God Behaving Badly 8

God Behaving Badly 8 June 14, 2011

Most people experience God at times as incredibly near, as if we are dwelling in the very presence of God. Yet at other times God seems remote or distant, and we seem to be dwelling in a cloud out of which cannot see. I am glad then that David Lamb, in his excellent book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?, probes this question: Is God distant or near?

How do you explain this distance-nearness dialectic? What do we mean when we say “near” or “distant”? What is your experience in these kinds of issues?

David begins where one ought to begin on this topic: with the lament psalms, those psalms where the psalmist complains about God’s distance or about God’s non-involvement, or even God’s seeming lack of care. As in “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” He focuses a little on Psalms 13 and 22.

Those laments work like this: invocation, complaint, petition, trust and praise. The notable feature of these psalms is that they emerge from a kernel of faith, and the psalmist prays because he or she believes in God and believes there’s some hope by speaking with God. In this one finds a critical feature for the experience of God’s distance.

But at work in all of this is the stubborn, rugged presence of God with God’s people: the biblical expression is that God is with us. David has one of the best sketches I’ve seen of this “with us” theme in the Bible. God speaks and God walks with Israel and Judah and the church.

By the way, in his sketch of God’s presence, David utters one of my all-time favorites about Adam: “… he made the first man out of mud and breathed into the mud-ball’s mouth to give it life” (167).

God speaks with, God walks with, and God dwells with the people of God. The incarnation, of course, is where we focus, but if we think through this God has been with us in so many ways: sacrifice, tabernacle, temple, worship, Spirit, and then Incarnation.

Jesus embodied this with-ness in table fellowship with sinners, in hearing and listening and sharing stories and in hundreds of ways. This with-ness must be a factor whenever we wonder if God is distant.

This is a good book because it addresses important apologetical topics, but it does so by asking us always to consider the fuller story of each them. Yes, some focus on distance, but distance must be connected to with-ness.

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  • This is a great book indeed. Finished it a couple of weeks ago. I agree that David does a great job, not only in this distant-nearness discussion, but in many other areas as well. Definitely worth reading.

    My review — http://jeffkclarke.com/2011/05/30/book-review-god-behaving-badly-is-god-of-the-old-testament-angry-sexist-and-racist-by-david-t-lamb/

  • Susan N.

    This chapter, like the previous one, is a favorite of mine. My experiences of God’s distance-nearness support what David Lamb has presented on this subject.

    Matt. 5:8 — Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (NIV)

    I’ve learned a few things (some the hard way).

    First, I have to “invest” in the relationship by seeking to spend time with God (prayer, worship, reading His Word, service, fellowship). If I move away, God doesn’t demand that His presence be acknowledged.

    Second, God is never far away. It’s my radar that goes haywire and fails to detect how He is in the midst of my life. When I am expecting to “see” God everywhere, I usually do. My faith is confirmed.

    Third, honesty with God is better than stoicism (arising from a misguided sense of piety). The Psalms, Jesus’ words on the cross (Ps. 22), are the perfect ‘how to’ reference. The act of crying out to God is, in the first place, an acknowledgement that there is a God, and there is at least hope that He will respond. In the worst of times, this isn’t always self-evident. It seems to me that speaking the truth of our needful despair, the realization of God’s presence is more easily made known to the broken-hearted. And with that sense of God’s presence close by, peace comes; faith that it will be okay…

    Jacob’s story in Gen. 32 is one that I strongly identify with. “As he limped away, Jacob learned that being near God can be dangerous, but the risk is still worth it. It was good for Jacob. He came away with not just a limp but with a divine blessing and a new name.” (p. 169)

  • Susan, Jeff: Thanks. I also appreciate your 3 lessons, Susan. In terms of the psalms of lament, I should thank Brueggemann and Goldingay, who’ve helped deepen my relationship with God by encouraging honest expressions of pain.

    The comments are coming a little slower this time…I guess this chapter isn’t as controversial as some of the other ones, huh?

  • Jeff L

    What do folks recommend when God seems distant and nothing–prayer, fasting, worship, fellowship with other believers–seems to alleviate the situation?

  • Jeff L.: Look into inner healing. You can start by simply asking God to show you what the basis of the problem is. It sounds like you are trying to work your way out of it, when what God wants very often involves an increase in your trust of Him and how He wants to deal with your issues.

  • Susan N.

    Jeff L (#4) – I have been thinking on your question, and don’t know that there is a simple answer. I don’t want to trivialize your situation, or offer pat or cliche “fixes”. I’ve been in your shoes, and in hindsight, I tend to think that this ebb and flow of the spiritual life is a normal part of relationship with God and the growth process.

    Cling to what you know is true (Christ and His teachings), and be open to God suddenly revealing Himself in new (often unexpected) ways. Sometimes one can only wait. Don’t beat yourself up in the meantime. Be patient with yourself, and with God. I like Romans 8 and Psalm 139 🙂 Plenty of silence and solitude, prayer and contemplation, reading and music help me during such a time as you describe. But that’s me — introverted — and others may find renewal through other activities. Hang in there. ~Peace~

  • Jeff L

    Ann and Susan,
    thank you for thoughtful and loving responses.

  • Jeff L, I don’t know if you’re old enough (!) to be familiar with Keith Green & his songs. His song, “my eyes are dry, my faith is old…” resonated through the years in certain periods. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vsWO3-we-Y

    I note in the psalms and in life how we can’t escape the hurtfulness of certain experiences and how God seems absent when pain or injustice overwhelm. Psalms that express that absence and give us a liturgy to follow: remember God, move toward God (e.g., Psalm 143), remind ourselves (and even remind God!) who God is, and what promises we’re holding onto in dark times.

    I recall hospice events where family agonized over various indignities in bodily processes of their loved one. When they focused on the indignity, I reminded them of the love they gave in those moments of care, the blessing of their presence and gift of human dignity they offered, even in moments of death. Sometimes we forget to see God’s presence in the hands and hearts of caring people around us, and that’s exactly where we remind one another of the necessity of embodying Christ. The Holy Spirit is not “feel-able” when our hearts, minds and emotions are flooded, but human touch and human caring are.

  • Jeff L

    Ann,
    Coincidentally (or not), was just reading Eugene Peterson in “Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.” He says something very interesting: in the Bible God disappears for 400 years, between Jacob’s family settling in Egypt and the Hebrew Exodus out of Egypt under Moses’s leadership. Peterson draws from this that we shouldn’t be surprised if God seems to withdraw from our lives at various times.