God called Tiffany Johnson, 26, and Philip Crouse, 24, to become missionaries. So, in obedience to God's will, they came from Minnesota and Alaska to Colorado to receive training through Youth With A Mission (YWAM). At midnight on December 9, 2007, Matthew Murray, 24, walked into the YWAM training center in Arvada, Colorado, seeking to spend the night.
Five years earlier he had been dismissed from the training center for troubling and threatening behavior. The receptionist explained that unauthorized persons could not remain overnight. Murray responded by pulling a gun and beginning to fire. When the mayhem ended, Johnson and Crouse lay dead. Their hopes for obeying God's call died with them-a "divine" call had been terminated by one severely troubled "human."
Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when Tiffany and Philip needed Him?
On February 12, 2005, American missionary Dorothy Stang, 74, was traveling to a sustainable development project in Anapu, Para State, Brazil, when she was assassinated by two gunmen. Murder was the price she paid for defending the rights of rural workers against powerful land grabbers and loggers. Violence was their tool for forcing small landowners off their land.
They had now silenced a missionary who for 37 years desired only to follow the Lord's call.
Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when Dorothy needed Him?
News channels cover such big stories. Other disturbing stories unfold away from the public eye, raising similar questions.
The "absence" of God may be experienced during maddening and lonely hours in an intensive care unit. The scene might be an unforgiving county morgue, or the aftermath of a shattering divorce. Bewildered parents huddled over a cluttered kitchen table might be enduring the agony of God's silence. And what about abused children and spouses who exist in a world of suffocating pain and fear?
Why? Where was the "present and directing" God when they needed Him?
God in Eclipse
Laura Bradford lost her job and asked God for guidance. She got nothing. "It's like a big, black hole," she said. The silence left her "confused and lonely." Rabbi Irwin Kula tells of "the sacred messiness of life."1 Pete Creig lived through his wife's debilitating brain tumor and fight for life, and experienced "God on mute."2
The "eclipse of God" is how Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson describes God's apparent "absence."3 Our "success" intoxicated culture sometimes seeps into our language and reduces the Laura Bradfords to second class Christians. That should not be. The published letters of Mother Teresa reveal that sometimes the sense of God's absence became so oppressive she even doubted His existence.
If we paint a rosy picture of God always showing up ahead of the emergency response crews, we will shortchange the biblical record.
For Christians, the most profound lament arose from the lips of Jesus while He was on the cross. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, Psalm 22:1) Was that a cry of despair, or was it an appeal to the Father's faithfulness?
What Kind of God is He?
We in the Wesleyan tradition do not understand God's sovereignty that way, and the difference affects how we deal with suffering and divine "silence." Rather than viewing God's sovereignty as principally coercive power and control, we believe there is a much higher and more correct understanding-God's vulnerable love.
A God who willingly shoulders the risks associated with love is more sovereign and powerful than a God who doesn't.
Sin is the rejection of God's love and the consequences reveal the unmistakable marks of everything opposed to love, including spiritual death. From Adam onward, the consequences have extended their poisonous tentacles into every corner of human life. They have even affected the rest of God's creation (Romans 8:18-25). Some consequences of rejecting God's love result from intentional disobedience. In these instances we usually do not have to look very far to uncover the sources of grief.
But many consequences of rejecting God's love are tragic in nature. The burden falls principally not upon the offender, but indiscriminately upon nation groups and persons mangled by grief. The burden rests upon African children orphaned by AIDS, and upon women raped by militants in Darfur. Evil and injustice are "equal opportunity" tyrants. Just ask the victims of sexual abuse who as adults are still trying to piece life back together, or victims of natural disasters who have been made double victims because of looters. In such times, during God's "eclipse," we may ask with Habakkuk, "Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves" (1:13)?
Why doesn't a loving God eliminate the possibilities for evil? He could, but not without eliminating the possibilities for real responsive love. Extract freedom from love and it ceases to be love, for both God and man.
In the closing moments of Jesus' death on the cross, He cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46)? In this unfathomable divine lament, the cries of humankind past, present, and future were brought to red-hot focus. God took the "dark night of the soul" upon himself. Its gloom drew "lament" from the heart of our Lord, even as it does ours. Did the Father answer the Son's lament? Not immediately.
Three days in the tomb testify to that. Easter morning-resurrection-was the Father's response. In the same power by which He created the universe, the Father faithfully raised His Son from the grave. And in so doing, He definitively dispelled any lingering questions about His presence, His faithfulness, and His power to redeem.
The New Testament answers clearly. When the darkness of divine silence and absence descends, when "we are being killed all day long," even then we are enfolded by God's love, a love from which nothing can separate us (Psalm 44:22, Romans 8:31-39). Even more, the ascended Christ constantly represents us before the Father, "with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26, Hebrews 7:25).
1Meredith Heagney, "A crisis of faith," The Columbus Dispatch, Nov. 23, 2007.2Pete Creig, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer (Regal Book, 2007).3Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Prentice Hall, 1975, 512).
Al Truesdale is emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics, Nazarene Theological Seminary.
Holiness Today, March/April 2008