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Where Is God?: Finding His Presence, Purpose and Power in Difficult Times

Where Is God?: Finding His Presence, Purpose and Power in Difficult Times

3.0 2
by John Townsend

Hard times make us look for God.

Everyone has problems. But if we could solve all our difficulties ourselves, would we ever search for God? Psychologist John Townsend says "It is actually the very unfixability of our problems and our powerlessness to bring right results that keep us asking, 'Where is God?'"

With a compelling narrative, Townsend


Hard times make us look for God.

Everyone has problems. But if we could solve all our difficulties ourselves, would we ever search for God? Psychologist John Townsend says "It is actually the very unfixability of our problems and our powerlessness to bring right results that keep us asking, 'Where is God?'"

With a compelling narrative, Townsend offers new insights into the pursuit for God's help and presence. Designed to give readers hope and meaning, he divides the discussion into three parts:

  • Why does a loving God allow us to experience difficulties?
  • How is God active in the middle of our hard times?
  • How can I find God?

With powerful stories and practical applications, Where Is God? assures readers that even when it feels as though God is absent it is his nature to be in relationship, to connect with, love, and guide us. And when we seek him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, he shows up in ways that transform us forever.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Theodicy-why God allows suffering and evil-is one of the thorniest problems Christians and other theists face. Psychologist Townsend, coauthor of the bestselling book Boundaries, has eschewed an academic perspective and written a commonsense volume, specifically for those suffering hard times and asking about God's purposes, sovereignty and even goodness. Supporting his ideas with personal anecdotes and multiple biblical citations, the author argues that suffering and destruction are a result of our freedom to choose God's ways or our own ways. God's intentions for humankind are good; God is present in all circumstances; God is compassionate; and God wants us to seek help from each other, asserts the author. Most of all, God (and the author) offer the suffering hope, founded in God's promises for this life, Christian community and the life to come. While there is little that isn't out of the evangelical playbook, Townsend brings refreshing honesty and distaste for conventional pabulum to the subject.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2009 Dr. John Townsend
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7852-2919-3

Chapter One


In researching this book over the past several months, I have asked a good number of people what the phrase Where is God? actually means to them and if it resonates for them at some level. I have yet to hear one neutral answer, such as, "I don't know. It sounds boring, irrelevant-no interest." If fact, the answers have been quite the opposite. People have said:

"It's something I think about a lot these days." "Oh my gosh, I ask the question whenever I look at the news." "I thought that when I got sick." "Yes, where was God when I was laid off ?" "I have friends in hard times whom I have no answer for." "Didn't Larry King ask that on his show the other night?"

However universal the phrase may be, the idea has several understandings for different people and for different situations. We don't all mean the same thing when we ask, "Where is God?" I have found there are three different questions people ask when they think or say it.


I was at a restaurant the other night, and a three-year-old boy was walking around the tables nearby his family. He came to a stop directly behind a waiter who was taking an order, at an angle from which the waiter couldn'tsee him. When the waiter turned around, he tripped over the child. Luckily, he was very agile and broke his fall at the last second and avoided landing on the boy. Nevertheless, it was a loud and abrupt event, the kind where people around stopped talking to see what had happened. I jumped out of my chair to help, but things were OK.

From the little boy's point of view, however, things were not OK. Immediately, he made a beeline for his dad's chair and crawled into his lap, crying. This response was not one he had to think about. He automatically looked for his parent during a stressful situation that was beyond his ability to fix or understand. He headed for someone who had the power to make things all right again.

As adults, we have the same need for God when we are in tough times. A situation is over our heads, beyond our capacity to fix, and is not getting better. We ask, "Where is God?", and it is a question of His power, His capacity, and His ability to fix a bad situation. We don't have the resources or wisdom to handle the problem ourselves. We need a miracle. We want His power to restore our health, find a good job, or put together a fractured relationship. We look to God for the answer, and that is the right direction to look.

Our tendency is to be strong, self-sufficient, and dependent on our own willpower, but rather than try harder, we should reach out to the God who is all-powerful: "Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You" (Jer. 32:17 NKJV). This is the question I was asking on the Antarctic glacier. When I was in trouble and contemplating falling into the freezing ocean, I wanted power. Protection. Action. A miracle. The strong hand and powerful arm of God.

I have also noticed during this economic downturn that more of my friends talk about God in this way. That is, friends who aren't involved in church or spiritual activities are looking for God. I was at a party with a neighbor who had been laid off, and he mentioned prayer to me, a subject he and I had never broached. The context was that he was praying for a job opportunity. As a result, our conversation took a deeper and more meaningful turn than it ever had before.

So be aware that your question may be a real question, a search for One who can move mountains and do miracles, for He can.


Sometimes these three words indicate a desire, some sort of longing for a relationship of closeness and intimacy with God. It is what a wife says to her husband at dinner, when he seems preoccupied or distant: "Where are you?" Meaning, "I can't experience your presence or your heart right now. The lights are on, but nobody's home. What's going on inside you?" She feels a little lost or disoriented, not knowing what he is feeling inside. She is asking for presence, for "being there."

We are designed for more than simply receiving power from God, a relationship in which He does superhero feats to help us. Ultimately, we long for His presence, a connection of closeness with God: "As the deer pants for the water brooks, / So pants my soul for You, O God" (Ps. 42:1 NKJV). God's love for us goes far beyond rescuing us. He wants to be with us in a deep and abiding way. He seeks us out. In fact, before we ever asked, "Where is God?" He first asked the same question of us: "Then the Lord God called to Adam and said to him, 'Where are you?'" (Gen. 3:9 NKJV). He is the real seeker, not us.

It's hard to ask the presence question during difficult times. Struggle and pain come to the forefront and take up our energy and attention. We don't tend to be all that relationally oriented in the middle of a crisis. My presence experience with God happened at the glacier's summit, when things were perfectly beautiful. I would have had to make an effort not to appreciate God then; His presence was all encompassing at that moment. Presence, however, gave way to a need for power when the winds and ice hit us.

Yet one of the signs that we are growing in faith is when we begin to seek God's presence when things are dark and hard. Continuing to seek Him when He doesn't come up with the power goods, as we would like Him to do, but recognizing He is there still, comforting and encouraging us, indicates a deepening and maturing of our inner selves as we continue to let him develop us.

Today, I showed my sons, Ricky and Benny, the passage Job 13:15 in the Bible: "Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him" (NKJV). It is one of the most difficult and profound statements of faith in the Bible. We talked about the reality that, while we are to ask for God's power to help solve our problems, the spiritual life doesn't stop there. Ultimately, if He takes everything away, if He doesn't relieve the problems, and if He even takes us down, too, we are to seek Him and hope in Him. I didn't want to discourage the boys from hoping for a good life-I hope they have great lives. But I wanted them to also see that there is something beyond our circumstances, and that is an emotional, from-the-heart connection to God, no matter what is going on in our lives. We will explore this more fully in the chapter on hard times and faith.


Finally, sometimes "Where is God?" is not actually a question. In my work as a psychologist, I have found this to be a significant issue. For many people who struggle, there is no real and true answer to the where-is-God question that will satisfy them. No explanation from a theological level, a spiritual level, a psychological level, or any level will make a difference to their current conditions. That is because many times, "Where is God?" is not actually a question they're willing to receive an answer to. It is a protest. It is a statement of how badly they hate what is going on. It is a desire, a wish, a cry of pain and anguish. It is an emotional reaction to a great difficulty. The desire simply says, I want things to be better. I want the bad times to go away so I can live my normal life. I want my child to straighten out. I want my husband to love me. I want to feel better, not sicker. I want to find a mate. I want a job so I can take care of my family. I simply hate what is going on, and I want things to be different. These are protests, not questions.

The most profound and moving where-is-God question that has ever been asked in history is that of Jesus in His own agony on the cross: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matt. 27:46 NKJV). He was not asking for clarification, an answer, or an explanation. He knew what was going on behind His pain. He knew every reason for what He was experiencing, for He had planned and predicted His own suffering. Speaking to His disciples, He said, "Listen ... we're going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die. Then they will hand him over to the Romans to be mocked, flogged with a whip, and crucified. But on the third day he will be raised from the dead" (Matt. 20:18-19 NLT). In that moment of pain, Jesus was uttering the question that was not a question.

We often see this in parenting. Kids will ask why they can't watch TV all night or eat junk food or text message during dinner. And as every good parent knows, you answer the question once or twice, and then you say, "I've given you all the reasons I have. Maybe this is more about you just wanting me to change the rule. I'm sorry, but the rule stands."

Our teenage kids still don't like our curfew rules. But my wife and I finally figured out that after we explained our position several times, they were no longer asking us a real question. It was a desire couched in a question: "I want you to let me stay out later." That helps. When we realized this, we no longer wasted time reasoning when reason isn't the issue at all. So it is helpful when we struggle to think about what we mean deep inside when we ask, "Where is God?" Am I trying to make sense of something that seems insane or evil? Or am I in such distress that I simply have a very strong desire for things to change, and it comes out of my mouth as a question? If it's a true question, then we can be open to the possibility of answers. If it's a desire, our efforts need to go toward either doing what we can to achieve that desire or toward learning how to grieve, let something go, adapt to the painful reality, and move on. So the nature of "Where is God?" will direct you to what your next steps are to be.

I have also found that this question can be about protest and understanding at the same time. On the radio program I cohost, New Life Live!, a caller will often ask about a spouse's behavior and emotional distance. A wife will say, "I want to know why my husband won't talk to me on a deeper level." I'll ask her some questions and get background information on the relationship. At some point I may offer an explanation like, "It may be that he experiences intimacy as unsafe, and he may believe, if he opens up, he'll be rejected or put down," or something to that effect. In all the thousands of calls I have ever heard on the program, I do not remember one in which the caller then said, "OK. I just wanted to know why he's like that. Thanks, bye." Not once. The call always evolved to, "How can he open up more?" or "What can I do to help him?" or "What is the next step?" We can also be that way with God. "Where are you?" can be both a protest against a problem and a search for understanding and perspective.

Chapter Two


My wife, Barbi, and I are both kid-loving people by nature. Her entire career has been in the public elementary school system, and I was raised in a large family. We have loved having our two sons. However, during our childbearing years, Barbi had two miscarriages. Our sadness and disappointment in those periods were profound. We were aware that statistically, half of all pregnancies end that way and that these are very common losses for couples. Still, we grieved, and it took some time for the feelings to resolve. We felt the emptiness of where we thought those children should be, in our home and in our lives.

Like most parents who go through this, I spent time asking God why we encountered these losses. I don't remember thinking that God had treated me unfairly or unjustly. Many of my friends and the people I have counseled have felt that way, so I understand it, but I didn't feel it. In my case, it was more that I wanted to make sense of the loss if I could. The issue was, I'd like to know why this happened. And it was certainly a lingering question in my grief.

Fortunately, we had some very caring and supportive friends who helped a great deal. They spent time with us during those days. They were warm and they were present, and that is what made the most difference. The most helpful ones simply asked how we were doing and listened to us talk, sometimes praying with us. They made themselves available to us.

At the same time, other friends were a little less helpful, though not intentionally so. Their approaches didn't help us really move on from our loss. One lady, for example, who had her own struggle with God, talked to us about how unfair it is that there are so many loving parents who can't have more kids. Another said that God had a special reason for this, and it would become clear to us. And another told us it was simply nature's way of solving a problem. Though I appreciated the sentiments, these ideas didn't move me down the path of resolving my sadness. They seemed to make things worse instead of better.

In time, however, the emotions dissipated for us, through our friends, God, time, and the grief process. It has been several years since those days. I don't think about the miscarriages often anymore, though the feelings of sadness about the loss of a potential wonderful relationship still do arise occasionally. In fact, when I was talking to Barbi about these losses in preparation for writing this book, our sad feelings returned to us. But that is what memory is about. It's a way of honoring someone who matters to us. I would never want to forget these kids, even though I never knew them. I have returned to today's path, relationships, and responsibilities, and that is where I live. I don't know what God's specific purpose was in those times of loss. But I don't really feel that I need to. However, over the years, in my own studies and experience, I have found some ideas which have made sense for me and which are the subject of this chapter.

When we are in tough circumstances, most people ask a second question in addition to, "Where is God?" It is, "Why does God allow suffering?" In other words, how can a loving, caring divinity allow us to be in crisis, have sicknesses, and encounter natural disasters? Is He unloving or powerless or judging us or what? This is one of the most often-asked questions in human history. There have been innumerable books written on the subject. I recently searched the phrase God and suffering on Amazon.com, and the result was over seventeen thousand books. This is an important and significant question. We all need to grapple with it, and hopefully we'll come to some sort of conclusion that makes sense.

The two questions are related. The why is more theological and philosophical in nature and is concerned about understanding the concepts and abstracts. The where is somewhat more personal and has more to do with an interest in God's ways, His activities, and how we can interact with Him in times of difficulty. As a psychologist, I have found that when people are experiencing struggles, such as the ones we are dealing with, they often want to talk about the more conceptual issues before they get into the emotions, the process of healing, and the action steps they need. This can be very helpful. By doing this, they are not avoiding pain or discomfort or retreating into an imaginary world of ideas. They are, in fact, working on creating a foundation or a thinking paradigm for themselves so they can better understand what is going on. It is similar to a person who finds he needs surgery and asks his physician every possible question about the procedure. The information helps him feel less anxious, less confused, and a little more in control of matters.

As I mentioned earlier, the question of why difficult times occur is a well-researched topic. It is thousands of years old and is one of the central issues in philosophy, theology, and psychology. Many intelligent, educated, thoughtful, and spiritual people have wrestled long and hard with this question. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus has the first recorded statement of the problem from an intellectual perspective:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?

Centuries earlier, however, Job asked the same question from a much more personal and in-the-moment perspective: "Why is life given to those with no future, those God has surrounded with difficulties?" (3:23 NLT). The reality that this topic has been so thoroughly discussed means that you will benefit from knowing what others have said. The point here is to make sure you read some of the thoughtful books about the question of God and hard times. (You can find some suggestions in the appendix section of this book.) You will agree with some and disagree with others because they do not agree with each other. And if you are jarred by something abnormal going on in your life, if you are concerned about why bad things happen to good people, or if you want to make sense of the character of God in a world that doesn't work, I think you have a healthy curiosity about some very important things.


Excerpted from WHERE IS GOD? by JOHN TOWNSEND Copyright © 2009 by Dr. John Townsend. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author


Dr. John Townsend is a leadership consultant, psychologist, and New York Times bestselling author. He has written twenty-seven books, selling 10 million copies, including the 3 million-selling Boundaries series. John is founder of the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling and conducts the Townsend Leadership program. He travels extensively for corporate consulting, speaking, and working with leadership families. He and his wife Barbi have two sons, and live in Newport Beach, California. One of John's favorite hobbies is playing in a band that performs in Southern California lounges and venues.


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