Cover of Reaching for the Invisible God
I came across the phrase ministry of absence reading the wonderful book Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey. I am sure we have all been, or indeed may be in, that place of desert dryness where God's Presence seems to slip through our fingers and no spiritual discipline will bring us the comfort and assurance we are looking for. When this happens to me I am tempted to give up looking for Him, and I endlessley navel gaze to work out what the problem is. But God is showing me again that these times are vital to spiritual growth and maturity, and come from Him. It is He who leads us into desert places. It is in these deserts that we learn to lean on Him and trust that He is carrying us when we feel abondoned.
Henri Nouwen, the man who coined the phrase ministry of absence, advises that we do a disservice to others if we only talk of the heights of closeness to God and do not also prepare them for His absence. Philip Yancey also writes:
A friend of mine who researched thousands of saints in order to select 365 for a daily devotional guide told me that almost all of them climbed slopes of increasing difficulty. As God entrusts us with more responsibilty, the hardships may increase as well. Feelings of abandonment intensify, any sense of the presences of God fades, and tempations and doubts multiply.
This may well be true for many of us, and to learn that this has been a common experience of many, brings assurance that we are still on the right track. It is my own experience that the Christian walk does indeed get harder and harder, but the freedom from depending on the felt Presence of God brings a freedom and confidence that is more valuable. Indeed, when those precious moments come, they are more special and treasured. Finding God's Presence in the whole of life is also an important lesson for me, through nature, friends, family, reading, cinema, beauty, music...
So that desert place is a place not to panic but to be still and know that He is still God and will always be. It's a place to know that nothing I've ever done or will do, entitles me to experience His closeness; a place to recognise that it is all a gift sent by the Father by the Spirit through the cross of Christ.