A Theology of Absence
I hate Covid, not only because of the medical devastation it has wreaked on both our nation and the world, but also for the spiritual catastrophe it has become. It was inevitable. The American church, especially, has become fat and lazy–unfit to endure hardship or deprivation. One of the most visible symptoms of Covid’s rage has been dropping attendance. In other words absence.
It is hard to write about this because of the low regard many have for the importance of presence. “What difference does it make if I skip here and there?” or “Don’t get your knickers in a twist; it’s not that important.” or “I’m really doing okay, spiritually speaking.” Really?
All this made me wonder what, if anything, the Bible said, directly and indirectly about presence or absence. There are no large, extended teaching texts about this subject, but there are some rather significant things said here and there, almost in passing. It is the purpose of this article to see if there is a theology of absence in the Bible and what it might have to say to us.
33:1 The Lord said to Moses, “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
33:13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. [Moses talking to God about God’s presence or absence with Israel.]
Proverbs 27:17 Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.
Ecclesiastes 4:11-12 – 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Acts 2:46-47 – 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
Romans 12:3-6 – 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
1 Corinthians 11:27-32 – 27:29 For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. 30 For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.
Ephesians 4:11-16 – 11 The gifts he gave were….12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
Ephesians 5:18-20 – 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Colossians 3:14-17 – 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Hebrews 10:24-25 – 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The premise of this meditation is the real and implied importance of brothers and sisters, in the family of God, staying in community with each other. By community, I mean the biblical assumption that some things cannot occur in Christian development unless Christians are together. Not virtually, by means of a computer, but in full fellowship, being in the same room, hearing the music of another’s voice and seeing the expression of the eyes. There is no way these things occur without the call of community.
Israel knew how important this presence was when they contemplated what would happen to them when God no longer associated with them. Moses pleaded with God not to leave them. Writers of the Old Testament wisdom literature knew that there was no substituting for the way that another human being makes one sharper spiritually, makes one stronger, and gives the warmth of human encouragement.
The New Testament is full of instructions about the relationship we have with one another. The Christian community is like the human body, in which each part, some as lowly as a toe, and others as grand in mission as the brain or the heart, each only exist and operate for the life of the whole body. No part of the human body exists for itself. Paul said that God gave us gifts, not to get a higher paying job or a more exciting place to live, but rather to invest in the growth of the body of which we are a part.
In his teaching on the Lord’s Supper, Paul said that to be cavalier about one’s fellow disciples is to actually weaken one’s life as a follower of Jesus, “This is why some of you are weak and ill and some of you have died.” In other words, a person cannot and will not grow spiritually apart from Christian others while placing career or sports or money at the top of one’s life. Cannot!
Paul told the Ephesus and Colossae churches that even when they sang in worship, they should be singing for the benefit of the others. Yet how often do people sing only because they like the song, tap their toes, and enjoy the sentiment – all directed toward self-centeredness. Singing at its best produces community.
I conclude from all that God has said in scripture that it is NOT okay to be an absentee. I don’t mean those occasional times when we take a vacation or have to go someplace for our work. I do mean being so absentee that one is no longer breathing life into fellow disciples. By being considered by others to be gone more than present. By being separated from the people that most often inspire us to live for God. Saying that the internet or occasional text messages are a suitable substitute for presence is a cop-out. Fifteen seconds here or there is nothing and accomplishes virtually nothing when it comes to the kingdom of God.
I finish with a marriage metaphor. You can imagine what it would think and feel like if your spouse said to you, “Honey, I need to take a break from you for a while. Nothing wrong here. It’s just that I’ve gotten too busy to give you any attention. So you won’t see me around until things in my life calm down and I have time for you.” I’ve heard relationship to God spoken of in that way a lot in my years of ministry, and in most cases it results in damage to the God-relationships and often in an outright departure from the Christian way – I think because it becomes easier and easier to use that ploy when the going gets tough.
How would you say your relationship with Christian brothers and sisters is going today? Absent or fully present more?
God of constancy and faithfulness. God who has never given up on us flawed human beings. God who has at times wept over our fickleness like Jesus wept on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. Keep us mindful of how much we need you and need one another. Awake our spirit and help us to feel the divine angst that comes at our hands. May we be a buoy for one another, instructing, inspiring, praying, and leading each other to you. In Jesus’ name I pray this. Amen.