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The North Face of God addresses those times of adversity when God seems to have abandoned us. Sometimes, when the cold winds of life blow and we cry out to God, he's silent, and we wonder if he still cares about us—or ever cared. Drawing on the Psalms, Ken Gire climbs the mountainous terrain of God's seeming indifference and helps us learn how to hold on to hope, despite our circumstances. He also calls us to become good “climbing partners” for other people who need help and encouragement along the way. Tyndale ...
The North Face of God addresses those times of adversity when God seems to have abandoned us. Sometimes, when the cold winds of life blow and we cry out to God, he's silent, and we wonder if he still cares about us—or ever cared. Drawing on the Psalms, Ken Gire climbs the mountainous terrain of God's seeming indifference and helps us learn how to hold on to hope, despite our circumstances. He also calls us to become good “climbing partners” for other people who need help and encouragement along the way. Tyndale House Publishers
How long, O Lord, will you look on and do nothing? PSALM 35:17
Mount everest sits enthroned in the Himalayan mountain range, an alpine uplift formed eons ago by the collision of two continents. At 29,035 feet, its summit is the highest spot on earth, and still rising. As a mountain, it is in its adolescence, adding a quarter of an inch every year as the tectonic plates beneath it continue to push upward.
Its pyramid-like formation separates the northern border of India from China, and if you fell to the right from one of its ridges, it is possible that you would drop eight thousand feet into Chinese-controlled Tibet; if you fell to the left, you would fall six thousand feet into Nepal. Known to those who live in its shadow as Chomolungma, "Goddess Mother of the World," the mountain was renamed after Sir George Everest, British director of the nineteenth-century Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.
Over the years a number of statistics have been compiled of Everest expeditions. Two records are most notable: those who have reached the summit and those who have died trying.
Some have died from medicalconditions: dehydration, hypoxia, hypothermia, and pulmonary and cerebral edema. Some climbers simply fell asleep and never woke up. A number have died in avalanches, others from a disorienting temporary blindness that stranded them without hope of rescue. Still others died from sudden storms with winds up to ninety miles an hour. Most, however, lost their footing and fell to their deaths.
Tibetan peasants living at the base of the mountain offer prayers so that climbers won't lose their footing and fall. They do this by burning juniper twigs and putting out prayer flags-brightly colored squares of fabric on which prayers are printed-strung together like laundry hung out to dry. These Tibetan Buddhists believe that the flags hold the prayers of the climbers, which, when blown by the wind, ascend to the goddess of the mountain, bringing blessing on the expedition.
Often, our own prayers, especially those we pray when we're young, are similarly simple: seeking God's blessings. Or they are prayers of gratitude, thanking God for the dew-dropped wonder of the world we live in-a world full of sunshine, or at least rainbows amid the rain.
But then one day something happens. Clouds rush in, riding on gale-force winds that threaten to blow you off the mountain. You learn that you have cancer or that your spouse is having an affair or your child has been arrested or your best friend betrays you. Suddenly, the world in all its wonder doesn't seem so wonderful anymore. The clouds cluster low and unbroken, unrelenting. The fury of the tempest seems so personal, and it's all you can do to hunker down and hang on.
God, we are told, mercifully causes the rain to fall upon the just and the unjust. Most of us can understand that, even children. When it comes to floods, though-or tsunamis-it's a little more difficult to understand. When the harsh realities of life sweep over the serenity of our relationship with God, the aftermath of that torrential-downpour can be devastating. Like the devastation that came to a friend of mine named Lee. Hear his prayer as he wrestled with God's silence during a painful period of unemployment:
God help me, please!
Please don't humiliate me again,
not before my friends
not before my wife
not before my children
not before my parents....
Father, what's helping find me a job compared to the power it takes You to run this world for even one day?
If a sparrow doesn't fall without You noticing, why aren't You noticing me? Why are You tending millions of beautiful flowers that bloom today and are gone tomorrow but You won't tend to me, Your child? One nod, one word from You and a door would open. Why are You humiliating me? ...
Jesus, I don't know any more words. I have no more words. Does Your silence mean, No, You won't help? Does it mean, wait?
I'm listening, Lord. Straining to hear.
I'm calling, Lord, with all my heart. Please, let me laugh again, help me find my reason for getting up in the mornings, take away this humiliation that slaps me in the face all day, every day.
During Lee's time of unemployment, I also prayed. His disappointment with God became mine. It hurt so much to see him hurt. I could offer him a lot of things-my friendship, my encouragement, my prayers-but I couldn't offer him the one thing he needed. And it wasn't a job. It was a connection with God, a God he felt no longer cared enough to listen, let alone to speak or to help.
Below is the prayer of a woman who feels just as helpless in regard to a friend of hers. The prayer is by Patricia Hooper and first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly magazine.
Lord, I call to you- there is someone I want you to follow home. The night is cold. The wet leaves hide the edges of the dark path. He is lost. I would go with him if I could, put my arms around him, share my coat. He is three hundred miles away. No one else sees him. Do you see him, his step hurried through the black rain? Or are you still busy, as you were when, before he harmed himself the last time, he was the one who called?
Can you hear the slosh of the lonely footsteps? Can you feel the numbness of the face blotched with cold? Can you sense the desperation of the man who once called to God but calls to him no longer?
Are you still busy?
There is an indictment in the question-subtle but unmistakable. The indictment is stronger in the following prayer, pressing its litigious finger against the chest of a God who seems to be hiding behind his Fifth Amendment rights.
The prayer is from a journal entry in Lament for a Son, a father's attempt to reach a summit of understanding about the death of his son. The son's name was Eric. The father is Nicholas Wolterstorff. If anyone should have been equipped with the right questions for such a climb, it would be Wolterstorff, a professor of philosophical theology at Yale Divinity School. Yet neither an institution as pedigreed as Yale, nor a career as prestigious as teaching, nor a field as profound as theology, was able to give this grieving father the answers he was searching for.
Eric was bright, and his future was full of promise. He entered college as a National Merit Scholar, excelling in math, science, and computer programming and majoring in art history. He was an accomplished artist and musician who traveled extensively and lived life to the fullest. Mountains were his passion. He loved the beauty, the solitude. He loved the challenge of the climb and the exhilaration of the heights. He loved it all, to the very end.
Eric was twenty-five when one misstep on an Austrian mountainside cost him his life. His death devastated the family, especially his father, who worked through his grief one slippery step at a time, hacking away at the ice with his questions in an attempt to gain a foothold of comprehension. He first asked himself the questions, then he asked his family, his friends, and finally God.
How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity's song-all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.
Every time I watch the nightly news, it seems that somewhere in the world a new river of blood begins to flow. Some sudden upthrust of suffering unsettles the landscape. Some newly saddened refrain reaches for heaven, but its trembling hands go begging, the way they did one night while I was working on this book.
The evening news included a story about a kidnapping in a small town in North Dakota. A woman had been abducted as she was walking to her car in the parking lot of the shopping mall where she worked. Her name was Dru Sjodin. She was twenty-two.
At the time, two of my daughters were twenty-one and twenty-four. They also worked at a mall, also walked to their cars in the parking lot. Thank God they are safe, I remember thinking. "Keep them safe, God, please," I remember praying.
I prayed for the woman who'd been kidnapped. I prayed for her every day, several times a day. Who knows how many others prayed? Thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. I prayed for Dru until I heard that her blood had been found in a sex offender's car, along with a knife in the trunk that also had her blood on it. My heart sank along with my hope. Five months later, as I was writing these pages, I heard that her body had been found.
I cried. I got angry. I got depressed.
Suddenly God seemed less sovereign, the world less certain, our lives less safe. And a family was left shattered-forever. Life for them will never be the same. A part of them will always be wounded, always be sad, always empty. That moment of tragedy will forever leech color from every other moment in their lives-not just the moments that lie ahead of them but also all that lie behind, for the happiness they once felt is forever altered by the sadness of all that was lost, all that was cut short, all that will never be.
If God is everywhere present, he saw what happened in that car. If God is all powerful, he could have stopped it. That he saw it and did nothing to stop it is the darkest and most unsettling mystery in the universe.
From that black hole in our otherwise orderly system of theology comes a densely packed array of questions. Why, God? Why was this young woman's life cut short? And why was it cut short in such a tragic way? Why didn't you intervene? Why do you allow such horrendous evil in the world? Why don't you put your foot down and put a stop to it? Why don't you make your will be done here on earth as it is in heaven?
Why, God? Why?
* * *
When questions like that go unanswered, it feels as if God has abandoned us. And if he hasn't abandoned us, we feel he at least owes us an explanation for his silence. That is the heart of Jesus' prayer on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" How painful a question for the Son of that God to ask.
He doesn't ask, "Why are the soldiers treating me like this?" He knows why: They know not what they are doing.
He doesn't ask, "Why did Peter deny me?" He knows why: Satan had demanded to sift him like wheat.
He doesn't ask, "Why am I being crucified?" He knows why: It is for this reason that he came to this world.
Jesus could bear the pain of the nails, the thorns, the beatings. He could bear the public humiliation, the personal ridicule. He could bear the betrayal, the desertion, the denial of his friends. But the abandonment of God he could not bear.
We are told that before Jesus raised that anguished question, he was shrouded in three hours of darkness. Who knows all that he endured during those hours. Who knows how much physical pain he endured, how much psychological pain, how much spiritual pain. Who knows what access the forces of darkness had to him, to his mind, his emotions, even to his dreams as he drifted in and out of consciousness. All we know is that at the end of those three hours he "called out with a loud voice" (Matthew 27:46).
The words he called out are from the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm of lament voiced by David a thousand years earlier:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away?
I think of that last question, and a bumper sticker comes to mind. You've seen it, I'm sure: If God seems distant, guess who moved?
How would you like to follow that car to church?
How would you like to be in a small group with the driver?
Or share a table at Starbucks?
How do you feel when the pain of your struggle is reduced to a slogan? Worse still, a sarcastic slogan. When we are hurting, we need sensitivity, not sarcasm; a listening ear, not a lecture; a place where we can lay down our burdens, not a platitude to add onto them.
If God seems distant, guess who moved? Had David moved?
Read his next words in Psalm 22 and decide for yourself:
Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.
From the context of the psalm, we know that David's life hung in the balance (vv. 20-21). His circumstances were never more desperate, yet his God never more distant. Had David moved? It doesn't sound like it. It sounds as if he sought God day and night.
Had Nicholas Wolterstorff moved when he questioned God about the death of his son? Had Patricia Hooper moved when she questioned God's care for her friend? Had Lee Hough moved?
Had you, when during the most agonizing time of your life you called out to God, and he was silent?
So how do you reconcile a God who cares with a God who doesn't speak, doesn't seem to act, doesn't seem to lift even a finger in the face of such desperate circumstances? The feeding of a family that is starving for some crust of hope. The protection of a suicidal friend. The saving of a son who has fallen down a mountain.
What makes it more difficult to reconcile is that he is not only our God, but also our Father. And Jesus not only told us to pray to him (Matthew 6:9-13), he told us what to expect from him: "You parents-if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him" (Matthew 7:9-11).
Excerpted from THE North Face of GOD by KEN GIRE Copyright © 2005 by Reflective Living. Excerpted by permission.
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