The Absence of God


First, a parable I adapted from Jean Paul Sarte’s example of the positive experience of nothingness:

A woman arrives in the parking lot of a coffee shop. Her friend had invited her for coffee that afternoon and she was overjoyed, because she had not spoken to him in quite a while. She checks her phone and realizes she is a few minutes late so she quickly runs into the coffee shop, hoping she has not upset her friend with her delay. She walks into the coffee shop crowded with people, and yet she does not notice any of their faces. The only face she searches for is the face of her friend. She looks past face after face, searching for him. She realizes he has not arrived so she sits down at an empty table. The longer she waits the more awkward alone she begins to feel. The room is filled with people and yet all she sees is the absence of her friend. No one around her feels this absence, because they are not expecting her friend, but for her the room is filled with her friend’s absence.

She tries to call his phone but he does not answer. She sends him a text: “Are you still coming?” No reply. She checks his facebook to see if she is perhaps being ignored and she sees he hasn’t posted anything for a couple days. The longer she waits the more anxious she starts to feel. Countless scenarios race through her head.

Is he okay?

Did he forget about me?

Did I do or say something to offend him?

Why is he ignoring me?

Why isn’t he here?

He promised he’d be here.

The longer she waits, the more her desire for his presence grows. The feeling of his absence grows deeper and deeper. A man notices her distressed composure and asks her if everything is okay. She tells him she is waiting for her friend and he is taking a long time to show up. However, she assures him that he should arrive soon. She could tell the man didn’t believe her but offered a fake smile anyway. She didn’t even believe herself. All she had was hope.


It is possible to experience absence. For this woman, she is not only going through an absence of experience with her friend but she is also going through an experience of the absence of her friend. The longer she waits the more she longs for her friend’s presence. The longer she waits the more alone she feels, even though she is surrounded by people. I see this same experience in King David’s experience of the absence of God in Psalm 42:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, “Where is your God?” These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go to the house of God under the protection of the Mighty One with shouts of joy and praise among the festive throng. Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God. for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon—from MountMizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life. I say to God my Rock, “Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by the enemy?” My bones suffer mortal agony as my foes taunt me, saying to me all day long, “Where is your God?” Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. 

Most people would give up waiting for their friend in that coffee shop and leave in frustration. And I have seen many people do the same thing with God. They cannot handle the experience of absence that causes one to thirst after God. What causes this impatience and frustration? I can think of several causes, and one of them is a misconception of God.

For many people God has been perceived as a tool we can rule over, control and use to our advantage. We would like him to do what we want him to do when we want him to do it. We would like a nice and neat formula for communicating with God and getting what we want from God. But God is beyond our control. God has his own plan. We need to embrace uncertainty when it comes to God. And that’s hard. I like figuring things out. Embracing uncertainty, unknowing and mystery seems a little boring. But once you have a full grasp on this God, you are no longer dealing with God.

Even though the void in our soul may be painful, Christianity widens the void and digs it deeper as we thirst and hunger for a God we seek to know, but cannot ever fully grasp. We seek the infinite knowledge of this God’s character, that his presence and absence breaks open. We seek for this void to be filled that may not ever be entirely filled. Even when God fills the void he also widens it the more we desire God. As the psalmist writes, “Deep calls out to deep.” His presence brings wonders, but the feeling of his absence opens us up for that wondrous presence.

The woman waits and hopes for her friend’s arrival. She hopes against all logic. She hopes against the words of the surrounding individuals who pity her for expecting someone who they think isn’t coming. She hopes against her deep anxiety and fear that she has been forgotten and abandoned. She holds onto his promise that he will arrive.