I hate disclaimers, but I feel one is necessary here. I wanted to write about God’s presence, but the post felt hollow without a little explanation as to why it’s such an important/conflicted topic for me. So I wrote about one of the darker moments of my college career in which the “presence of God” felt like a cruel yet tantalizing pipe dream. In trying to convey the emotions and immediate thoughts of that night, I decided to leave the ideas half finished and flawed (unlike, you know, all my other perfect and flawless thoughts), unedited by future reflection. I’m assuming I’m not the only one who has had thoughts like these. I’ll publish a followup post to work through the issues raised in better detail.
Wheaton has a small prayer chapel in the student center that was a kind of second home to me. I spent so much time in that dim-lit, stifling, little room that, by my senior year, the hushed quiet that greeted me as the door closed had become a kind of sacred encounter – drawing out a long, deep sigh as I waited for the ringing in my ears to dull before pulling out my Bible and journal. Rarely would a day go by without a visit to the sound-proof haven; which is why my inability to enter it for the month of October during my Junior year was so difficult.
But I couldn’t, or at least I didn’t want to, so long as that painting was still hanging on the wall.
I had found my desperate way to the chapel around 11pm on a warm, September night, my mind beginning that familiar process of implosion that was characteristic of Saturdays. (Like most fun-loving young adults, I spent my weekends contemplating the agony of existence). The self-loathing that wouldn’t lift until the end of that year was boasting over me – I had just been the recipient of a fairly caustic remark that seemed to confirm one of my greatest insecurities. My breathing had become shallow before I even grabbed the door handle with my frustratingly shaky hand. I needed… I needed to know, somehow, that God was still there, still full of love and willing to embrace me when I felt utterly alone.
I sat there, not really sure what I wanted except, in that moment, not to feel as if I were distant from God. I wanted to catch a glimpse of that beautiful mystery where my voice really does reach him and his arms really do reach me, a mystery that so many people seemed to understand in a visceral way that was entirely foreign to me.
So I sat, I prayed, I pleaded, I fell silent, I claimed promises, I repented, I begged, I yelled, and I tried as hard as I could not to doubt. I even cried – which was something I hadn’t done for six years – and yet the room remained a mundane vacuum, as if the “supernatural” encounter I desired couldn’t cohere within a twenty foot radius of my heart. I had never heard a comforting whisper before, never had my anxiety miraculously melt away as a warm peace took its place, and it looked like that night would be no different.
And then I saw it. (Well, saw it again, as it had been hanging there since I first set foot in the chapel as a Freshman). It was one of those earnestly saccharine paintings in which Jesus, face contorted in sympathetic compassion, held a sobbing man to his chest. The man was clearly grief-stricken, and yet all was well because, when he collapsed, the body of his Savior was there to surround him. It was everything I wanted: to be held, to be consoled, to be told I wasn’t worthless, to find rest, to know I wasn’t hated, disgusting, or being kept at an arm’s length. A bitter hatred for that painting overtook me – I grabbed my journal and threw it across the room, clipping the cheap frame and knocking it askew.
Two things happened in that moment: I was confronted by a host of things that made me feel loved and alive, and I decided they weren’t enough. They weren’t God, and that was all I wanted. The joy of digging into the Bible, the thrill of learning, the hug of a friend, the wisdom of a mentor, the beauty of a golden horizon, or the evocative power of an expertly crafted musical refrain – all good things, things that pointed me to God, that made me aware of his love for me and drew me out of myself… all things that could be taken away from me.
Was the entirety of my experience of the presence of God propped up by such vulnerable crutches? My hazy, anxious mind couldn’t seem to recall any evidence to the contrary. What would happen if I were thrown into solitary confinement, removed from everything that I had known? Would God be there? Here I was, barely starting to come to grips with what a life of chaste singleness may look like, settling into convictions that seemed to require a future of “aloneness,” struggling against an overwhelming fear of future abandonment, and all of a sudden I didn’t even know if I could trust God to show up in the present.
It was too much. Everything went dead. I remember calmly telling God, I’m going to get up, read some Psalms, convince myself that I just need a better theology of your presence, and go to bed. You don’t have to do anything, don’t worry. And that’s what happened. I walked out of that room still convinced, as always, that God was good, that he loved me, and that he was near, but it was with a tortured resignation that I left, barely clinging to the dimming hope that, someday, I might understand how God was present in all of this.
I wasn’t sure if my prayers were breaching the stratosphere, so I settled for a satellite and called my mentor. By the grace of God he picked up, and lovingly consoled my breaking heart as I sat in the quiet darkness.