Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: When God Leaves Us Alone

Have you ever felt completely alone? Have you ever felt as if no other human being in your world understood you or had any idea of the depth of your struggles? It happens! It happens to people who are religious and to those who are not religious. It happens to young people in their struggle to gain personal identity and adulthood. It happens to middle-aged people who suddenly realize they have lived half a life time and still have no idea who they are or why they are here. It happens to the elderly when they realize their life is almost over and they still have not idea who they are or why they are here. It happens when, as Andrew Marvell wrote, "And at my back I always hear time's winged chariot drawing near." It is a more common human experience than you think.

Some of these separating experiences run so deep and rip up our lives so badly that we not only feel out of touch with family and friends, but also out of touch with God. I have seen sincere religious people fall into such deep despair over some life experience or series of life experiences that they begin to question the existence of God. "If God exists, how could God allow this to happen?" If you have listened very closely you have likely heard someone say that. Perhaps you have said that at some time in your life, or at least thought it. I have. It is a frightening feeling. Many were surprised to learn that the beloved Mother Teresa suffered long periods of spiritual isolation and emotional despair. She wrote of it in her journal and in correspondence with a close friend.

Do you suppose there are times when God does withdraw from us? There certainly are times in which it feels that way. It happened to Saul in the Old Testament. The absence of God was so terrifying that he finally consulted a fortune-teller to try to get back in touch with God. The Book of Psalms is littered with prayers of desperation concerning the absence of God. "Lord, do not leave us. Do not turn your back on me. How long, O' Lord, will you hide your face from me? My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" It happened to Jesus on the cross. In the pain of crucifixion and the darkness of that hour, Jesus remembered the words of the Psalmist and He, too,cried out, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

You may be expecting me to tell you that it is not God who distances Himself from us, but we are the ones who have distanced ourselves from God. That does happen. But does God for some reason beyond our knowing, withdraw from us? I do not know. I only know that it feels that way. I can imagine there might be times in which God says, "Ok,now try it by yourself". There may be times in which God leaves us alone so that we can grow and learn other lessons. Some lessons in life can only be learned experientially, by doing it ourselves. To learn how to ride a bicycle or motorcycle - or to learn how to balance our life on two legs -- we cannot simply read the book or listen to the lectures of our Teacher, and then magically be able to balance and negotiate heavy traffic. At some point our Instructor will let go so we can do it "alone," with all the jerks and bumps that might entail, as we motor throught life. Falling down and skinning our knees or our hearts does not mean we have fallen short; it just means there's a lot of learning going on. And through it all, our Teacher is standing by, to pick us up when we fall and give us encouragement with His Feedback.

So a healthy understanding of depending on God does not mean that we are to be bystanders in our spiritual maturation. When we seek professional help for personal and emotional problems, success requires that we be active participants in the therapeutic process. There are people who assume they can hire a professional "fixer" to take over their troubled lives in the same way in which you take you automobile to the garage and leave it to be repaired; and then come back later, pay the bill, and drive away without knowing how or what has been done to solve the problem. That is not how the broken pieces of a troubled life are put back in place.

Every professional therapist and every experienced pastor knows what it is like to have a client come in and unload all their problems and then not only act as if those problems now belong to the therapist, but that they somehow originated with him/her.

Responsibility is a key component of emotional and spiritual health. If we wish to be well there must come a time in which we no longer allow the people and experiences of the past to define who we are. In his book, "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart", Dr. Gordon Livingston has a chapter titled, "The statute of limitations has expired on most of our childhood traumas". The gravamen of that chapter is that we are responsible for most of what happens to us. In order to heal our hurts and change the direction of our lives we must abandon the assumption, not only that someone else is responsible for the shape we are in, but also the assumption that someone else can do the hard work and heavy lifting that will save us from the unhappy condition in which we find ourselves. When we begin to take ownership of our problems, we will have taken the first step into the land of beginning again.

I heard Dr. Fred Craddock, erstwhile Professor of Homiletics at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, tell of meeting a preacher who was born without arms. The preacher told how his mother took care of him. She fed him and dressed him every day. One day when he had gotten to be a good sized boy, she came into his bedroom and put his clothes in the middle of the floor and said, "Dress yourself". He said, "I can't dress myself, I have no hands and arms". She said, "You will have to dress yourself". She left the room. He kicked and screamed and yelled, "You don't love me anymore". When his mother did not respond to his angry protests, he finally decided if he was going to get any clothes on he would have to do it himself. After hours of struggle and crying he finally got some clothes on. He said it was not until later that he learned that all this time his mother was in the next room crying.

Does God sometimes leave us alone to teach us to dress ourselves and tend to ourselves in ways in which heretofore we have depended too much on others? And, when God leaves us alone, does God stay close by and weep with us and for us until we have learned the lessons for which God's absence was intended?

I think so. I hope so. What do you think?