“Where Now is Thy God?”
By Rev A. Powell Davis
December 8, 1946
There were times during the recent war when it seemed as though nothing that could ever happen could be quite as bad as what was happening at that particular time. This was so during the fall of France and immediately afterwards, when the news came, shock upon shock, of uninterrupted German victories: perhaps some diabolical force had been let loose in the world before which humanity stood helpless. It was the same when Pearl Harbor was struck, and for months afterwards while we tasted the bitterness of defeat. Surely, we said, this is the harshest moment that has ever come upon us, and if we survive it nothing that can ever happen to us will be quite as bad.
But today we know that things are happening which are more dismaying, more disquieting, more deeply discouraging than anything we had to contend with during the war. Never was there such an opportunity to make a universal peace, and never has the need for peace been so imperious. One war more, and it is a question whether mankind itself will still survive upon this planet. Yet peace seems very far away. One week we are hopeful of it, the next despairing; incredible as it seems, we are preparing for another war at least as energetically as we are for its prevention, and apparently no other course is open to us. That we want peace, no one can doubt; and we are groping desperately for whatever leads towards it. But we have to admit that not only are we having to contend with the opposed policies of other nations; we are also having to contend with frustrating dissensions and grievous inadequacies within our own country.
Nor is war the only danger: it is just the culminating one. Everything seems to have gone wrong all at once. It is not that goodwill has suddenly disappeared, or that wise counsels are nowhere to be found, or that human nature is capable of nothing but evil; the truth is that there is a great deal of goodwill, but nonetheless, it seems to be inadequate; wise counsels were never more plentiful but somehow they are not sufficiently embodied in our actions; as for the good in human nature, it is not enough to meet the circumstances. We need to become so much better than we are, if we are to be equal to the claims upon us, that we wonder whether so much advance is possible in a single generation.
Moreover, things that even a little while ago seemed fairly simple have overnight become extremely complicated. It is not as clear as it used to be what is involved in doing right. no matter how much a man may wish to maintain his earlier idealisms, he has to work them out problem by problem, by very painful stages. He has to do the right as he sees it, as much of it as he can, and carry anguish of its incompleteness in his heart. A good intention is not sufficient to provide a good outcome. No, he who would do right must first discover how much of right is possible; and then, in fear and trembling try to do it. For we have come to a time when almost nothing is above contention. We are in an uncharted world, lost and bewildered and full of trouble, and in the trackless jungle of its vast confusion we are struggling hour by hour to find our way.
As I said at the beginning, it is in many ways a time of deeper distress than any during the war. All we had to do then, strenuous and agonizing though it may have been, was to defeat an enemy. But now we have to move from one age into another, forsake a world to which we were accustomed for one that is strange and unexplored and new. Every step that we take is attended by danger; all assurance has departed; we feel like wanderers in a wilderness, disinherited, unbefriended and alone.
Is it surprising that the enemies of goodness sometimes mock us? That we ourselves find irrepressible the question as to whether anything beyond ourselves has any care for what befalls us? As in the past, so now with greater emphasis than ever, we hear the ancient question that the psalmist asked: Where is thy God?
If we ask who this man was who wrote these words we find that his name is unrecorded. But we have reason to believe that he wrote as an exile in a wintry, Palestinian wilderness: an exile and a fugitive whose whole world had dissolved, so far as he himself was concerned, before his eyes. He had fought for the right, but God had not sustained him. He had lost everything, and worst of all he was losing his faith–his faith that God prospered the righteous, that the universe was always on the side of justice, that truth was mighty and would prevail.
It was not a new experience, even in the day of the psalmist. Such times have come, again and again, both to individuals and to nations. Very few human lives are not visited by anguished days and broken-hearted nights. Few indeed escape some cup of bitterness. Nor has it ever been true that the world has known a long-continued time of tranquil progress; such periods have always been broken, after an interval, if not in one way, then in another. Our lives are short and so it seems to us that the world into which we were born is the permanent world. We read about other kinds of worlds, hear about them, and after a fashion imagine them. But we do not actually feel the reality of them. It was just something that went before; something that prepared the way for the happier world in which or own lives commenced. And this happier world seems to us the real world; we feel that it ought to be permanent, that it must be permanent, that fundamentally nothing should really disturb it. But this is only because our lives are short. If we knew other ages as intimately as we know our own, we would not be so easily deceived.
But of course, we are deceived. In case you have forgotten how dependable the world of human progress used to seem, perhaps I should remind you that Andrew Carnegie, when he left his generous endowment to the Church Peace Union to be used for making permanent peace in the world, was greatly worried about what should be done with the income of the fund after its purpose was achieved. He thought the purpose of peace-making would be accomplished within a very few years and that the trustees might wish for guidance as to what should then be done with the money. Do not write him down as an eccentric; he was no more optimistic than most of his contemporaries. He was sure that goodness was on its way to permanent victory and that one of its most immediate triumphs would be a warless world.
Now it was out of that kind of expectation that most people of this generation got their religion. And their trouble is that they think that apart from such an expectation, all religion is discredited. The psalmist thought the same–until his deepening experience taught him better. He had been given to understand that God was the guarantor of successful ventures for the righteous; that virtue was sure to lead to happiness, or at the very least to peace of mind. This hopeful sentiment is expressed over and over again by other psalmists. In happy times, it was natural to believe it. What it was necessary to discover was that religion–the deeper religion from which all lesser faiths have taken sustenance: taken it without even knowing it–has always developed in times of tribulation. It is true that the joy of life can give confidence and gratitude and fullness of heart. But it cannot develop faith–not joy alone. Only pain and heartache, desolation and loneliness can do that. If you took out of the Bible all the religion that had come out of anguish and loss, there would be nothing left but legend and sentiment–that and a little poetry and some rather unimportant history. It would have become merely light reading.
But on the contrary–to speak first of the Old Testament–its books are united by this development of an ever-deepening faith. In a symbolical sense, the key to it is in the story of the patriarch Jacob, the fabled ancestor of the entire Hebrew people, from whom, of course, the Old Testament came.
Jacob began his religious experience with a God with whom he made a bargain. A God concerning whom he dreamed a dream while resting in his flight from justice–the justice that pursued him because, besides being a man who wanted to know God, he was a man with some rather shady personal ambitions. And so, with this God of his dream, he made a bargain.. “Give me,” he said to his God, “give me good fortune, prosperity, happiness, and I will give you ten percent of everything I get. Moreover, I will worship no other god but you.” It didn’t seem an odd bargain to Jacob. He didn’t notice at all that God was to be just a utility–a kind of slave in an Aladdin’s lamp, bonded to do a self-centered man’s ambitious bidding.
But in the years that followed, Jacob learned a great deal. Prosperity came but so did disillusionment. So did heartbreak and loneliness. And nearer the end of the story we find Jacob seeking God a second time. Once more, justice is in pursuit; once again Jacob is a runaway. But this time, there is no bargaining. As the story tells it, Jacob went out and wrestled through a long nighttime of doubt and grief and fear; wrestled with God. And when the morning came, he was no longer Jacob but Israel: one who had prevailed with God. He came back from the experience, weary, wounded and humbled. But he had found his religion at last. He had prevailed by surrendering–surrendering his life, not on his terms but on life’s terms, on God’s terms–to God. Henceforth, he was God’s to command, no matter what the doubt and fear of it, no matter how dimply lit the path before him. And it is this that all the greater prophets of the Old Testament worked out more fully–yet never so fully that the people altogether understood it. They always wanted to make bargains with God. They always wanted their religion to come easily. They always resisted the growing pains of the soul.
And if we turn to the New Testament we have to remember that Christianity began, after all, not only with a life, beautifully lived, but with a certain man nailed to a cross. A man who cried that his God had forsaken him, yet somehow knew that he was not forsaken. As I have often said, I have no use, myself, for the conventional Protestant cross, that shiny brass thing with no man on it. In that respect at any rate, the Catholics did better: they left the man on the cross. I could never accept a Catholic creed but I have known for years that the crucifix, a cross with a man on it, was at the real heart of Christianity and an ultimate authentic symbol. What it is trying to say to the world is that faith is not to be had cheaply; that if we will not reckon with the tragic we shall never know the deeper essence of religion; and I think it is also saying that not even God can take mankind off its cross until a world is made that does not crucify the true, the just and the loving; a world that does not stone its prophets and resist the living God whose spirit burns in what they say.
Let me put it yet more plainly. The God this age is losing is a God it never really had. Let me put it plainer still. Most of those who think themselves religious are really atheists. They do not yield themselves to God as a reality; they do not affirm life as it comes to them, as it makes demands upon them. They merely console their hearts with a comforting notion. They think they believe in God. But what they truly believe in is their own prosperity, deified; their own happiness, their own advantage. Yes, and the due reward of their own virtue. This is completely proved by the fact that as soon as their prosperity is shrunk, as soon as their happiness is diminished, as soon as their own advantage is imperiled, as soon as someone says that virtue is its own reward, they feel that God is doing them an injustice. They did not want a God; they wanted a celestial henchman. They wanted a supernatural servitor to do their bidding. They wanted a mother-image, a father-image, to come to life within their childish needs, and by indulging them in every way, to keep them forever childish.
As every good psychologist knows, this kind of God-idea is formed on childhood conditioning. That is why so many people ask for a childish religion, or, if they cannot get it, want no religion at all. It is partly why this age contains so few really mature people; spiritual adults. Instead, it is full of bright , sophisticated children. Children of twenty and thirty and forty; even of seventy and eighty. They don’t want to grow up; they want God to grow down. They don’t want soul; they want guardian angels–nursemaids with wings. And so, when the nursemaid is suddenly not there any more, and they cannot put their heads beneath the bedclothes and imagine that she isn’t very far away; when they find out that there isn’t any nursemaid–they say that god has let me down. Or that religion has nothing to give….Or that there is no God. Yes, they say there is no God. But what they mean is that there is no celestial henchman, no servitor, no nursemaid. That is why I say they are atheists–really. No one can believe in God who is afraid of pain. Or loneliness. Or the demand that conscience be followed no matter what the cost. Just as the birth of the body comes through travail, so does the birth of the soul.
And I will add this–the other side of the paradox–that many who call themselves atheists trust themselves to God with their whole lives. it is not a matter of what people say about themselves: it is a matter of what they do with themselves. Jesus put is very clearly: “Many shall say to me, Lord, Lord,” he said. But his reply would be, “I never knew you.” And this he also said: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
For God is what the soul affirms when life is accepted–all of it; the pain of it; the complications; the tortured hour of decision; yes, and the tragedy and greatness of a time like this. When the soul says, I will live in this time, live in it and for it and beyond it; live out its truth at any cost, live for its justice waiting to be done, live for its beauty trampled underfoot; live for its tenderness, its compassion, its love, which multitudes are doubting and other multitudes have cast away; when the soul says, I accept the life that is given me, the joy of it and the pain of it; I accept it and affirm it, and I will do what is given me to do; that is belief in God.
It is not necessary to know in advance the entire outcome. It is only necessary to be able to say with Abraham Lincoln, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” And to pray: O God of whom I know so little, I will speak this truth that I know is truth. I will stand for this justice that I know is just. I will love this beauty that as yet is only a dream. I will do today what is given me to do, whether the world applauds or derides it; and tomorrow I will do what tomorrow requires. Here am I, send me.
It is only necessary to be able to say; I cannot foretell the future; I do not know by what means faith communicates itself. Any more than the dedicated have ever known it; even Jesus on the cross. But it does. Everything within me tells me that nothing freely given was ever wasted. I am not God; I am a man. But what a man has to give I give….That is all that is necessary.
Then we can say with the psalmist–after he had lost the shallowness of his earlier religion; after he had affirmed the inward truth of his own conscience, the inner reality of his own soul–“Judge me, O God, and plead my cause….For thou art the God of my strength….O send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me.”
So that when someone asks, “Where, now, is thy God?” So that when someone asks, “Where, now, is thy God?” So that when someone asks, “Where, now, is thy God?” we can answer, God is where he always was: in the struggle. Not on some altar, awaiting the incense that the shallow-hearted bring; but in the struggle! In the pain in our hearts, in the slowly growing clearness of our minds! In the sharpening edge of conscience! In the welling up of courage! In the purpose that we cannot forsake and never shall. In all that was lovely once and worthy of devotion, that lives through the hour of present eclipse to shine more brightly in a future sky….If you want to know where God is, follow the path that faces you with challenge, and where your feet shall tread, the very earth will be warm from his footfall.
Prayer: O God, with many words we say so little. Give us to speak sometimes heart to heart. Amen.