are the major verses:

I have suffered much because God was angry. He chased me into a dark place, where no light could enter… He attacked and surrounded me with hardships and trouble; he forced me to sit in the dark like someone long dead. God built a fence around me that I cannot climb over, and he chained me down. Even when I shouted and prayed for help, he refused to listen. God put big rocks in my way and made me follow a crooked path. God was like a bear or a lion waiting in ambush for me: he dragged me from the road, then tore me to shreds…. God took careful aim and shot his arrows straight through my heart…. He made me eat gravel and rubbed me in the dirt. I cannot find peace or remember happiness…. That’s all I ever think about, and I am depressed. LAMENTATIONS 3:1-2, 5-13, 16-20, CEV

I wouldn’t begin to compare my problems with those of the prophet, but this passage captured my mood: God had let me down.

During those months, I prayed. I scrutinized my life. I searched my past, wondering if I had gone down the wrong road months earlier. Was I deceiving myself in thinking that I was all right with God? If I was all right, then why didn’t God answer? Why didn’t God smile—just a little?
Nothing but darkness filled my life. I don’t mean I was bedridden with depression or heavily medicated. I kept it all inside. It wasn’t a faith crisis—the dark night of the soul kind of thing. It was more that God was out there someplace, but not anywhere near me.

Then I began to notice the number of times the Old Testament speaks of God’s hidden face. It seemed not so much that God ran away or hid behind clouds of gloom. It was more the idea that God’s face turned away from the people of God.

We know the feeling. Most of us have been snubbed by someone. We approach, extend a hand or smile, only to have the person turn away. We know the person saw us, but we might as well have been invisible or not present.

That’s how I felt God treated me.

Day after day, I read Lamentations 3; I found comfort that I had connected with the pain of another person. Yet his words gave me no solution. God’s face was still turned away. I prayed, I confessed, I promised, yes, I even bargained, but nothing seemed to work.

Then I lingered on a psalm that has since become a permanently marked place in my Bible:

How much longer, LORD, will you forget about me? Will it be forever? How long will you hide? How long must I be confused and miserable all day?… Please listen, Lord God, and answer my prayers. Make my eyes sparkle again, or else I will fall into the sleep of death. PSALMS 13:1-3, CEV

“If God would just tell me what I’ve done wrong or show me where I’ve gone astray,” I wailed to my friend Bob.

“Maybe you haven’t gone astray. Maybe God has a different purpose in mind.” Bob’s what I call a spiritual man, someone who doesn’t speak rashly. “Is it possible that this is a time of waiting for you and not one of punishment or anger? Do you suppose God wants to do something in you that can happen only in darkness?”

“What would that be?” I asked.

“Ask God,” he said, and smiled.

I asked. I asked. I asked. For days I bombarded heaven with my plea. A few times I got angry. “You want your people to pray, and then you won’t listen. Or if you’re listening, you’re keeping it a secret. What kind of God are you?”

As angry as I got, I somehow knew I could tell God how I felt. I believed God cared and heard me even though nothing happened.

From late September until the middle of summer, God’s face stayed turned away from me. I continued to pray, sometimes merely out of ritual or habit. I felt as if my fists had become bloody from beating against a six-inch steel door. But I didn’t give up.

Other times I tried to get God to hurry up and respond, but that seemed to throw me backward. Finally, I surrendered. “Okay, God, I’m willing to wait.” Every day I heard myself saying things such as, “God, I don’t like it, but I’m waiting for you to turn your face toward me again.”

My life did change—slowly. In fact, it was so slow and gradual that I was hardly aware of anything being different. But one day, I realized that a sliver of light had crept back into my life. I no longer wept over Psalm 13 or wailed over Lamentations 3. The dawn started to streak across the horizon. It was a beginning of God’s face turning toward me again.

At that point, I did a quick checkup on my life. What had happened in the months of darkness? I knew the situation had forced me to pray more—not merely in volume, but in intensity. It had been years since I had burrowed into the Bible as deeply as I did then. As far as I knew, I opened every part of my life to God’s searchlight. I didn’t always like what I saw, and I asked God’s help in making changes.

As more and more light penetrated my dark world, I began thanking God. I could hardly believe it, but I was giving thanks to God for darkness, for uncertainty, for confusion, for pain, for all the difficulties. Yes, I did—because “All things work together for good to those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).

Then I realized those days and nights of agony had strengthened me. I don’t want to repeat them. And I know Bob was right: God had a different purpose in mind.

I patiently waited, LORD, for you to hear my prayer. You listened and pulled me from a lonely pit, full of mud and mire. You let me stand on a rock with my feet firm, and you gave me a new song, a song of praise to God. PSALMS 40:1-3a, CEV

God, I hate darkness.
I hate the silence.
I hate it when you turn your face from me.
But I’ve finally learned: it’s only for a short time,
and you never leave me.
You’re always there—even in the deepest darkness.
Thanks, God. Amen.


And there I see myself. Waiting - sometimes patiently, sometimes not so much so - for God to turn His face toward me again.

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