For many centuries, perhaps up to the middle of the twentieth century, this poignant cry of the exiled Jew seemed to many who were troubled by suffering either in themselves or from the terrible evil in the world, to be a reasonable complaint - God had hidden himself, they would say. What have I done to deserve such a punishment? Religion has always been a mix of myth and ritual and while the philosophers may have had caveats about the so called reality of the god who was being worshipped, the common run of folks were content to adhere to the practice into which they had been initiated. Christianity was different - at least in the beginning. It was a way of life and one responded in worship to the God whom Jesus revealed. However, from at least the third century onwards the Christian fellowship imported some of the mythical and ritual patterns of the old Judaistic religion, such as the hierarchy of priesthood and the notion of sacrifice as propitiation, which were not found in the New Testament documents. The reason for this is not easy to understand but it is likely that the entrance into the public domain after the peace of Constantine did much to promote Christianity as a religion of the state, in place of the heathen religions.
But today in Western society God is no longer to be taken for granted as the source of our life. As one has put it, we are experiencing ‘a night of the intellect.’ While longing for meaning and fulfilment in life we cannot without violence take on our lips the plaint of the psalmist. It appears that the autonomous child of Western society does not need god.
Part of the cause of this covert atheism is the fact that the pearl of great price - the priceless gift of the free grace of God and the transforming friendship of Jesus the Lord - has been overlaid throughout the Christian centuries with the crust of literal formulae and archaic symbols of worship. From necessity the church had to defend itself from false teachings, beginning with Gnosticism, so that willy nilly it has produced a front of formalism both in the structures of the institution and in the description of faith which to the liberated mind of Western society sends no message nor convicts of any necessity to believe in a God so hidden in words and perhaps so irrelevant to life today.
The explosion of thought and exploration set off by the reformation of the sixteenth century and the so called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century is certainly another cause of our rejection of a theistic faith couched in barely understood terms and not answering to our innermost longings. But there is in everyone, as also now in the minds of many scientists, a thirst for what is real which gives the lie to a false determinism. Call it if you will the dimension of ‘spirit’. We all need this dimension of being, of a sort of wonder and it is on record that not a few people come at some point in their lives to an experience which can only be described as ‘other’ than the ordinary everyday events. The kernel of Christian discipleship in the fellowship of Christ is of this nature, only it is a permanent entrance into a new life.
Attempts have been made in the recent past to speak of the ‘dark’ side of God in order to explain away the incomprehensible attitude, it is thought, of God to human suffering and to the evil in the world. But this quasi-mystical approach is doomed to failure and has no connection with the reality of the gospel. The literalness of applying human attributes and focussing our problems upon God is in conflict with logic and the gospel. It is on a par with that other escape from reality which takes the texts of Christianity and the Old Covenant as the ipsissma verba of a god of law which we disobey at our peril. No. As Christians we are faced with the challenge to live in the grace of God as life unfolds for each one of us and to become aware of the wonderful reality of the living Lord who, in our response in worship as in life, reveals the Father to us.