Helping a student understand the existence (and presence) of God
With my group of middle school campers this week, one pulled me aside during the day to talk about his struggles and doubts with faith. Let’s call him Aidan. Aidan had a really hard school year with grades and sports and family life, where it seemed like a lot had fallen apart. He felt like God had abandoned him, but then got around to questioning if maybe what was happening was that there is no God at all.
This is not an uncommon train of thought. I have asked the exact same question at times over the years. If it wasn’t for a really solid background in Christian Apologetics, I would have certainly become an atheist. (Instead I continued to believe in God while writhing in pain over his abandoning me. Doesn’t feel much better.)
So as we talked, it became clear that several different issues were mixed up in Aidan’s thinking. And I wanted to sort them out, one by one, before answering any of them. The first question is why God would abandon me if God is good. The second question is, implicitly, can God be real even if we do not experience him? The third question is, does God exist at all? And a fourth lingering question is, how can I trust God if he has abandoned me before?
In order, these are the answers. First, there are a number of good reasons God could have for leaving us on our own for a season. Sometimes God knows that we are proud and wants to humble us by allowing us to see the fruit of life without him. Other times, God will lovingly withdraw himself from us so that we can grow in faith in different ways than those we have already grown in. Some call this “pruning.” A tree can bear good fruit, yet need to be cut back so that it can bear better fruit. Similarly, in our Christian lives sometimes we are doing well but God has unseen horizons for us to cross. He must allow us to fall so that we can rise in Him. (All of these answers, of course, leave out the most common answer of all: that we have no idea why God does what he does, but in retrospect he works it all out). These “dark nights of the soul” are bitter but common. David experienced it in Psalm 42. Mother Teresa described a period lasting fifty years like this. So too can God use it in our lives to further what is good.
Second, yes, God can be real even if we do not experience him. I drew two pictures for Aidan on my cabin chalkboard. Here they are:
Does God exist?
Can God be experienced?
And the point that I was trying to emphasize was the further space between Yes and No in the second question. The existence of God seems to be a binary. Either he exists or not. But there is a whole other dimension to the existence of God, in a pragmatic way, that sees God not as a truth but as a lived experience. Can I experience God? At times the answer to this is yes, and at times the answer is no, regardless of the actual existence of God. When a person believes God exists yet does not experience him, this is the dark night of the soul. When a person does not believe in God yet does experience him, this is what Charles Taylor calls being “haunted” by God. God is dead to you, yet his presence lingers on in your life. These two mismatches between reality and lived experience are very uncomfortable. Nobody likes them. So while the actual question of the existence of God can be argued all day from the merits of scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning… the question of the presence of God is elusive to these types of argument. This is so true that I even said to Aidan that there have been points in my life “where I have experienced that God is not real… even though he is.” The phrasing is intentional.
The answer to the third question, on the existence of God, is that yes, God does exist. We know this because of a demonstration called the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In this argument we find that everything that begins to exist has a preceding cause. (A preceding cause is something that comes before and leads to another thing happening. Also, it cannot just be the thing it causes, or else it isn’t really a “preceding” cause at all). Because of new developments in astrophysics the past 100 years, we know that the Universe began to exist. So, it must be true that the Universe has a preceding cause. What could be the Universe’s preceding cause? Well, the Universe is made of matter, time, space, and energy. And the preceding cause to these properties cannot be the properties themselves. So whatever is the preceding cause of the Universe, it must be immaterial, outside of time, not bound by spatial dimensions, and not just energy (must be a being). These fit the classical description of God, and at minimum imply that atheism cannot be true. It doesn’t get you all the way to Jesus, to the Trinity, to the Bible being true. But this argument does offer strong support than there must be something beyond the physical world and the five senses.
Can I trust a God who has abandoned me? This fourth question is much harder than the others. My own past is riddled with situations (some still sting today) where it feels like God has abandoned me. In my youth ministry in junior high. In my school as an eighth grader. Once, as a junior in high school, I lost a really important student council election that I had invested a lot into. In that moment, I prayed that God would give me the emotional courage to handle the loss well. I did not handle the loss well, at all. Why would God not agree to a prayer that is so obviously the right thing? Why would God abandon me when all I asked for was his comforting presence? More recently, through a bizarre turn of events, I have landed on academic probation at school and I’m not sure anymore how the future looks for me. This is unsettling because of how obvious God’s direction was of my college choice and program choice. He wanted me here. So why does it now look like that may not be true anymore? Has God abandoned me halfway through?
And, again, I’m not sure that this question has an answer in words. Or in categories. Maybe the answer to this question is one that must be a lived experience. That our relationship with God cannot play out in theory, it must take place in time, in history. And so the answer to the question, “Can I trust a God who has abandoned me” is not actually an answer but instead an action: to trust him anyways and see what happens.
Of course, in my life, I have seen in retrospect that God works out all things according to the good of the those he has called. That each of those times I had felt abandoned had been for a greater purpose and ultimately for the glory of God. While my feeling of abandonment was real, that I had been abandoned was not real. God was there, intervening even in times of his silence to prepare me for the season of life that was next.
As I tried to communicate this perspective, I would ask Aidan how he was feeling, and what his thoughts were. Over the conversation it became clear that I had left my own voice behind and was speaking from a different voice. One richer than my own, one fuller than my own, one more graceful than my own. And this voice, while materially coming from me, was the Spirit of God intervening to give Aidan exactly what he needed to hear. He would later share with our cabin — nay, with our village — nay, with the entire camp — that in this moment he felt moved in a new way to follow God and live for him. Something clicked in a way that gave Aidan hope for the future in his faith. He wants to find a youth group in his town so that he can be mentored by people who love God and so that he can learn more about the Bible.
What more could I ask God for?