What does suffering or chronic illness do to your faith? How do you experience God when you are undergoing long-term hardship?
These are the questions I constantly circle back to in my life, because they intrigue me so much.
Some people experience God as closer in hard times. Some people experience God’s presence more vividly in times of acute distress or emergency. Some comment that their relationship with God has deepened since they have undergone chronic hardship or some kind.
Others, like me, are more difficult. I have written about how, during times of suffering, God can feel utterly absent. This is an important story, since it’s not just my own: others also have felt God’s absence, rather than God’s presence, during the worst times of their life. Some have quit the faith because of this. (It’s not hard to understand why.)
Since becoming housebound with severe ME six years ago, God has felt more absent than perhaps any other time in my life. It is at the hardest time of my life that God has been most silent.
But in the interest of sharing the full picture, I need to tell you about this year’s holiday.
It was about two days into the holiday, staying in a gorgeous, peaceful apartment halfway up a mountain on a Greek island. Jon had taken the boy out for the day so I could rest in the sun, and I was lying on my sun-lounger, watching the bright pink flowers floating in the breeze, as they hung down from the roof of the apartment. It might have been at that point.
Or perhaps it was later, when the wasps buzzed sleepily past my head and disappeared into their hole in the wall.
Or maybe it was when I looked out to sea, and could see the wake of the ferry – a glittering, messy white trail cutting through the smooth blue-green glass of sea.
Whichever moment it was, I had a sudden experience of God beside me. I felt God’s love in my gut, in my chest, and I cried for a while, because I always find it overwhelming to be filled with God’s love.
After months of silence, God showed up.
So many Christian books are based on techniques of prayer, or methods of worship in order to become close to God and experience God’s spirit.
Some emphasise the spiritual disciplines, which can be enormously helpful, but other books seem to imply, ‘if you do X, Y Z, and perfect these techniques, you will experience God’s presence with you all the time.’ To do this is to take a lasso to God, as though God were an animal to be captured.
Others take a more condemnatory tone, ‘God’s presence IS with you all the time, so if you’re not feeling it, it’s your fault. You are doing X wrong, or perhaps ABCDEF and G. Really, you need to be more H.” There are elements of truth in this, of course, but the danger of this approach is that it renders God as an unmoving and unmoved force, which again can be manipulated for your benefit (if you repent of all your sins, continuously, never sin again, and simultaneously banish all negative emotions from your life).
Some Christians find these books helpful, and that is fine. For me, though, I have come to see God more as Aslan, the Lion from CS Lewis’ Narnia, who pops up only sporadically, though continuously ruling as a good leader. I think of Jesus’ words: the Holy Spirit is like the wind – invisible and hard to predict – you don’t know where it’s come from, or where it’s leading.
You can’t schedule God in the same way you can’t schedule joy – they both just show up, unannounced, in unexpected places.
God is wild and loving, not a thing to be tamed or lassoed, not a static force.
This summer, I have saved it all up – the joy of the holiday, the beauty of the place, the glorious presence of God and assurance of Jesus’ love. I have feasted, so that when the days of spiritual famine come, I can live off the fat.
Last year, on holiday, I was so overwhelmed by grief and exhaustion that although I saw all the beauty on the island, I felt sad. I gave space for God, and felt nothing.
Perhaps I have changed between last year and this. No doubt the grief, exhaustion and illness play their part in it all.
But I rather wonder whether this was just God’s particular timing for me. This year, my soul, which seems to take up residence in my solar plexus, has remembered that God is pure love, and pure goodness. As I watched the flamboyant pink flowers, dancing in the breeze, halfway up a mountain on a small Greek island, I discovered that God is beautiful – and wild. I am learning – still learning – that God is real and present, and to be found in unexpected places.
Tweetables:'God is wild and loving, not a thing to be tamed or lassoed' - @Tanya_Marlow - When God Shows Up: Click To Tweet 'You can’t schedule God in the same way you can’t schedule joy' - @Tanya_Marlow - When God Shows Up: Click To Tweet 'The Holy Spirit is like the wind - invisible and hard to predict' - @Tanya_Marlow - When God Shows Up: Click To Tweet 'God is real and present, and to be found in unexpected places.' - @Tanya_Marlow - When God Shows Up Click To Tweet
Over to you:
- When have you experienced God in the unexpected places?
- How do you cope during long periods of God’s silence?