Is God an ‘Absent Father’?

This quote from Tim Keller appeared on my ‘memories’ from Facebook today. I liked it in 2014 when he said it and I thought enough of it to give it a re-run today.

It’s a tough line Keller takes and one that does necessitate some explanation. As my friend Phil said:

I think that’s mostly true. But it sort of misses the grace that is part of God’s character. We’re not God and don’t think like him and yet put our broken hope in our understanding of his will. Sometimes we get that wrong.

It evokes some real tension. We can think of a God who came thru in the Exodus, a God who came thru for David when he was up against Goliath, a God who protected Daniel quite miraculously, and then the other 3 exiles who were thrown into the fire. On a more human level we see a God who came thru for childless Hannah with the birth of Samuel. That’s all true enough.

But then there’s the God who ‘didn’t come thru’ for Stephen in Acts 9 as he was killed, or for Paul as he endured multiple beatings and floggings. Many of the early believers were martyred for their faith. Where was God then?

Imagine the original quote as a continuum now. At one end is ‘I never expect God to come thru for me in a hard time.’ At the other is ‘I always expect God to come thru, show up and get things done.’

Where would you sit on a continuum like that?

And why would you sit where you do?

Where would the apostle Paul sit?

Before you read on take a moment to pause and ask yourself those questions, then I will answer with my own reflections.


Ok I hope you did that because it will give you an insight into how you perceive God. Is he deeply engaged in our lives or is he quite removed? Can we even tell?

On a scale of 1-10 with 1 being ‘never’ and 10 being ‘always’ I am probably a 2 or 3. I rarely expect God to show up, fix stuff, heal people, heal me even… I have some very low expectations in this regard. (The beauty of low expectations is that it’s hard to be disappointed…) Of course the corollary is that it can be very hard to be inspired by a God who doesn’t respond as I would hope. In this space faith is more dogged than spectacular and I sense its where many of us live.

As I tapped those numbers ‘2-3’ I felt disappointed – sad that my experience of God has me expecting so little – but that is reality.

I don’t know too many people who are up around the 8 or 9 mark on this scale. Maybe it’s just the circles I move in. But I know there are also people out there who expect the miraculous and often get it. Why?

If the line is a continuum between ‘blessing’ and ‘suffering’, then I find myself leaning towards suffering and rarely expecting blessing. James 1 flies to mind… ‘consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters, when you encounter trials of various kinds, for the know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance…’ That feels like the mode I often find myself in, but I wish I could say ‘hey God healed me’ or ‘wow… God came thru in an incredible way.’ I wish my own experience of God was more dramatic and that I could speak of seeing him do incredible things.

It’s one of the questions that I have mulled around in regard to Sam’s death. Our presumption is that as he died God did nothing. Maybe that’s true… and it is then a question of reflecting on how we deal with that reality. However God may have been whispering in his ear to surface, to stop the chase, abort the mission, but maybe Sam didn’t hear, or just didn’t want to hear. I don’t know any of that for sure – I’m just speculating around the possibilities. Maybe God is more involved than we realise – we just tell him to butt out.

Either way he didn’t override the laws of nature so that Sam could surface intact. Keller’s quote seems to speak of a Genie like God, a kind of top level personal assistant who performs on demand. I just can’t even contemplate that as an image of God.

But if I forget Sam for a minute and ask ‘why doesn’t God show up more often in my life in truly tangible ways?’ I have to admit that I’m just not sure. It may be that I have low expectations from so many years in a ‘solid Baptist’ environment. It may be that he is present in ways that I can’t grasp. Or maybe he just quite literally doesn’t show his face. I’m certainly not a deist who believes God is completely absent. I sense we have moments where God seems to be present quite powerfully, but also long stretches where he feels absent or just plain uninvolved.

Could God be an absent father?

That’s a heavy tag to drop on God, but I know it has been my experience at times as it has others. “Where the heck are you? And why can’t I seem to get your attention?’

I wish I could ‘explain God’ better that this… I imagine the bottom line is that we just don’t know why he acts as he does, but he calls us to trust him anyway. Dogged trust is better than no trust, although I must admit that I would like to see my experience move quite a distance beyond it’s current location.

2 thoughts on “Is God an ‘Absent Father’?

  1. If I had to answer where I sit on that continuum I land somewhere similar to you. The “why” is an interesting one to reflect more deeply on.

    But something by about my personality resists not only binary choices but even the linear continuum between two points. If there was another axis “I expect God to be present and available in a hard time”… I’d give a much higher score. Maybe not to intervene… like you my expectations there aren’t high. But I have a lot of trust in god being there to help us walk through the dark times, and do some transformative work in us through it, and maybe even redeem the whole sorry situation in some way…

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