From September to mid October last year, the following happened; we picked up bed bugs from the hotel where we stayed after dropping our eldest at college; my husband’s mother was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer; I ran over someone’s dog; my son took a helmet to the neck in a football game; a neighbor fell off his porch and shattered his vertebrae; and finally, our church imploded.
I was afraid to leave the house. It seemed each week brought more disaster and grief. In the midst of it all, I started shutting down, disappearing, going into a self-imposed relational and spiritual coma in order to survive.
At one point, I had a dream where my husband and I were hanging by our fingertips on the face of a cliff. I shouted over to him, “I hope you are doing OK because there is nothing I can do to help you.” Truly, it was a lonely and frightening time.
After Adam and Eve disobeyed their father in the garden of Eden, they imagined that it was somehow prudent to camouflage themselves with leaves and hide from their Father among the trees. Though tactically absurd, I get the impulse behind their choice. As my experience last fall indicates, I routinely battle to stay in relationship with God and others when life gets overwhelming and difficult.
We opt for hiding over allowing ourselves to be vulnerably exposed for two reasons. First, pride. I don’t particularly enjoy falling apart in front of others. There’s a very real humiliation factor of not having answers, of dwelling in sadness a bit longer than is socially acceptable or harboring doubts about my faith. I notice I have to consciously fight against the impulse to present well and instead allow my friends and those I lead to see me unravelled in an unglorious mess.
Secondly, if we have not consistently experienced God’s passionate love for us, we tend to fear Him when things are going poorly. When God asks us the same question He asked Adam and Eve in the garden—“Where are you?”—we imagine Darth Vader rather than a heartbroken father who runs toward us with outstretched arms. Our residual feelings of guilt, insecurity, or shame lead us to believe that God is searching for us primarily to accuse and/or punish.
Author Helen Cepero has another angle. In Journaling as a Spiritual Practice she writes, “[Where are you?] is a question that echoes throughout the Old Testament and then reverberates again and again in the New Testament.” Those three words could be asked of Moses after he murdered the Egyptian and fled into the desert, Jonah after he refused God’s sacred assignment and found himself in the belly of the whale and the disciples when they abandoned Jesus at His crucifixion. In each case, there was either an obvious misstep or a combination of fear and overwhelm, followed by a hasty exit.
Our sinful DNA might incline us to respond like Adam and Eve, but when we do, we misconstrue God’s intentions. Cepero continues:
The question [“Where are you?”] is not some sort of celestial attempt to determine our location. Instead, it seems to arise out of the longing of God’s own heart. It is a question that invites us to be alert to God’s presence and alive to God’s love, wherever we are.
This perspective does not discount God’s call to holiness. Sometimes there are serious repercussions if we fail to heed His commands. (The prodigal son did have some rather humiliating and lean years.) But surely, Scripture intentionally offers us sufficient examples that demonstrate the Father’s patient perseverance and willingness to offer us second—and third—chances.
Moses not only finds his wife during his self-imposed exile but also receives an offer to partner with God in saving his people. The whale does not kill Jonah but rather regurgitates him, giving the reluctant prophet another opportunity to obey. And though the disciples cluelessly returned to their fishing boats after Jesus’ death, the Messiah seeks them out not to reprimand them but to fellowship with them over a meal.
Our “bad luck” last autumn did not suddenly or miraculously turn. We lost my mother-in-law and our next door neighbor, left our church, paid thousands of dollars eradicating the bed bugs and watched our son sit on the bench for most of the season.
What helped me to come out of hiding was not a change in the circumstances but the gradual realization that I expected too much of myself and not enough of God; hiding was simply easier than facing my limitations and depending fully upon Him.
The next time the Father asks me, “Where are you?” I hope that I will quickly respond, “Here I am Lord. Speak, for your servant is listening.”