Why is it better to have faith than not to have faith in God?
There are many answers we might offer. For instance, we might say that faith helps us find a contentment that would otherwise be missing in the face of the mysteries and uncertainties of existence. Or I suppose we might respond by saying that faith in God gives us comfort in times of loss or tragedy. Or, again, we could say that faith gives us a feeling of fulfillment and communion with God. And there is truth in all of these responses.
But it is not the whole truth. After all, does faith always give us a sense of contentment and comfort and communion with God? Does our faith consistently leave us feeling sunny and happy, filled with exuberant joy? Aren’t there times, dreadful times, when misfortune has overtaken us — job loss, serious illness, the death of a loved one — and when we turn to God we have no experience of the divine presence? God seems remote, cold, perhaps — dare we say it? — nonexistent. What then do we say of the goodness of faith? Or can we honestly say that we have faith at all when we can find no consolation, no guidance, no word from God which addresses us in our need?
Let’s face it, it’s hard to be very enthusiastic about living a religious life when God seems to be absent at the most inconvenient times. There is a story of a mother who was distressed about her son’s reluctance to go to church. “You go to the show for entertainment,” she said. “You visit with your friends and have fun. Don’t you think it is only right that you go to the Lord’s house once a week for an hour?” After thinking for a moment the boy replied, “But mom, what would you think if you were invited to somebody’s house and every time you went, the guy was never there?” Good point.
But the problem can go well beyond the public worship service. There are times we have no sense of God being anywhere near us, no matter how faithfully we worship, no matter how fervently we pray. At times like these it is easy to sympathize with that philosopher of film, Woody Allen: “If only God would give me some sign. If He would just speak to me once, anything, one sentence, two words. If He would just cough.” Isn’t it true that at times we scan the heavens and it very much seems that we find “the supposed throne of mercy without an occupant?” (Morris Jastrow, Jr. The Book of Job. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1920, p. 28).
When we have such an experience as this, must we conclude that either God is missing or our faith is faulty? Perhaps there is something else, another option. For it seems that even those people of profound faith and spiritual insight have felt abandoned by God from time to time. Wasn’t this the case for Job and Jeremiah and even Jesus who cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Listen to the words of the Psalmist in our scripture Psalms 42. Here there is no sign of either a quiet yet confident spiritual serenity or of a handclapping religious jubilation. What we do find are words of faith. However, it is a faith that has no smile attached to it.
This faith is not buoyant, light-hearted or at peace. To the contrary, it is uncomforted, miserable and unsatisfied. It is a faith that has uncertainty in it; it is tinged by shades of doubt. It is what church historian Martin Marty might call a “wintery” faith. It is a faith that hungers and thirsts for God and yet remains empty. “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for Thee, O God.” But the Psalmist is not nourished by God. Instead he laments, “My tears have been my food day and night.”
The experience of the Psalmist stands out in sharp contrast to that of Elijah. Remember the prophet Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal, to prove whether the pagan Baal gods or the God of Israel was the greatest? The prophets of Baal went through all manner of rituals in an attempt to get their gods to give a sign of power. Yet no matter how they tried to invoke their deities, it was to no avail. No amount of prayers, ceremonies or sacrifices made a bit of difference; the heavens remained silent and unmoved. Elijah taunted and mocked them for the impotence of their gods. And when his turn came to call upon the God of Israel to act, there was a prompt and overwhelming manifestation of divine power. No question about it, Elijah was the winner. His God was the one Living God. It was all so clear-cut.
But for the Psalmist — and for us — the matter is not so obviously and decisively resolved. Unlike Elijah, this man found himself on the receiving end of the scorn and ridicule of his enemies. He writes, “As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?'” Unlike the great prophet, the Psalmist finds himself unable to call down fire from heaven in response to his unfriendly interrogators. Their tormenting questions aggravate the spiritual grief he already has and reinforce the anguished questions of his own heart. “When shall I come and behold the face of God? … I say to God, my rock: ‘Why hast Thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?'” He finds his questions greeted with silence; the heavens do not stir.
English poet W.H. Auden once wrote, “We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence, for no nightmare of hostile objects could be as terrible as this void.” Indeed, and there is no void like that which is created by the silence of God.
What can we do in the face of this distressing experience? Is any response possible and helpful? Perhaps we can take some clues from the Psalmist. First, it may be of some comfort to be mindful of the fact that the experience of the silence of God is a manifestation of faith, not unbelief. The Psalmist was a person with a deep yearning for God. The sense that God is far away is not a feeling reserved for rebels and reprobates. In fact it is often those who are most deeply religious who are the most sensitive to such experiences.
The eighteenth-century Hasidic rabbi Pinhas would often have students come to him for spiritual help. In response to one who was distressed over the apparent absence of God, he said, “True, God may be hiding, but you know it. That ought to be sufficient.” That answer did not resolve the suffering of the student but it helped him to suffer differently. It enabled him to see that — unlike many others — at least he had the faith-capacity to sense the absence of God.
Second, though the Psalmist felt that God was distant and unresponsive, the very fact that he continued to pray was an affirmation of faith in the presence of God. It is important that we recognize that the feeling of the presence of God is not the same thing as the presence of God. The presence of God is not dependent upon our experience of this presence.
C.S. Lewis has made some helpful comments on this matter. He wrote, “The act which engenders a child ought to be, and usually is, attended by pleasure. But it is not the pleasure that produces the child. Where there is pleasure there may be sterility; where there is no pleasure the act may be fertile. And in the spiritual marriage of God and the soul it is the same. It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Spirit which begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for which we give thanks when it comes, and that’s about it” (C.S. Lewis, Letter to an American Lady. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. pp. 36, 27).
The feeling that God is absent may be the result of fatigue, depression, our emotional make-up or maybe just indigestion. In his film, Love and Death, Woody Allen’s character Boris is overcome by a terrible feeling and he is seized by an urge to commit suicide. He tries to talk about his crisis with a friend. Boris says, “I feel a void at the center of my being.” His friend replies, “What kind of void?” Boris answers, “An empty void. I felt a full void a month ago but it was just something I ate.”
Full void or empty void, these feelings actually tell us little or nothing about the real presence of God. We need to acknowledge that God is greater than our feelings. Like the Psalmist it is wise for us to keep addressing God in prayer, though we feel as if He is not near.
Third, while the Psalmist feels abandoned by God in the present, still he is able to recall the spiritual joy he experienced in the past and he sets his eyes forward in hope of a better future. He allows his memory to take him back to better days: “These things I remember as I pour out my soul; how I went with the congregation and led them in procession to the house of God, with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” This memory gives him assurance that God can be known and His presence can be experienced in joy and gratitude.
This memory enables the Psalmist to rebuke his own excessive distress and then express confidence in a future of renewed faith. “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”
This confession does not banish all gloom from the Psalmist’s life. In fact, in just a couple of verses he has a relapse of spiritual depression and must make his confession in hope once again. But the important thing is that he clings to God through his trials and inner struggles. And if we are to come through our dark and spiritually dry periods with our faith intact, it is important that we do the same.
We have no guarantee that we will never feel abandoned by God. But we do have a promise that God will be with us and we have the assurance that nothing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Acts 8:39). Our feelings may not always reverberate with this truth, but thank God, our fickle feelings do not alter the truth. So in times of our distress let us say with the Psalmist, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

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