Part III—When God Feels Absent
When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
Isaiah 43:2
Several years ago, we had the opportunity to vacation in Wyoming and Montana, to places where there is a lot of natural beauty. Majestic mountains, jagged rocks, roaring waterfalls, rushing rivers, grand lakes, beautiful natural colors, elevations that were so high that there were no trees growing, snow still on the ground in the middle of summer, and animals in their natural habitat provided relaxation, rejuvenation, and wonderful memories. Many times my mind drifted to Psalm 104:
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that He planted. In them the birds build their nests the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers. Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows it’s time for setting.  Thou makest darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about.  The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.  When the sun rises, they steal away and lie down in their dens.  Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all. (Psalm 104: 16-24)
It is always an amazing thing to experience nature in its fullest sense—how everything just seems to fit. I continually thought of the majesty of God—that there must be a God because no way can all of this stuff happen purely by accident. It is by a divine design that the earth is as it is. I definitely felt small and insignificant beholding His handiwork. Going out into nature is, for me at least, a faith-building experience. Just seeing the creation bolstered my faith.
Of course, there is another side to the Christian life, the rough parts of life that still affect even the most devout of Christians, when everything seems to be going wrong, when God feels distant, and we wonder if He is really there at all. In contrast to the words and images of Psalm 104, we have the story of Job.
Job was a devout man, “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1) He had ten children, thousands of animals, as well as servants. “This man was the greatest of all the people of the east.” (Job 1:3) Satan came before God one day and challenged God regarding Job. He said that Job only served God because God had been so good to him? Satan said that he wanted to afflict Job, certain that Job would curse God if all of his possessions and people were taken away. God gave permission to Satan to afflict Job, but not to kill him. And Satan afflicted Job in a big way. In very short order, Job lost his animals, his house, and his children.
Then Job arose, tore his robe, and shaved off the hair of his head; and he fell to the ground and worshiped, saying, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. As it seemed good to the Lord, so also it came to pass. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all these things that happened, Job did not sin against the Lord or charge God with wrong. (Job 1:20-22)
Now, for sure Job is a better man than I. I’d like to think that I would have his faith and his patience. I can’t say that if half of the things that happened to Job happened to me, that I wouldn’t fall away from God. I hope I never find out. It is very easy to say that I would be steadfast like Job, but the truth of the matter is, my faith has never been tested like his faith. My faith has been tested, for sure, but not like his.
There are times in my life that I feel as I did on vacation—I’m just a small part of God’s vast creation. That there must be a God because only someone greater than us could have created all of this natural beauty. And there are times I feel like Job—everything is going wrong, it’s one bad thing after another, there is no break, there is no joy, and I confess I sometimes wonder is there even a God? I have wondered that in my life. I have wondered that even as a priest. There are times I have celebrated the Liturgy pondering on this question—is there a God, and if there is, why does He feel so distant from me? There are times I have wanted to stay away from church, where I have not had the desire to receive Holy Communion, when, I confess, I have come because this is not only a calling but it is a job, I had to be here.
Most of my life, I sit in the middle of two extremes—I don’t feel the awe of God that vacation in Montana, nor do I feel the despair of Job. I am somewhere in the middle. I confess that for much of my life, I do feel closer to Job than to the majesty of God.
I know there is a God. I know that He is great and supreme, I know that on some very deep level. I know that He loves people. I know that He loves me. I know that He has blessed me with gifts and talents. I also know that He has allowed me to struggle and have deficiencies as well. And I know that no matter how intelligent I think I am, no matter what I do, no matter what I know, that I will never be able to comprehend Him, because He is God, and I am not. This means that there are complicated and complex things in life that elude my grasp. There are hardships and challenges that I just don’t understand. There are bad things that happen to other people and bad things that happen to me, and I wonder: Why? Why the tragedies that have happened in the parishes I have served? Why the tragedies we hear about in the news on a daily basis?
And this is where faith comes in. Faith is not fully knowing or fully comprehending, but still believing. There are two aspects to faith: Showing up, and growing. There are times when I feel God’s presence very strongly, where I am very motivated to grow. These are the times when I take big strides in my faith and in my journey to salvation. And there are times when I feel that God is absent, or at very least distant when I am not particularly motivated to believe or to grow. If I’ve done anything right in my life, I’ve continued to show up. My Spiritual Father says that 80% of life is about showing up. One can show up and not grow, but one cannot grow without showing up. And I don’t mean just showing up for church, I mean showing up for God—being obedient to His commandments, praying, making some effort to love and to serve.
When life gets hard and when unspeakable tragedy strikes, it takes a person of strong faith to keep moving forward. However, I am going to humbly suggest that it isn’t necessary to keep moving forward at all times. It is necessary to show up though. It is necessary to tread water in the faith, even if we can’t swim strongly towards God. It is necessary to eventually move forward in the faith, but on a given day one doesn’t have to make great strides. It’s like showing up for school or for a job—each day isn’t going to have a breakthrough—we know that. But there won’t be any breakthrough if we stay at home. So we show up, and on many days we have breakthroughs, and on many more, we just go through the motions, thinking we haven’t really accomplished anything, which sometimes is true, and sometimes we’ve actually accomplished something without even realizing it.
I know there will never be a day that I will be able to say “I have it all together” as far as my Christianity goes. That is neither fatalistic or pietistic. It is true. I will never master God. I can grow in faith, I can allow Him to grow in me, but I will never master Him, nor will I ever master faith. I will seek as many glimpses of Him as I can and hope to witness His majesty not just in the natural beauty I saw on vacation, but in the beauty of people and things that are part of my everyday life right here. There will be times in life that I will feel like Job, undoubtedly. I will have setbacks and tragedies, I hope and pray that they won’t be to the degree I have seen some of our parishioners suffer. I will keep showing up for God, and for others, even if all I can do on a particular day is just show up.
Undoubtedly, there are people who are reading this message who are hurting—people who have suffered loss of a child, or a parent, or a spouse, or a job, or a dream. There are people who have a challenging health issue, a challenging marriage, a challenging child, a challenging job or a challenging financial situation. There are people who are feeling the majesty of God and people who are feeling the despair of Job and everything in between. There are people who are growing in faith and people who are just showing up. And all of that is fine. Keep showing up.
There are two things we need to offer each other—one is encouragement. Because encouragement gives us hope, and we all need that. Sometimes encouragement can be validation of feelings of loss or hurt. Sometimes encouragement is simply being present with someone, listening and saying nothing.
And the second thing we need to offer each other is grace—because what happens when we meet someone who is full of God’s majesty on the day that we are having the despair of Job? We can be angry at the person who is filled with God and lash out because we feel empty. And they can dismiss us as being a downer to their good feelings about God. When we give each other grace, to fill and complete the space between us, then we can be in the presence of God’s majesty, through another person even in our moments of despair, and the one who is filled with God will be patient during our moments of suffering and doubt, they will show up and not judge.
Here is a quote from a beautiful prayer that is part of the Divine Liturgy:
It is proper and right to sing to You, bless You, praise You, thank You and worship You in all places of Your dominion: for You are God ineffable, beyond comprehension, invisible, beyond understanding, existing forever and always the same; You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit. You brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, you raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come. For all these things we thank You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit; for all things that we know and do not know, for blessings seen and unseen that have been bestowed upon us. (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, Translation by Holy Cross Seminary Press, 1985).
This prayer affirms that God is incomprehensible and beyond our understanding. It affirms that when we fall, He will raise us up again. He wants us to attain His Kingdom. And there are blessings, seen and unseen, known and unknown that He bestows upon us. The day Job lost everything, God gave him the blessing just to get through the day. God gave Him patience. He gave Job patience to endure everything that happened. And at the end of Job’s story, Job was rewarded more than any person who had ever lived. Because his faith had been tested as no man’s had ever been tested, and Job still showed up.
We can’t grow if we don’t show. Just because we show doesn’t guarantee we will grow. But faith starts off with a commitment to show up, not only when His majesty is obvious, but most especially when it isn’t. It didn’t take much faith to appreciate God when I was on vacation in Montana. I was surrounded by His majesty. It takes faith to believe in Him when I’m home and in the drudgery of everyday life, and even more so when that drudgery is marred by tragedy.
Let’s focus on giving one another encouragement and grace—so that majesty can meet despair without judgment and despair can once again find majesty.
Lord, thank You for all that is good in my life. On the days when I feel that nothing is good, give me the eyes to see Your goodness in others and in myself. Help me to see You in creation and in other people. Give me patience to endure setbacks and losses. Give me the strength to show up for You and for others, even when I don’t want to. When I can’t carry myself another step, send encouragers to make sure I don’t give up. Help me to notice those around me who are struggling, and provide the confidence I need to go and help them. Amen.
Keep showing up!

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    Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0


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Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis

Fr. Stavros N. Akrotirianakis is the Proistamenos of St. John Greek Orthodox Church in Tampa, FL. Fr. contributes the Prayer Team Ministry, a daily reflection, which began in February 2015. The Prayer Team now has its own dedicated website! Fr. Stavros has produced two books, “Let All Creation Rejoice: Reflections on Advent, the Nativity and Epiphany”: “https://amzn.to/2t1rXwh and “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.” https://amzn.to/2WAcfG0

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