The Absence of God as Opportunity for Personal and Social Transformation

[1] Experiencing the absence of God as a professional minister can be unsettling to say the least. It can challenge your integrity as you lead others to experience the same presence. It can lead those to whom you minister to question your authenticity, making you less effective in your counsel. For some leaders caught in this predicament the occasion has brought a despair that threatens both their professional and personal lives.

[2] The question is simple. What can the leader do who finds him or herself in this situation? I propose a twofold solution, one which is immediate and short term and the other which lays the groundwork for meeting the circumstance for the long haul.

Immediate Reasons and Solutions

[3] If one is experiencing the absence of God right now, what are the possible reasons and what can be done to remedy the situation? Here are some choices:

The Dark Night of the Soul

[4] Your distress could be a common development in the spiritual life called “The Dark Night of the Soul.” This has been experienced and described by many of the faithful across the centuries. St. John of the Cross (1542­1591) in his poem “​The Dark Night​” for which he wrote a commentary was one of the earliest. Gerald May (1940­2005), a psychiatrist and spiritual guide writing “The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth” is one of the most recent.

[5] They both agree that you need not be disturbed by this experience but instead be encouraged. The Dark Night is a sign that God is bringing about in you a growth of faith. Attachment to securities that are not the true God no longer satisfy and the felt absence is a sign of a deeper trust in God developing within us. Therefore there is no need to feel unsettled about the absence but instead see it as an opportunity to grow in faith. Seeking a spiritual director to be a companion in this deepening process would be helpful.[1]

​The Way You Pray

[6] Another assessment of the absence might not be as profound as the Dark Night. It may be that your current way of praying is no longer helping open your heart to God’s grace. You may be distracted by life’s pressures so that you find yourself seldom praying. You are not in touch with your deepest desire which is to be closer to God. The absence could signal a need for some intentional action on your part. Returning to prayer and/or doing it differently can help. Perhaps you need more times of silence or a time to reflect on a sacred text.

Again a spiritual director could help you.[2]

The Way of the Cross

[7] ​ Another way to look at the distress and pain caused by God’s distance could be understanding it as your participation in the suffering of Christ. St. Paul, Teresa of Calcutta and Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to that conclusion. If you adopt this view, you need also to be encouraged that the experience, while painful, is not totally hopeless. When those mentioned surrendered to their suffering they were not being unhealthy. It gave their lives an ultimate meaning as they saw themselves fulfilling the highest of callings. This attitude can be yours as well. The grace of God’s strength for endurance is also provided.

[8] St. Paul: “For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.” (2 Cor. 1:5)

The Gift of Desolations

[9] ​St. Ignatius of Loyola has another way of looking at spiritual distress. He calls those experiences “desolations.” Desolations are intended by God to be trials in which the person is summoned to endure and deepen trust in God’s providence. God also gives the opposite which Ignatius called “consolations.” As St. Paul wrote of above, consolations are those gifts that show God’s grace is working through us.

[10] To summarize, naming the possible reason behind the felt absence of God can be helpful in putting an immediate crisis into perspective. You may discern which one is right by having a felt sense that says: “That is it!” Then you can proceed with the appropriate response. It cannot be mentioned often enough that a spiritual director can aid you in making this discernment.

The Grace Spiral, a Long Term Solution

[11] The short term solution described above is for isolated incidents when ministers experience God’s absence. However, we all need an approach that will help us see this time of suffering as a part of a lifelong growing of faith. All persons of faith need this. A minister may have a unique opportunity to be a trustworthy example of how to keep this perspective whatever the circumstance.

[12] To build a long term approach to dealing with spiritual crisis I feel it is important to figure out a way to keep our hearts open to God’s grace. When we do that, we need to surrender to its work within us. We may resist such work especially when God seems distant and we are looking for security wherever we can find it. Unfortunately, to use a familiar phrase, “we look for love in all the wrong places!”

[13] I have been inspired by a vision of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090­1153) who was asked by a friend to write a book on loving God. The result was a treatise called “On Loving God.” In that work he pictures why and how to love God in four degrees or stages.[3] Taking his advice could build a long term way to approach life’s daily joys and sorrows. Whether absent or present God would be real and challenge you to live to your fullest potential.

[14] For me it has been helpful to see Bernard’s vision not as a ladder or something drawn on a flat surface but as a spiral. Envision a spiral with four ascending turns coming out of an almost obscure point of origin. (4) ​The grace or love of God mysteriously arises energetically from that origin and not only consoles and heals a person but also works to develop that person’s capacity for love. As he or she moves through the spiraling spheres, change occurs within. They actualize what the Creator intended. They second what St. Paul experienced when he said: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

Figure 1. Bernard of Clairvaux’s Spiral of Grace


[15] Let us now look at Bernard’s description of his four degrees and correspond them with the numbered turns in the illustration. Along the way we will see some ways of prayer that interestingly enough are aligned with Jesus’ suggested way of praying in his Lord’s Prayer. Praying in these ways will build the strong faith foundation for what we are seeking.

Our Origin in Love

[16] We begin by being born from above (John 3:3) which means in faith seeing our life as created in love from the very beginning – the birth of the cosmos. Grace is the energy that from the start creates and sustains all forms of life. It is a radiation that is within us and all of the cosmos.

[17] When we pray “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”​we are asking God’s grace to radiate within us and help us know that we are loved. We want our children to know from the start of their lives that they are loved. When we need to heal emotional wounds, acknowledging an inherent power of love within us, aids our recovery. Our origin comes from the mysterious generating and regenerating power of love. That is God, the Creator, at work in us and all creation.

[18] An experience in nature and silent prayer with or without images are just two ways to help us know that our origin comes from an ever loving Creator. A walk in the woods or a guided meditation using a Biblical scene are some examples of fruitful ways to be aware of our origin in an eternal love.

B. First Turn: An Empowering Vision

[19] As we proceed in realizing we are loved, we experience an oneness with nature, others, and the radiance of a transcendent power connecting us. That connection is the kingdom/queendom or reign of God among us. That reign of God summons us to love as we have been loved. Our desire is expressed in the phrase: ​“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven.”

[20] Bernard spoke of the first degree of loving God being the need “to love ourselves for the sake of ourselves.” Having a vision of the finite and infinite connected, we are moved to care for ourselves and the creation of which we are intimately a part. Eventually it moves from there, but it needs to start with us embodying the heavenly within the earthly! That fulfills the will of the Creator.

[21] Prayers in this first turn of the spiral include all we do to care for our bodies, physically and emotionally. Movement to be in tune with the grace moving within us is advantageous. Yoga and Qigong are just two examples of ancient practices designed to integrate care of physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. Beyond care for the individual physical body, advocacy for and actions to care for the environment are important ways of prayer in this turn of the spiral.

C. Second Turn: Inner Guidance toward Wholeness

[22] In the second turn of the spiral, which is Bernard’s second degree, he says: “we love God for the sake of ourselves” Here we begin to see that we need God. This is a common experience among people who are in crisis. Whether or not they practice a faith they see the need to reach out to a power beyond human ken.

[23] This is where the absence of God is experienced. As mentioned before this is an opportunity to come close to God to let that healing grace bring wholeness.

[24] Here there is a need for a clear word of guidance. Reading sacred texts, personally or in a group may bring this clarity. Any kind of petitioning the Holy One in the midst of need is a natural way to pray in this turn. Crying out, lamenting and seeking consolation are helpful. Music and ritual can play an important role here.

[25] As we wind our way through the grace spiral you come to notice that God can be counted on in all times, not only when there is crisis. A holy dependence develops. You look to God for all your needs. You see God is attentive and ready to nourish you. You learn to pray “Give us Lord our daily bread.”

D. Third Turn: Living in Community.

[26] Relationship is what the next turn is all about. From the first two turns, we have experienced the sweetness (one of Bernard’s favorite words) of the presence so that loving God becomes a natural motivation. We then become interested in loving God wherever God is. God’s domain is all of life and especially in relationships with others. Bernard sees this as the third degree where “you love God for the sake of God.”

[27] Loving God for God’s sake gets you involved in committing to living in authentic community where the truth of love dwells. In such a community we may seek forgiveness, justice or peace either for ourselves or for those we see in need, close or far from us.

[28] Prayer here goes beyond words into actions. God’s grace working in trusting hearts will bring the strength needed to forgive, as well as the courage to advocate for justice and peace in all the world.

[29] “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”​– is the obvious prayer in this turn.

E. Fourth Turn: Our Daily Vocation

[30] As you may have guessed by now, grace moving through this spiral transfigures those who earnestly seek and trust it.

[31] Bernard believed the fourth degree would rarely be experienced in our time. He describes this degree as “loving yourself for the sake of God.”

[32] This is a call for the ultimate act of love in which we give our full selves for the sake of God’s love being made visible in a troubled world.

[33] We know of martyrs who have given their lives for the sake of God’s reign. Their suffering and sacrifice can be inspiring. But do we have the means to follow them? Walking the grace spiral can prepare us. It can help us take up that cross that Jesus so often talks about.

[34] In this article we started by being concerned about the absence of God in our personal and professional lives, but isn’t our final concern the healing presence of God to be offered up for a world in crisis? The environment, division widening between rich and poor across the globe and violence that is growing significantly in our time challenge us to act.

[35] We are not able to solve these problems by our own ingenuity. Only a spiritually transformed humanity committed not just to personal salvation, but to the salvation of all the world can accomplish the task.

[36] That is why we pray “Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”​ Only grace can do that. We know we cannot accomplish this, no matter how meritorious our works may be. It is only by God’s grace transforming us personally and in the systems within which we participate that it will happen. Envisioning this grace spiral can help us get a handle on how God is doing this and how we can cooperate with God’s transforming action in our time.

[37] “For the kingdom, power and glory are yours, now and forever. Amen”

[38] The absence of God, even though it is a difficult experience, can deepen faith and change lives. Social transformation may even happen from the influence of those persons changed. The result may be an unexpected blessing!​


[1] See Saint John of the Cross, “Dark Night of the Soul” trans. E. Allison Peers (London: Catholic Way, 2013); Gerald G. May, “Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth” (New York: HarperCollins, 2004).

[2] For examples of different ways of prayer, see: Tilden Edwards, “Living in the Presence, Spiritual Exercises to Open our Lives to the Awareness of God” (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), idem.,“Living Simply through the Day” (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994); Henri Nouwen, “Reaching Out (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

[3]Bernard of Clairvaux, Selected Works, in Classics in Western Spirituality (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987) 173-205.

Harlan Frank Showers

Rev. Harlan Frank Showers is a retired pastor in the ELCA. He has served congregations in Chicago, Ill. and Williamsport, Pa. He is also a spiritual director and organ recitalist.