Christian life—indeed, life in general—is an exercise in living with the presence and absence of God.
In talking with people who are not yet committed followers of Jesus, there will most likely be an unrecognized deep sense of God’s absence. They know something is missing, though they can’t put a name to it. The worst thing a Christian could try to do is deny this sense of absence or explain it away as though it only seems like God’s absence. The first thing we must do is honestly acknowledge that the experience of the absence of God is real and palpable at times. If we are honest, we will recognize this ache in our hearts, as well. Questions about why God doesn’t act to spare innocent people from terrible events are only one example of the sense of God’s absence.
Being Adventists in the most general sense of the word means being people who live in hope, people who live in the midst of the tension between the presence and absence of
God. This tension captures very well one of Jesus’ final discourses with the disciples: Christ told His disciples, “ ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’ ” (John 16:16).1The passage continues: “Some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,” and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They kept asking, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We don't understand what he is saying’ ” (v. 17, 18).
“Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, ‘Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me”? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete’ ” (vv. 19-24).
Notice the disciples’ confusion about the presence and absence of Jesus. Jesus says, “You will see me no more” (absence). Then He says, “You will see me” (presence). What is going on here? In answer to these questions, Jesus uses the metaphor of birth pains.
There is severe pain in childbirth, but once the baby is born, the mother forgets all about the pain because of her joy in the new child. Jesus also gives a double answer about His presence in this chapter, referring both to the coming of the Holy Spirit and His own physical return.
Christian life—indeed, life in general—is an exercise in living with the presence and absence of God. This is why the Bible speaks of Christians living in hope and anticipation and admonishing the vital and active spiritual discipline of “waiting.” (See Matthew 24 and 25.)
Finally, we should recognize that the sense of God’s absence is potentially an evidence of God’s presence. The longing for a thing is an indicator that the thing itself exists, at some level. A sense of loneliness speaks powerfully of the reality of companionship and friendship. Emptiness means that there is fullness, both a space to be filled and something with which to fill the space.
God wants to fill that space in our lives, and in the lives of those who don’t yet know Him. Our job is to reveal God’s love in the things we do and say.2