Have you ever struggled with the question, "Where is God in suffering?" Does God feel distant and removed or even hidden when you need Him most? Christian mystics consider the possibility that maybe the problem isn't necessarily with God but with us.
The way we think of God affects how we see Him
What do you think about when you think of God? What images, messages and pictures come to mind?
Sometimes people see God as an absentee father, who enjoys the suffering of humanity or who, at the very least, is indifferent to it. If you are on the lookout for such a mean, ruthless, fickle God, you will totally miss the loving, merciful, gracious, creative, all-powerful and justice-loving one.
Why? We see what we "attend" to. Psychologists call this Selective Attention. Our brains are conditioned to look for the object of our attention and to dismiss all extra information. There's a famous example of this from researchers Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris.
So, when a person is in search of God but only attends to a particular picture of Him that does not represent who He actually is, they may miss Him entirely, finding him "hidden." For many, this causes doubt in the existence of God.
Christian mystics offer a new perspective
But mystics say not finding God shouldn't cause the seeker to doubt His existence but rather their concept of Him. Once a person realizes this, they are open to receiving messages from the God who is there.
Contemporary Christian mystic A.W. Tozer said,
"What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us."
But what if we have the wrong conception of God? Then what? This is where suffering may actually serve us. An odd statement to make, right? Let me explain.
Suffering helps us see God
Critics of Christianity often bring up theodicy, which is the problem with the co-existence of an all-powerful God alongside evil because the two seem incompatible. But many Christian scholars, theologians, philosophers, and mystics have pointed out that maybe the two aren't so mutually exclusive. Maybe there are morally justifiable reasons for God to allow evil.
For example, mystics believe suffering shakes us loose of the false conceptions of God, conceptions that keep us away from Him. Suffering sheds the scales from our eyes, so we can see the true God. Suffering challenges us personally and intellectually. It causes us to doubt everything we believe. If we believe something that is false and not spiritually nourishing, suffering will expose that. It allows us to attend to Him, to redirect our attention to who He really is.
C.S. Lewis said,
"Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
God is constantly trying to get our attention, but we have stuffed our spiritual ears and covered our spiritual eyes, so we cannot see Him even when He stands before us. God could very well be the "gorilla" standing in the middle of our search, yet we think He is hidden. But suffering redirects our attention to where He actually is. Pain forces us to look for God where we normally wouldn't, so we can see Him.
Seeing God for who He is connects us to Him
Some might say, "Well, isn't suffering a high price to pay for a relationship with Him? Doesn't that make God greedy?"
Again, the mystics would disagree. They view the relationship with God as the greatest good and the way to greatest spiritual satisfaction. Take, for example, the first question and answer in the Westminster Catechism:
"What is the chief end of man? Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever."
So, obtaining this relationship with God is not a sadistic whim of the Divine; it is a gift. It is a gift for our ultimate happiness, purpose and joy.
Our relationship with God has practical importance as well: a relationship with Him isn't just good for you; it's good for the world. People who have a healthy relationship with God are transformed. They become better people, which then has an impact for good on their homes, organizations, family members and friends. It's a ripple effect of expanding circles of transformed lives.
The "hiddenness" of God helps us find Him
There is more to say on the "hiddennes" of God and Christian mystics' point-of-view. I will have to save those thoughts for future discussions. So, for now, I leave you with this thought: God's "hiddennes" paradoxically helps us find Him in ways we cannot see and strips us of too much faith in ourselves. This painful letting go creates space for God to regain center stage in our lives with no competitors. And through the process we become humble and true seekers of the true God.
This article was originally published on Daniel Bates. It has been republished here with permission.