October 22, 2020

Desertion

“There is no way of piercing faith to its very marrow like the sticking of the arrow of desertion into it; this finds it out whether it be of immortals or no.”

—C.H. Spurgeon 

            “Immortals or no …” I’ll just tell you right off that I feel as if I fall firmly into the “or no” category … decidedly mortal and faith challenged. It’s why I haven’t written for two months. I’ve been holding my breath waiting to see if I can stay steady in some circumstances where God seems missing in action. Lately, so many others have also expressed the fear that they may have been abandoned, ditched or deserted by God so maybe we shouldn’t ignore discussing that sentiment. We usually feel more comfortable recognizing and talking about God’s gentler characteristics. But let’s be honest. He does quite a lot to disabuse us of the idea that he’s so one-dimensional.

In writing, my main motivation is most always a desire to encourage. If I have any fire shut up in my bones that would be it. That’s what I want to do, but much of what God is working in my life and so many lives these days seems heavy and hard, not what I would bring you by choice. I’m sorry to say that difficulty is sometimes … okay, often … the arrow that most effectively penetrates to the faith he wants to draw out of us.

I last wrote about God’s acts of destruction – his curious habit of first destroying what he desires to resurrect. Today it is his propensity to desert us, or seemingly to do so, at our moments of highest need. Am I being ridiculous in proposing such ideas? I’m not the first to do so. Am I being negative or even harsh and damaging to God’s reputation as a loving God? Teresa of Avila once said of God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!” and she was still named a saint and doctor of the church.

She is only one of many far smarter, far more spiritually attuned, far higher up and much farther in than I to have written about such desertion. As for disparaging his loving character in doing so, can anyone really? He’s God. Father love comes across as considerably painful at times. Much as we think God wants us to learn something from difficulty, he is perhaps more intent on us becoming something, his sons and daughters. If in Christ we at times feel the hell of God’s desertion at the cross, it’s because there is a mystery at work in which we are being perfected in unity. As we abide in Christ who is already one with the Father, we become one with the Father as well (see John 17:23). Jesus is carrying us to God as sons. We identify with him in death and life and Sonship as he has identified with us in our humanity, but without the horror of true abandonment. He has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6,8; Joshua 1:5; Hebrews 13:5).

God’s intentions toward us, even as he sometimes destroys and deserts, are born of love and he is able to perform wisely and successfully. There is no risk of our being in the path of some divine error. No, if God does appear to desert us at times, it’s very much purposefully done, precisely executed and lovingly motivated.

Once I hiked a long trail near Lake Superior with my husband and daughter. We’d set out to do a shorter trail and had only a couple of water bottles and granola bars between us, but we kept finding interesting connecting trails and the short hike turned into a daylong, somewhat scary trek. Our objective was a small lake deep in the woods. Early morning energy drove us along well-travelled trails at first. After a time, the number of other hikers dwindled and the trail kept narrowing until it was no longer visible. We had to look up and search for small blue arrows on the tree trunks that were spaced at frustrating intervals.

My young daughter begged to turn back. My husband was breathless. Our cell phones were in constant search mode in the forest. We heard twigs breaking and the rustling of undergrowth somewhere off to the left. At last we stood turning in circles, looking for the next arrow … and realized we didn’t know where the last one was. Not only was the lake nowhere to be seen, finding our way back seemed not to be an option. I was feeling waves of panic and responsibility. We were there because I wanted to find that stupid lake and now my husband seemed unwell and we might all be bear bait.

We stood still for what seemed a long time, swigging water and sensing eyes that were not human upon us. The feeling of those moments captured for me what the arrow of God’s desertion feels like. We had followed a well-marked and wide path deep into the woods. Many of us have done the same in life, following, following away, only to realize suddenly that the trail has disappeared and so, it seems, has God. After all our effort, our objective no longer looks attainable. Light turns to darkness and threats lurk nearby.

I have to tell you that the sense that most overwhelmed me in those frightening moments was humility. I realized that though I had gotten us there by my stubborn insistence on finding the lake, we were at the mercy of nature and of God. Our familiar crutches of daily survival – shelter, accessible food and the ability to call for help – were not at hand in the woods of northern Wisconsin. We were on our own.

It seems everywhere I turn I hear the stories of people who feel similarly deserted. Maybe they are alone in illness … or deprivation … or relationship problems … or sin.

A few days ago, my nephew, a gifted artist who is a few years younger than I am, suffered a devastating stroke. I can only imagine the bewilderment that he and his wife are experiencing as they face serious disability and long rehabilitation in the best case and an insidious clot that still threatens his life in the worst. It’s not what they imagined as they awoke last Saturday.

This morning I spoke with a business acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while. When I asked how he was, his eyes clouded with tears and he told me that the last two years had been the worst of his life. A dishonest business partner had stolen from him, shredded his reputation and put him in ruinous legal and tax trouble. He was shaking all over with grief and emotion. I prayed for him and hugged him and begged him not to fall into bitterness. He is a good, gentle man.

Another friend told us that his parents’ marriage had broken after decades. His father was newly retired and could no longer leave his home due to his depression. He couldn’t think how to start over after so many years … a long way down a wooded path and suddenly alone.

Then there is the isolation of sin. I know a man shunned by church and friends when he committed a sin a couple of years ago. God may have forgiven him, but many people have not. A mutual acquaintance I spoke with recently expressed the wish that he “burn in hell.” Really?

In each of these cases I realized that something in me needs each of these people to persevere … to have the faith of an immortal. I crave to see it. My people need it of me. Yours need it of you.

More importantly, the Father wants to prove it in us, to show us as his true sons. We have walked with Christ into a dense wood and now we cannot see him. He has delivered us to a deserted place, a place where we are as alone as ever we were. The arrows in the trees are no longer visible. Yet, isn’t that the place where the Father now has our most rapt attention and focus? Isn’t that the place where something divine can take place, the perfecting of our fellowship with him?  Oh, but it’s so difficult to be turning, turning in circles and not know which way to go.

As I stood there in the middle of Wisconsin’s wilderness panic-scanning for markers, I recalled Bill Bryson’s book, A Walk in the Woods, about hiking the Appalachian Trail. He wrote of how the Maine woods are so dense that hikers have been known to stray off the trail and eventually die within a few yards of it when they couldn’t find their way back. It was not a reassuring thought, but it did accomplish something. It caused us to stop and settle ourselves. No use thrashing around if we didn’t know where we were going.

We got very still for what seemed like a long time. Suddenly, my daughter said, “I think I see an arrow up in that tree over there … way over there.” She and I stayed while my husband went to check it out.

“It’s an arrow,” he yelled and motioned us over. We weren’t sure if it was pointing toward the lake or back. No matter. It was the trail and it would get us somewhere. Mercifully, we found the next arrow and the next all the way to the lake where we took a couple of photos to commemorate our near death experience, split a granola bar and hit the trail again, this time vigilant for those little blue arrows and never taking them for granted. We were joyful over and grateful for each one. As tired as we were, we jogged and skipped and laughed when the trail widened and we began to encounter other hikers.

Back at the trailhead late in the day, we flipped the hatch of our car, lay down inside and devoured a giant pastry we’d bought at breakfast. A park ranger came by and chatted wanting to know where we’d hiked.

“The lake?” He glanced at my six-year-old daughter with skepticism. “That’s fourteen miles round trip …” he said. Then he looked as us like we were idiots, “ … in bear country. Glad you made it out.”

Yeah, well you might try putting up a few more blue arrows. Kind of what I want to say to God sometimes. Nevertheless, our ride back to the cabin was euphoric. Had that trail been perfectly groomed and the blue arrows in super abundance, we wouldn’t have felt quite so amazed and grateful. The trail had deserted us for a time and tested our perseverance. Having survived, we felt like hiking immortals.

It is the same in this life. Right now, I’d love to see an arrow. On bad days I cry a lot and pray nervous prayers. On my better days, I consider that God is probably close by peering at me from outside my small circle of darkness with wise eyes that see eternity in all directions. On my best days, I know I am wrapped up in intimacy with him, separated for a time from every other comfort, my ears tuned only for his voice. And when the moment is just right and he’ll put me back on the path … maybe this time with the faith of an immortal.

Comments

  1. Another Mary says

    Thank you! Thank you for your heart and the courage to speak it.

  2. Check out Doug Frank’s A Gentler God as soon as you can. It’s hard to find but worth it. The Fishers library got it for me on Interlibrary loan, then I ordered through Barnes & Noble–Amazon has it listed.

  3. Thankful for the gift of your words. Maybe this is normal Christian life, sure has been my normal for awhile… I tried to explain most of what you said here to my closest friend last night, I kept going in circles, asking her does this makes sense… You said it well, now I can tell her to come here to understand what I meant.

  4. At least I know I am not alone in feeling this way. One of my favorite books is Dickens’ Great Expectations and it’s thoughts on what do you do with life when all that you held as true proves to have been false? It’s a great read but not great to live through.

    I look for blue arrows, but no longer believe they exist. Your business acquaintance’s story is not unusual these days and it seems that often the church’s answer is to vote Republican. Many of us, faithful givers, prayers, members, Bible readers find that there is no balm in Gilead but only speeches that tell us its our own fault that we can’t find the blue arrows. No wonder Boomers are leaving churches in droves.

    Thank you for your thought provoking words.

    • I was just talking with one of my pastors on Sunday about how the farther down the path we get in life, the less sure things seem. I always figured it would be the opposite – that as we got older, wiser and closer in our walk with God things would be more clear and that there would be more arrows in the trees. It may be that God muddies things on purpose so that we will wrestle with him. It may also be that getting farther down the path in life allows us to consider things from more angles than just our own or what we’ve always been used to. While confusing and frustrating to us personally it may serve to make us more generous and compassionate as we reconsider long held, perhaps even arrogant, dogma on certain subjects whether they are political, religious or otherwise.

  5. II Corinthians 4:16…”Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”

    Beautiful post, Lisa. There are times when it feels like all we are doing is wasting away. It’s good to be reminded that in the midst of all our struggles, we are being made new.

  6. Fran Decker says

    Thanks Lisa — been there. I’m grateful for your ability to describe abandonment with such accuracy and grace.

  7. Lisa, excellent article…one I could relate to on many levels. Thanks for this post. It encouraged me.

  8. David Cornwell says

    Once again I’m reminded of John Bunyan’s “Pilgrims Progress” that I became so engrossed in at age 17.

    All along the pathway of life, one thing we find out for sure: there isn’t an easy way to go. Right now my life is a good one, in spite of some medical problems both Marge and I have. But the road leading up to this point has only partly been due to a plan or a map. Some of the things we were certain being God’s will, that we prayed about, sacrificed for, and became a part of, seemed to disappear into an unfathomable way as we moved along.

    Sometimes God is not to be found, or so it seems. Then suddenly a little beam of light in the distance will appear, or a marking on a tree, and hope returns.

    Thanks for the honesty Lisa. It’s impossible to give real advice. It just seems to be part of the road we must travel.

    • Yes, that book came to my mind as well. Thank you for your wise words. I always enjoy them, David.

  9. I hope I am not breaking any rules here by placing this quote here. I learned about Heather King from a post by Martha, so that should keep me out of trouble ( :
    I found it life giving! Thank-you Lisa (& Heather) for keeping it honest.

    Quote by Heather King.

    “Similarly, there’s a huge misconception that faith provides some kind of consolation: that faith assuages fear, dispels doubt, and imparts a phony, infantile sense of well-being that the more clear-eyed among us, as a matter of intelligence and conscience (and if that were the case, I’d add rightfully), reject. Not long ago a friend of mine–great guy; funny, compassionate, smart guy who also happens to be resolutely atheistic–was facing eye surgery. He said, “I was coming home from the doctor’s the other day and I was so scared and felt so alone and I thought: ‘Man, I could use some of that faith people talk about. Too bad I don’t believe.’” And I, in turn, thought, Wow, do folks actually think that the person who “believes” suffers one iota less anguish at the thought of, say, eye surgery–or scorn or ridicule or rejection or abandonment or loneliness or poverty–than the person who doesn’t “believe?” If that were the case, everyone would believe. It wouldn’t be faith, it would be a transaction. It would be a magic trick.

    But the interesting thing about belief is that it doesn’t make you act better than other people, doesn’t make you appear more together, doesn’t advance you in the eyes of the world, doesn’t relieve your terrible fears and terrible shortcomings.

    What does faith do? It helps you to bear the almost unbearable tension of being a mortal human being without cracking. It helps you to bear your fears, your neuroses, your anxieties, your rage, your lusts, your loneliness, so that you don’t lose your mind, or start swilling Night Train, or embark on a life spent watching internet porn. If you are very far along the path, it may begin to help you refrain from taking the agony of bearing the tension out on other people. It leads you, or has anyway led me, to ponder the sort of Man Christ was. A Man who, nailed to the Cross, could still be focused not on his own suffering, but on the suffering of the rest of the world. A Man who, in the throes of death, turned to the Repentant Thief beside him with the reassurance: ‘This day you shall be with me in Paradise.’ [Luke 23: 43]

    Anyone who signs up to be a Christian signs up for failure. The very, very few who “succeed” die. In order to be any good at it you more or less have to be killed. You also have to be somewhat nuts to set yourself a goal that is basically impossible to achieve. As Thomas Merton observed: “We must remember that in order to choose religious life, you must be a misfit…Let’s get away from the mystique that religious are the cream-of-the-crop Christians.”

    • I’m glad I was some good to you, Gail, though as for keeping people out of trouble – I’m more like Lisa’s little blue arrows. “Well, if you didn’t want to be lost, why on earth did you follow me in the first place???” 🙂

      Heather is very good. She comes at things from a completely different angle than I would, and I think that’s the fruit of her brokenness, and she’s excellent at hammering my stubbornness and pride and getting my thick skull to consider the views of others.

      And Chesterton has written of that cry from the cross, “Eli Eli lama sabachthani” in his “Orthodoxy”:

      “It is written, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.” No; but the the Lord thy God may tempt Himself; and it seems as if this was what happened in Gethsemane. In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden God tempted God. He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist.”

      • Martha,

        “I’m glad I was some good to you, Gail, though as for keeping people out of trouble – I’m more like Lisa’s little blue arrows. “Well, if you didn’t want to be lost, why on earth did you follow me in the first place???”

        You are funny… (And also doing some good for me as a reluctant, not yet Catholic, wanna-be, to understand some of the Church’s teachings… (Since you mentioned Heather I got right over to her blog, ordered her three books, and I love the story that God is telling through her wild & grace-filled journey.)

  10. Wow. I know this feeling… you’re in the middle of trying to “serve Him” and all of the sudden your honest thought is, “Where the hell am I? And where did God run off to??!” I felt like this going into the USMC, in my unemployment, & all through the last “church” I worked in… the truth I came to about why I hold to Jesus is that he is the only God who does not claim or grasp power but comes down into human form- not as a ruler or king- but to scream with us through or pain, blood, & ____ of life. I will follow someone who has suffered with me.

    Sometimes there are no answers. Or reasons.

    I send my kids off every day to school where I know they will like some teachers and not others, make some friends, some kids will be mean on purpose, & yet others will hurt them on accident. When they come home I grab them and tell them how much I love them and hope they act, each day, knowing their dad loves them wildly.

    God is like that. We try and act out how we know He feels about us… because of and in spite of the other kids on the playground.

    Great post.

  11. Don’t you think though, that it is really about trusting God, whether we see Him or not? The longer I go, the more I realize that trusting God builds the very faith we need to get through the next thing. A few years ago, I was in one of those places, screaming at God, why did you do this, what are you doing? Eventually, after some months of that, I got to the point where I surrendered to the fact that I could not change my circumstances, and God apparently did not intend to in the near future. He wanted me to trust Him in a way I never had. Not only did it build my faith, it led also to a time of much healing of past issues that were still hindering me. I would not trade it for an easy road because now I understand that the healing would not have come through an easy road.

  12. As Elijah found out at Horeb, God seems to place himself in the most unlikely spots, and it often seems he would not be a fair player at our Easter egg hunts. His silence can be deafening. It seems to me a sovereign God is searching for us more than we are searching for him. It’s humanly counterintuitive for a god to say an adulterous murderer like David was righteous, that that a fearful band of 12 clueless illiterate bumpkins could ignite an unquenchable flame, that divinity must stoop to a human death. But among all of God’s omni’s, he is decidedly Other. He just doesn’t think like we expect him to, but he definitely is there and we are in his plan and not vice-versa. And I may get angry or confused when my emails to him appear to disappear in spiritual cyberspace, but I have found when I dare to second guess God into assuming his thoughts mirror my own, I am lost. In Thee, O Lord, have I hoped: I said, Thou art my God, my times are in Thy hands.

    • “Other” … a word I have learned in my Greek class that describes God. Thank you for these comments and this good reminder Stuart.

  13. “God’s intentions toward us, even as he sometimes destroys and deserts, are born of love and he is able to perform wisely and successfully.”

    It sounds alot like St. John of the Cross, that often God removes all consolations to strengthen our faith. I feel like I have been in that mode for several years.

    I heard someone speak today about how sometimes we make too much of suffering, i.e. God allowed this to happen so that I can help someone else who is hurting. He said such logic becomes a vicious cycle: God allows the next person to suffer and so on. I completely agree. I think we get it backwards: God is not the cause of suffering; rather, God is the answer, the courage, to carry on even through the valley of the shadow of death. I just don’t think blaming everything on God is any meaningful defense of God’s omnipotence, i.e. if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why did he allow xyz? That is a question defending or attacking our understanding of God, our theology if you will, and not God himself. We throw around theological terms as if that is what knowing God is all about. God is not a frog on a disection table. He is not a concept in a text book. When we treat God this way, is it any wonder that after a while we start feeling like that frog – an inhuman object created in the image of an irrational being?

  14. Thank you, Lisa.

    Alison and I had a similar experience in Yellowstone two years ago. Not quite as lost as you, but near the feeling. Finally encountered a couple on the trail, who sounded French, traveling the opposite drection. The lady kindly warned us of a “beezzon” on the trail ahead. It really is heartening to run into someone in the middle of no where.

    T

  15. Well said, Lisa. I have been in a 3 yr spell akin to this. I have been chasing after illusory arrows that appear to lead to nowhere. Sometimes I’m searching for deceptive arrows that exist but come from the “world, the flesh and the devil” as Ephesians puts it. Sometimes I am looking for God’s arrows but not God. And more often these days, I’m searching for the arrows of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit which in this deep dark wood in which I have stumbled into.
    BTW, I enjoyed reading a post on David and the RYR that seemed to vanish in an instant!

  16. Thank you for this wonderful illustration of having the courage to experience doubt, and still finding God there regardless. I felt (still feel?) that doubt, mostly through an inability to trust, but lately God has said, “Just let me work through you, however I can, though you may not understand.” It’s a big step for me, and I’m latching on to those blue signs like they are lifeboats in a wide expanse of ocean.

  17. Wonderful essay, Lisa. And a wonderful use of real life experience as a metaphor of our relationship with God.