Where is God? I mean, if God is everywhere, as theologians teach, and if God loves me deeply and wants a relationship of intimacy with me, as theologians also teach, where is he? I talk, talk, talk to him, and he is ... where? He says nothing. The conversation is decidedly one-sided.
How do I deal with God's silence, his seeming absence? It's clear that he is often silent, though he has shown himself quite capable of conversation. David the Psalmist wrote of God withdrawing his presence (Psalm 51:11 and others), and cried out in anguish over it. Abraham, according to the biblical account, apparently went many years without a word from God, though he was asked to do some highly irregular things. Through history, Christian mystics have written of God's tendency to "withdraw himself" from us. St. John of the Cross wrote of the "dark night of the soul." Back in the 1970s, Christians used to talk about the "wilderness experience," a time - sometimes years - marked by God's apparent absence.
As I write this, I confess to being depressed and discouraged. I have cried out to God, seeking his voice both in direction and reassurance that I have heard him, that I am in the place he has prepared for me, that I have significance and can look forward to a future with him.
Why? Would it hurt God to let me in on what's going on in my life? It only seems fair, since I am, after all, the one who's living it. Perhaps it would be easier if it made some sense to me.
I think these "wilderness" experiences are common to our lives. I don't pretend to understand the reason for them, though I have some ideas. But they are a given: It's a matter of when they come, not if, for anyone who is serious about knowing and serving this God. And the big question is, what do we do when we find ourselves out there, alone, and with no sign of God?
I grew up in Colorado and spent many days wandering the mountains, sometimes without seeing another person or sign of civilization. And I learned some fundamental rules of survival. One is, when I don't know where I am, stop. Don't go anywhere, don't panic, but sit and wait calmly, thinking carefully about the situation. Rushed, panicky actions result in dead people.
The spiritual wilderness is no different. When life is confusing, don't run. Stop. Wait.
As I consider my situation in the mountains, I review what I know about both mountains and myself. Turns out, I know a lot, and often I find myself not as lost as I thought.
As I consider my situation in the wilderness, I review what I know about both God and myself, and I realize that I know quite a lot.
First, God has a long history of letting people wait without his evident presence. Second, God has over the centuries said some important things: that he will never leave us, never forsake us, and more. Third, people through history have written of times in the wilderness as times of deepening and growth. The wilderness can kill us. But it can also focus us and heighten our senses. The choice is ours. We can panic and run -- likely to our death -- or we can wait calmly for God's purpose to be complete, when we once again move on, but at a deeper and more intimate level. Fourth, God never really goes away. A fundamental principle of theology is that God is everywhere present. He is there with us, whether we can sense his presence or not. Very important to know.
A cardinal principle then is this: Be calm. Be cool. Wait on God. He's there, and he won't fail.
Years ago, I was the principal of a private school. It was a high energy environment that could test anyone's ability to remain calm. So I went to the local FedEx office and got from them some pin-on advertising buttons. I gave one to every faculty and staff member in the school, and the buttons sort of became our operating motto. "Don't Panic."
So, I don't panic. I remain cool. And I let God do his thing with me. Sometimes I don't like it, and sometimes it's difficult. But the alternative is unthinkable. God is faithful, and can be trusted. Even in the wilderness.