Finding God’s Presence in Our Panic and Pain

When I was a junior-high ministry pastor, winter camp was a staple of our calendar year. Each Saturday night of camp, as we prepared to say good-byes, the students would sob. I mean, they’d bawl their precious little tween eyes out.

I confess that I didn’t have a lot of patience for this. To me, the kids appeared to have been emotionally manipulated, or were just overtired from all of the camp’s activities. They couldn’t possibly be expressing sincere sadness.

Looking back now, I wonder if, in their messy adolescent way—without shame or cynicism—this was an early form of lament. At camp, these students experienced beauty, hope, healing, community, love, fun, worship, and the wonder of God. They felt the Spirit, the presence of God with them. Perhaps they were truly, authentically lamenting the loss. Whenever we experience a sense of God’s presence, that experience powerfully strengthens, reassures, comforts, and heals us.

When Jesus’ presence seems absent in the midst of my panic and pain, I find that canned spiritual answers and my usual spiritual disciplines, things which once helped me feel connected to him, no longer work. I strain to connect with God, attempt to worship him, try to feel him, but it doesn’t work. So I decide to meet with a spiritual director from my graduate-school program. The Christian life is meant to be lived in community, not privately. I can’t do this on my own.

“What did Jesus do on the cross?” she asks me. “And don’t get super theological here,” she adds. “I am not looking for the ‘right’ answer.”

I think for a moment. Jesus thirsted. He lamented. He talked to his neighbor. He prayed.

“He embraced his limitedness,” my wise spiritual director adds. “He lamented that he didn’t feel God’s presence and couldn’t do anything about it. In our own suffering, we don’t have to do much more than that. Part of the reason you’re panicking is because you’re trying too hard to control the outcome of lament. You’re trying to be limitless. Just let go. Just let him save you.”

At another meeting, after I tell her that I still can’t feel God’s presence, she asks me this: “When, in the past, have you felt God’s presence?”

For a moment, my old friend Panic creeps in. Have I ever felt God’s presence? Am I even a Christian? Is God even real?

She senses my anxiety.

“Don’t worry,” she says softly. “Let’s be silent a moment and ask God’s Spirit to meet us here in this question.”

In the silence, I think of just a few of the many times I’ve felt God’s presence over the years: when I was baptized at age eleven; the first time I prayed with someone who wanted to follow Jesus; when, stuck in the darkness of shame from my past, God led me down a healing journey; while learning overseas and in graduate school; when my children were born; on my wedding day; even just sitting outside, feeling a gentle breeze, hearing a birdsong, seeing a butterfly—all of which have felt like God’s kind presence.

I can’t put my finger on why or how, but in those moments, I knew God was with me. Sometimes it was discovering just the right Bible verse to calm my fears. Other times, I experienced great joy. Still, at other moments, his presence came in the form of conviction for sin and the freedom of repentance, or a sense that nothing else mattered but Jesus and his power and glory, or an image of God’s love.

“You’d be surprised at how different everyone’s experience of God’s presence is,” she says. “But the thread I see through them all, the common theme, is this: grace. Anytime we experience God’s presence, it’s never because we did anything. It’s because God’s grace opens up the veil.”

Tears are burning down my cheeks because I know she’s right.

I’ve tried so hard to say the right things. I’ve driven myself crazy trying to impose my will on God’s. I’ve ricocheted back and forth between panic and don’t panic. I’ve tried my best to force God to obey me—to heal my sickness, to bring back loved ones who are gone, to heal my sick son, to help me travel back in time so that none of those things ever began. But in so doing, I’ve put myself in the place of God.

I’ve adopted a sinful attitude of “I need to forgive God for betraying me.” I realized I felt like God had disappointed me. But, really, I’ve not trusted him. I’ve refused to rest in him.

My repentant lament, at long last, begins. I’m so sorry, God. Please forgive me. I want to turn away from my selfishness and return to worshiping and placing my faith in you.

God’s presence is not anything we achieve through sheer willpower and determination. We can’t force his hand. We must attend to and be open to God’s presence, certainly. If we ignore him, or refuse to open ourselves, our schedules, our seasons, our whole hearts to God, we’ll miss out on the benefits, treasures, and spiritual blessings granted to us in Jesus. But here’s the point: God’s grace greets and transforms us, whether or not we deserve it. And it’s in believing that, in choosing to trust even when it feels like we have no reason to, that we take a powerful step forward in our lament.


You’ve been reading with Aubrey Sampson from The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. Learn more about Aubrey and the book at loudersong.com. You can also read a free chapter or get the book here.

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