Questions of Faith: God, Do You Exist?
Genesis 28:10-17, Genesis 32:22-32
The journey of faith is often challenging. There are days when all is right with the world, when we’re sure that God is near, and that right will prevail. Then, there are days when God seems absent and uncaring, and when we feel lost in an ambiguous, uncertain, and lonely world.
We hear people of faith saying, “just trust God and everything will be alright” or “if you only had faith, you wouldn’t be depressed or you would easily get over your grief or addiction,” or “the pain you feel is part of God’s will, just open your eyes and the sun will come out.” While there is truth in such affirmations, their proponents obviously unfamiliar with the Psalms and the scriptural stories of persons of faith, such as Jacob.
In today’s responsive reading, adapted from Psalm 42, the Psalmist struggles to experience the living God. Once everything was clear, and God was his intimate companion. Once, his days were filled with joyful celebration, but now he can’t conjure up any relationship with the Holy One. He yearns for the past, prays for God’s presence, and yet comes away empty handed:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
Faith doesn’t exclude doubt and struggle. In fact, as theologian Paul Tillich asserts, our doubts and struggles are signs of how important our relationship with God is to us. Think of it this way: when Kate and I were dating, I wondered if we could make a life together, I wondered if I had what it took to be in a long-term relationship in light of a number of previous short term romances, I wondered if it would last, I wondered if she really loved me. I didn’t worry about my friends’ relationships, but I struggled with my own, because this was the woman I loved, and I didn’t want to be hurt or faithless myself. Doubt and struggle reveal how important something is to us, and our quest to do the right thing amid life’s temptations.
In times of pain and tragedy, God often seems absent and we wonder, “Does God really care? Does God hear my prayers? Why don’t you respond, if you’re there?” We wonder, because it matters – it is life and death for our souls.
The Psalmist feels forgotten – just like Jesus did, when he cried out on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” – but deep down in the struggle, he trusts that a new day will dawn:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Then there is Jacob, a man of poor reputation, who knew the ‘art of the deal,’ and got the best of anyone with whom he bargained, especially his relatives. Jacob’s name means trickster, and yes, he would trick you to get the advantage in any transaction you had with him.
He has no qualifications for a mystical experience. His focus is wealth and security, and “getting them before they get you.” But, he has a dream that shakes everything up. He experiences a ladder of angels, and peers into the Holy of Holies and awakens, awe struck and amazed. “God was in this place and I did not know it,” he exclaims. He creates a pillar of stones and renames the place, “Beth-El,” the house of God.
The angels had always been there, but now Jacob experienced their presence. God had always been with him, but now God is alive and real, and for the rest of his life, Jacob treasured that moment. In the life of faith, we have those moments when God comes alive for us, and we treasure them, like the moment we fell in love or got an important job or discovered what we are called to do with our lives, and these joyful moments get us through difficult times ahead.
That moment sustained Jacob, who later encountered the divine one and engaged in a wrestling match which lasted from sunset to sunrise. He never fully figured out his nocturnal adversary’s identity, but he knew he was dealing with God, and he persisted fighting for his life, wrestling for salvation, all night long. He is in the dark night, and there is no guarantee of a happy ending, but he persists, perhaps buoyed by his experience of the ladder of angels. He comes away with a limp, a new name, a vocation to be parent of a great people, and a sense of holiness that will follow him even in the dark days to come.
C.S. Lewis notes in the “Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe,” that Aslan – or Christ – is not “safe,” but he is “good.” We can’t prove God exists in a mathematical sense or even from scripture, but we can persist in taking the reality of God seriously. Once author Madeleine L’Engle was asked, “Do you believe in God without any doubts?” She responded, “I believe in God with all my doubts.”
We can’t prove God exists. But we can like the Psalmist yearn for God’s presence, and listen in silence for hints of holiness and the call of a better life, and then believe, when we hear that still small voice or see the face of a newborn child. We can like Jacob gaze at the stars above and discover wonder and beauty and discern a creative wisdom that gives birth to the galaxies and every child. We can wrestle, again like Jacob, in the darkness, struggling with our limits and flaws, and discovering a reality that takes us seriously, that is willing to wrestle with our doubts, accept our imperfections, and use our flaws as catalysts for beauty and healing.
Augustine, the 4th century North African spiritual leader, said, “It will be solved in the walking,” and so it is, staying close to God, walking through the valley, and praying along the way (even when you can’t pray), you will discover in light and dark, calm and turbulence, a reality you can never fully fathom, but a reality whose face is Jesus our Savior, who gives life, forgives sin, accepts and transforms us, and promises that we will never be abandoned, and that when we feel most alone, we are being carried by a love that is quiet, persistent, and helps us find a way when we discern no way forward.