The Common Good

Those Who Know Where Pain Lives: A Treatise on Presence

Last year, I wrote about my journey from forcing joy to finding that love is what is everlasting, not joy — that we sometimes hear and believe that Jesus only lives in the places of our lives where we recognize him with joy. But that that is not true.

Silhouette of man in front of sunset, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com
Silhouette of man in front of sunset, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com

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And so, almost as an afterthought, I've been thinking lately of other ideals that Christians hold as truth, somehow in the process giving a lifeless principle more weight than a Living Christ who reveals himself beyond what can be wrapped up with words and smacked with a theological bow.

Like the concept of Presence.

We know and rest our restless hearts in the idea that Jesus is with us always, lo, even unto the very end of the age. A God who never leaves us or forsakes us. And this is good. We sing songs and pray prayers and feel goose bumps and know that it is true … at least in those moments.

But what about the God who seems to be known by God’s absence as much as by God’s presence? What happens when we don't feel God’s proximity uninterrupted? What about the murder and the rape, the greed and the injustice that make the headlines on a daily basis? Does our God have presence in this world as only a glim-eyed trinket who capriciously blesses and curses, small children even incurring the onslaught of God’s displeasure? Because if you can't read the morning news right alongside your Bible and have the courage to face the reality you walk around in every day with the words on sleek pages and fight with it until it works, then you have no business touting "presence" answers to those who know where pain lives.

Maybe we should ask Job. You remember the whirlwind of suffering he experienced while God seemed to quietly fold God’s hands and look the other way. And his friends? How they stepped in with all their good-Bible-student crap and pushed him into a corner, kicked a man while he was down and already smeared with ash. Job has something to teach us about beating people up with the presence of God.

And perhaps True Presence starts where our words stop.

It used to bother me that a lot of what Job's friends said was "right." Or that it was at least healthily laced with truth. But Job wouldn't buy it. Over and over, he rejected their words, rejected the comfort they "tried" to give because he saw it for what it was: a way to reduce human suffering and the presence or absence of God to an equation.

And that God will not be.

Which is why it is so striking that it takes them running out of all their 30-some chapters of pontification before God speaks. And God does so without even answering their questions or nit picking through their theories. Instead, God arrives on the scene with God’s own set of questions. And they all center around one theme: I am God and you are not.

Sometimes there's just nothing more to say when eyeball to eyeball with human suffering. God is God and I am not. God is more than the best answer I can give. God is greater than all my reasonings and old-English Bible verses. Sometimes our best response is to grieve beside a brother or a sister, all together in this human family, without a word. Just like Jesus taught us to do.

Remember Jesus with the sisters? He did not shore up their faith with tired expressions or spend 30-some chapters debating the intentions of God. He spoke few words. He cried with them. He mourned the apparent absence of God in the presence of death as much as any other human being, even with the resurrection of dear Lazarus right on the horizon. And this was not a lack of faith, or of God's presence, as much as perhaps acknowledging the strong feeling — which the more honest among us can admit to — that God has gone AWOL.

Because when we portray a life that is always high on presence and never candid enough to struggle with the absence, we fill the air with more pollution than a diesel tractor. This brand of poison reaches not the lungs, but the heart. Eventually, its expectations crush the soul. And the result is often that we either go into hiding behind a strongly gripped, fear-induced religion that must make every day a good day and all the endings happily ever after, forging God's signature on the dotted line of human suffering as a consequence that we deserve, OR we succumb to a hateful turning away from God as weak, small, and generally unfair.

And so instead of telling stories of waking with Jesus-songs on my lips and sweet joy in my heart, making you think my life is a constant experience of glory upon glory, I will tell it straight — ugly, raw, and absent as much or more than days of lily-of-the-valley. Instead of making readers feel less than, clutching at my words for hints on how to change, I will set them free with the knowledge that we all have holes. And we all have anger. And we all wake up screaming in our soul, God where are you??

And that it's okay.

For this is what it is to be human. Welcome to the truth. It's bigger here, and wilder, yes, than hiding out under the soft, smothering, cotton coffin of pretense's warm blanket. Like all stories still being written, this one involves more blood than ink. But at least it is living.

Kelli Woodford lives in the Midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with her husband and seven blue-eyed children. There isn’t much she loves more than engaging conversations and crackling firesides. Especially combining the two. Kelli writes with some regularity at her personal blog and is a respected contributor for several online magazines, as well. Two published books also bear her stories, Mom in the Mirror and Not Afraid (a Civitas Press community project, edited by Alise Wright).

Image: Silhouette of man in front of sunset, Galyna Andrushko / Shutterstock.com

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