In the tiny Bible-belt town where I grew up, tragedy brought people together. Friends, neighbors, and even complete strangers would go the extra mile for a family in need. House fire? They'd hold a community fundraiser. Funeral? Enough casseroles would pile up in the kitchen to feed an army.

When times were at their worst, these folks were at their best.

And in that way, they seemed quite unlike the God many of them worshiped on Sunday.

When times are at their worst, many of us wonder, “Where the hell is God?” Because the evidence suggests he’s on a cruise to the Bahamas. Or sleeping off a hangover. Or too preoccupied with bigwig affairs to waste time on us peons. Wherever he is, he’s not where we desperately need him to be—here, with us.

The more present the suffering, the more absent God seems to be. More unavailable. More disappointing.

Roaring Muteness of Divine Apathy

Israel experienced that sense of abandonment in Egypt. They lost their freedom, and with it, their dignity. In a final hellish decree, they even lost their children. Pharaoh mandated their newborn sons were to be ripped from their mother’s breasts and tossed into the Nile like human garbage.

Enslaved and oppressed, they cried out to God to save them. And nothing happened. So they prayed more fervently. Still nothing. Years crawled by. Then decades. Finally centuries.

In fact, scan the whole Old Testament, and you’ll discover the longest period of divine silence was during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt. No new word from God for 400 years. No prophet. No deliverer. Nothing from heaven but the roaring muteness of seeming apathy.

When Israel needed him the most, Yahweh proved most disappointing.

Vacuuming up the Crumbs of Hope

About five and half years ago, I sat in my own Egypt. The woman who had ushered hope into my life after years of desperate longing, looked me in the eye a few months after she said, “I do,” and said, “I don’t love you anymore. I want a divorce.”

I sat alone in an empty home, weeks later, brooding, my mind swirling with unspeakable pain. I looked up. On the wall was a picture of Jesus. He looked at me, and I at him. I saw in his gaze not a friend, not even a foe, but a thief. He had lured me into hope once more, then stolen it away and dashed it to pieces before my eyes.

I believed in him. And I didn’t. I trusted him. And I didn’t. All I really felt was an indescribable disappointment that, once more, I was slipping into a darkness from which there would be no return. It was as if heaven had stuck a vacuum into me to suck out every crumb of hope that still littered the floor of my heart.

When you suffer in your own Egypt, do you cry out with the psalmist:
How long, O Lord?
Where are you?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Have you changed?
Have you forgotten to be gracious?

Surprised by Joy

After 400 years, the God of Israel finally sent Moses to redeem his people from slavery. After several years, our Father pulled me out of the black hole of despair from which I thought there was no return. And after a time, our Lord Jesus will act for you and all his children whose hopes have been raped and whose lives have imploded into unrecognizable rubble.

He is a God who disappoints us because of his seeming absence. And he is a God who upholds us even in that disappointment when we have no idea he’s there. He’s not on a cruise to the Bahamas, or sleeping off the whiskey, or too busy with world affairs to pay heed to our troubles. He is silently, compassionately sitting with us as a co-sufferer. His seeming absence is actually the fullness of his merciful presence.

We just don’t feel it. All we feel is our pain. Our loneliness. Our fears and losses. What we don’t feel is the God of the cross cradling in his nail-scarred hands the shattered remains of our broken hearts. What we don’t feel is him soaking in our every disappointment even as he collects our tears in the bottle of his remembrance.

What we don’t feel is Jesus, ever present, ever merciful, waiting until the right time to act in such a decisive way that we will be surprised by joy.

The God of the cross, Jesus our brother, will never act the way we want him to. He loves us too much to let human expectations dictate his response to tragedy. We demand he send us a snapchat of immediate relief, but he is an artist who patiently paints, stroke by stroke, the portrait of our redemption.

Where is God when we need him most? Where he’s always been: in Jesus. Bearing our sins. Carrying our sorrows. Bleeding for our salvation. Washing us into himself. Feeding us his sacred body and blood. Holding us as we cry and complain and wait. That’s where God is. In our Savior, our Brother, who unseen and unfelt carries us from death to life, time and time again.c