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Ever feel like you don’t have your spiritual act together, like you’re not feeling that “victory in Jesus” everyone else seems to have bubbling out of their eyes and ears? Me too.

Some time back it dawned on me that the Old Testament can help here, more than the New Testament. Yes, you heard me. The Old Testament has something of core spiritual value that the New Testament doesn’t—the repeated observation and lamentation over God’s absence, the sense of God’s abandonment.

The Old Testament has a serious dark side—what Walter Brueggemann calls Israel’s “counter testimony.”

In Israel’s “main testimony,” the story from Genesis through 2 Kings (from creation to exile), Israel’s plan for what it means to be the people God is laid out (albeit with all sorts of interesting and unexpected bumps and potholes): obedience to God leads to life in the land while disobedience leads to divine punishment and eventually exile. (See for example Deuteronomy 27-30, and Psalm 1.)

But a key dimension of Israel’s broad religious tradition, recorded in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, is the observation that the “rules of the game” that God laid down can’t be counted on. 

Enter the Psalms.

Psalm 73, for example, notices that—contrary to God’s promise—the wicked prosper all the time and the righteous endure long days of suffering.

Psalm 88 is a cry for help to God, but God is a no-show—darkness is the psalmist’s only companion (see the last verse).

Right next door is Psalm 89, which in effect calls God a promise-breaker for failing to keep the promise that David’s line will continue forever (v. 36). The throne is empty now that Israel is in exile. God can’t be counted on.

And don’t get me started on Ecclesiastes and Job.

Qohelet, the main character in Ecclesiastes, is seriously depressed and not a little ticked off at how God has set up the world. We go about our work day after day, it’s all the same, and we never actually have anything to show for it, because at the end of the day “you can’t take it with you.” Death cancels out all our achievements. “This is how God has set up the world, so don’t talk to me about blessing and curses, rewards and punishments.”

And nowhere in the book is there any attempt to “correct” Qohelet. In fact, the end of the book pronounces Qohelet as “wise” precisely because his words are painful, like spiked sticks used for driving sheep and cattle.

And poor Job. “Suffering” is too shallow a word to describe how his life utterly obliterated the neat world of  “actions have consequences” that we see in Israel’s main testimony. Job’s friends try again and again to help Job see the light: “You’re suffering Job. Read your Bible. You suffer because there is some sin in your life. There must be. Actions have consequences.”

Job’s response throughout is, “I don’t care what you say. I didn’t do anything to deserve this.” Even though Job’s orthodox friends are simply repeating the “biblical teaching” that actions have consequences, at the end of the book God himself turns to Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, and says, “My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). Even God is critical of the “biblical teaching” of the main testimony.

My point is that this sort of honest and even unnerving grappling with “what in the world God is up to and why should any of us bother with this God who lays out a plan that doesn’t seem to work in the day to day world” is all over the Old Testament.

But you don’t find it in the New Testament.

In a word, the New Testament has a more triumphalist tone. In Christ, God has shown up definitively, finally. The New Testament writers tell us that in the gospel we see God’s final plan worked out before all the world—in a suffering, executed, and raised messiah.

The New Testament no doubt grapples with the question of suffering—no happy-clappy world does the NT present—but we do not see the same anguish over the sense of God’s absence and abandonment that we see in the Old Testament.

The exception is Jesus’s own cry of God’s abandonment in the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which is a citation of Psalm 22:1, one of those “Where are you when we actually need you, God?” psalms uttered by the ancient Israelites—this crucified Jew’s abandonment by God sums up and embodies Israel’s experience throughout much of its own history.

But as interesting as that observation may be, that’s not my point here. This is my point: the sense of God’s absence, that anyone who has been a Christian for more than 45 minutes can attest to, finds its biblical echo the Old Testament, not in the New.

The New Testament, after all, tells the “end” of Israel’s story—in the sense that “this is where the story of Israel winds up.” Furthermore, as we read throughout the New New Testament, it won’t be much longer—very soon, in fact—before the process begun by Jesus is brought to its final conclusion with the judgment of God and a new world order (for example, Matthew 24:33-34; 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, Revelation 22:20)

The purpose of the New Testament is not to raise the specter of God’s abandonment but the trumpet call of God’s triumph for Israel and all the world.

In my experience, this is precisely the problem for people who don’t feel triumphant.

If all we read is the New Testament, we are left with a sense that, however difficult things may be at the moment, stick with it: Jesus has come and he is coming back very soon. There is no articulation on the part of New Testament writers of the deep sense of God’s absence that we find among the Old Testament writers, who are in the game over the long haul, day in and day out, waiting for God to show up and stick to his own plan.

If all we read is the New Testament and we are also living through a period of God’s absence, abandonment, a period of doubt, a dark night of the soul, we may likely conclude that there is something very wrong with us for feeling this way.

If we don’t walk around in more or less a state of perpetual triumph and spiritual “victory,” we may think (and others may remind us) that we are some lower form of life, further down the ladder of spiritual maturity.

This is why we need to hear the experiences of the ancient Israelites to relieve us of our spiritual shame.

Their experiences were very much like ours today: life is hard, and life of faith does not automatically make it easier. It may actually make it harder at times.

Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians.

They are not to be sought after, but they are normal. 

They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal. 

They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.

To speak otherwise is to ignore the counter testimony. The Bible tells me so—and I’m glad it does.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

36 Comments

  • Derek says:

    Good piece. I think we fail to find this sense of God’s abandonment in the NT because of the indwelling Holy Spirit in believers. Of course I think it can safely be concluded that every Christian does indeed struggle with persistent doubt and deep questions pertaining to God’s existence and the veracity of the bible, etc. Those who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this either don’t know God or themselves too well, I think.

  • Derek says:

    Good piece. I think we fail to find this sense of God’s abandonment in the NT because of the indwelling Holy Spirit in believers. Of course I think it can safely be concluded that every Christian does indeed struggle with persistent doubt and deep questions pertaining to God’s existence and the veracity of the bible, etc. Those who cannot bring themselves to acknowledge this either don’t know God or themselves too well, I think.

  • Filip says:

    Thank you, Pete. Would the little adjustment below be in that same vain…?

    “Spiritual victories are normal for Christians.
    They are not to be sought after, but they are normal.
    They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal.
    They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.”

  • Filip says:

    Thank you, Pete. Would the little adjustment below be in that same vain…?

    “Spiritual victories are normal for Christians.
    They are not to be sought after, but they are normal.
    They are not to be romanticized, but they are normal.
    They are not to be shown off and bragged over, but they are normal.”

  • charlesburchfield says:

    Here are some quotes from Viktor Frankl that have helped me in my dark times when I have felt abandoned by God.

    >Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    >When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

    to stay positive when all seems hopeless and the outcome I wish for impossible: This is my challenge!!
    But I’m still here with everything that has ever happened to me in the past!!
    It might as well have happened a thousand years ago!!
    All I have is now. privileged, as I feel I am, to know that the holy spirit is never going away has never gone away and has always been working in my life to support me and uplift me in the most dire of circumstances is a comfort today and to be of the opinion that it is for everyone the same although they may not know it yet!!

  • Here are some quotes from Viktor Frankl that have helped me in my dark times when I have felt abandoned by God.

    >Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

    >When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.

    to stay positive when all seems hopeless and the outcome I wish for impossible: This is my challenge!!
    But I’m still here with everything that has ever happened to me in the past!!
    It might as well have happened a thousand years ago!!
    All I have is now. privileged, as I feel I am, to know that the holy spirit is never going away has never gone away and has always been working in my life to support me and uplift me in the most dire of circumstances is a comfort today and to be of the opinion that it is for everyone the same although they may not know it yet!!

  • Young and Rested says:

    I loved the reminders at the end. There seems to be a tendency for some people (such as myself) to exaggerate the victory and downplay the agony, so to speak, after weathering a storm and coming out on the other side. In my own life, I tend to chalk it up to an intense desire for all my sufferings to have meaning. After a depressive episode is over, I can slip into a mindset where I think that the pains I’ve endured are somehow a license to think myself wise. When you’ve been through suffering, you want to be better for it and it’s not a difficult leap to suppose yourself to be superior to those who’ve suffered less. For me, what often follows the “wise man on the mountaintop” act is a kind of creative retelling of my own past, where I rewrite the story of my suffering to try to make myself look more like a conqueror than a mere survivor.
    In the end, I have no definitive answers to give, no perfect wisdom to turn survivors into conquerors. I only know that it’s best to choose hope over despair insofar as you are able, that love is all that can heal the heart, that trust is key and humbleness is essential.

  • Young and Rested says:

    I loved the reminders at the end. There seems to be a tendency for some people (such as myself) to exaggerate the victory and downplay the agony, so to speak, after weathering a storm and coming out on the other side. In my own life, I tend to chalk it up to an intense desire for all my sufferings to have meaning. After a depressive episode is over, I can slip into a mindset where I think that the pains I’ve endured are somehow a license to think myself wise. When you’ve been through suffering, you want to be better for it and it’s not a difficult leap to suppose yourself to be superior to those who’ve suffered less. For me, what often follows the “wise man on the mountaintop” act is a kind of creative retelling of my own past, where I rewrite the story of my suffering to try to make myself look more like a conqueror than a mere survivor.
    In the end, I have no definitive answers to give, no perfect wisdom to turn survivors into conquerors. I only know that it’s best to choose hope over despair insofar as you are able, that love is all that can heal the heart, that trust is key and humbleness is essential.

  • gingoro says:

    Lament is missing in most churches and it is very important.

  • gingoro says:

    Lament is missing in most churches and it is very important.

  • Tiffarity says:

    Great piece. I’ll confess, I often struggle to find the real value in the OT as a Jesus follower. Beyond explaining the culture and the context for the NT, I find much of the OT irrelevant because I’m not Jewish, and I don’t live in a Jewish culture. For instance, sacrifice and rituals are not a part of my culture, nor is the law, shepherding, or temple gates. So while interesting historically, not much practical. (And the more I learn, thanks to your excellent books, that most of it is creatively interpreting the past for the benefit of the present, the more the OT becomes about cultural storytelling and sense-making and less about history)

    Your post is a great reminder that there may be a powerful balance in the OT for believers today. We all have tough seasons where the presence is weaker. It’s not just about doubt, etc, but just a weaker sense of the presence of God. The OT may be much more human in some ways because of what you write. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  • Tiffarity says:

    Great piece. I’ll confess, I often struggle to find the real value in the OT as a Jesus follower. Beyond explaining the culture and the context for the NT, I find much of the OT irrelevant because I’m not Jewish, and I don’t live in a Jewish culture. For instance, sacrifice and rituals are not a part of my culture, nor is the law, shepherding, or temple gates. So while interesting historically, not much practical. (And the more I learn, thanks to your excellent books, that most of it is creatively interpreting the past for the benefit of the present, the more the OT becomes about cultural storytelling and sense-making and less about history)

    Your post is a great reminder that there may be a powerful balance in the OT for believers today. We all have tough seasons where the presence is weaker. It’s not just about doubt, etc, but just a weaker sense of the presence of God. The OT may be much more human in some ways because of what you write. Thanks for opening my eyes.

  • Peter says:

    Pete, I agree the OT examples you gave support your point, but I think much or most of the OT argues against your point. When the Israelites did good they prospered and when they did evil they were disciplined. Everything could be explained as simply cause and effect. It seems like most of the OT was written by Job’s friends, not Job.

    • Hill Roberts says:

      Only thing is that in reality that is not what happened. It is often how it was DESCRIBED (hence the overwhelming lean for the doctrine of reward/retribution) but in reality it wasn’t really working out like that. It is how it was “preached” to the people, but their reality was rather far from the preaching. Take the period of the judges. Yes, it is DESCRIBED as a repeating cycle of do good and prosper until they forget God and are punished. But overall, the period of the judges is a miserable failure. And it is clearly recognized as such in the story itself as it pays it forward into the King Saul narrative. Which goes badly, leading to David, which goes very badly (especially for a man after God’s heart), which gives us Solomon, seeming;y with blessings pouring into the kingdom. But that’s the problem – Solomon is an unmitigated disaster of righteousness in spite of all his wisdom. His UNgodliness singlehandedly sets the stage for the national demise as his kingdom is split by fatal civil war, never to reunite. Instead both factions slowly are consumed by ever increasing failures of justice and righteouness. Except it doesn’t exactly work out that way either. Consider Omri, by all historical accounts his tenure is political triumph reaping much the same blessings to his reign as described for Solomon’s. But he was wicked to the core. Same for the southern kings as well. And on and on it goes. The whole “do good and prosper or else” thing never actually works out as its supposed to, as their forebears had promised speaking for God. That is why the OT editors had such a dilemma in exile and beyond. The old story line just hadn’t worked out. They needed a new narrative. And so, they got busy and rewrote one – enter Chronicles. Enter Malichi, Enter Zechariah, Enter Daniel2. Enter Isaiah2. And so then on top of all that lies the in-your-face laments of Eccl, Job, Ps 73, 88, 89. And a crucified Jesus harkening back to that very same lament tradition in his hour of abandonment. I like the earlier comment that the Christian life now is actually more typically one of struggle and lament interspersed with moments of blessedness perceived.

      • Peter says:

        Hill, do you happen to have a blog. I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about the rewriting you say happened after exile. Thanks.

        • Hill Roberts says:

          Sorry Peter, no blog. Pete has written rater extensively on such. He can point you better than I to his own corpus and others – if so inclined. It’s pretty standard fare among OT scholars I think. You can start with Pete’s “The Bible Tells Me So”.

          Oh – and I like you point about Job’s friends’ point of view – yes, most of the OT does reflect their arguments with Job. That was Job’s dilemma – he had exactly the same theology as they did coming into the situation, but there was a problem. He KNEW what was happening to him was all out of wack with respect to his life and he couldn’t make it fit. So yes, you have in some sense answered your own inquiry. Remembering that in the end God said what they spoke (believed) was not correct. They were defending God with false arguments. Their “theology” needed rewriting.

          • Hill Roberts says:

            Peter — if you haven’t already, see Pete’s post for today (1/25) “WHAT PERMANENTLY SCREWED ME UP ABOUT THE BIBLE (BUT IT TURNED OUT WELL). There he introduces some of what I mentioned in terms of reinterpreting the OT after the exile, and gives some of his and another source that might be interesting for you. Thanks Pete.

  • Peter says:

    Pete, I agree the OT examples you gave support your point, but I think much or most of the OT argues against your point. When the Israelites did good they prospered and when they did evil they were disciplined. Everything could be explained as simply cause and effect. It seems like most of the OT was written by Job’s friends, not Job.

    • Hill Roberts says:

      Only thing is that in reality that is not what happened. It is often how it was DESCRIBED (hence the overwhelming lean for the doctrine of reward/retribution) but in reality it wasn’t really working out like that. It is how it was “preached” to the people, but their reality was rather far from the preaching. Take the period of the judges. Yes, it is DESCRIBED as a repeating cycle of do good and prosper until they forget God and are punished. But overall, the period of the judges is a miserable failure. And it is clearly recognized as such in the story itself as it pays it forward into the King Saul narrative. Which goes badly, leading to David, which goes very badly (especially for a man after God’s heart), which gives us Solomon, seeming;y with blessings pouring into the kingdom. But that’s the problem – Solomon is an unmitigated disaster of righteousness in spite of all his wisdom. His UNgodliness singlehandedly sets the stage for the national demise as his kingdom is split by fatal civil war, never to reunite. Instead both factions slowly are consumed by ever increasing failures of justice and righteouness. Except it doesn’t exactly work out that way either. Consider Omri, by all historical accounts his tenure is political triumph reaping much the same blessings to his reign as described for Solomon’s. But he was wicked to the core. Same for the southern kings as well. And on and on it goes. The whole “do good and prosper or else” thing never actually works out as its supposed to, as their forebears had promised speaking for God. That is why the OT editors had such a dilemma in exile and beyond. The old story line just hadn’t worked out. They needed a new narrative. And so, they got busy and rewrote one – enter Chronicles. Enter Malichi, Enter Zechariah, Enter Daniel2. Enter Isaiah2. And so then on top of all that lies the in-your-face laments of Eccl, Job, Ps 73, 88, 89. And a crucified Jesus harkening back to that very same lament tradition in his hour of abandonment. I like the earlier comment that the Christian life now is actually more typically one of struggle and lament interspersed with moments of blessedness perceived.

      • Peter says:

        Hill, do you happen to have a blog. I’d be interested in hearing more of your thoughts about the rewriting you say happened after exile. Thanks.

        • Hill Roberts says:

          Sorry Peter, no blog. Pete has written rater extensively on such. He can point you better than I to his own corpus and others – if so inclined. It’s pretty standard fare among OT scholars I think. You can start with Pete’s “The Bible Tells Me So”.

          Oh – and I like you point about Job’s friends’ point of view – yes, most of the OT does reflect their arguments with Job. That was Job’s dilemma – he had exactly the same theology as they did coming into the situation, but there was a problem. He KNEW what was happening to him was all out of wack with respect to his life and he couldn’t make it fit. So yes, you have in some sense answered your own inquiry. Remembering that in the end God said what they spoke (believed) was not correct. They were defending God with false arguments. Their “theology” needed rewriting.

          • Hill Roberts says:

            Peter — if you haven’t already, see Pete’s post for today (1/25) “WHAT PERMANENTLY SCREWED ME UP ABOUT THE BIBLE (BUT IT TURNED OUT WELL). There he introduces some of what I mentioned in terms of reinterpreting the OT after the exile, and gives some of his and another source that might be interesting for you. Thanks Pete.

  • Al Cruise says:

    Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians. Very true, most people have it backwards, the Christian life is one of lament interspersed with moments of Blessings. It can even be a struggle at times to recognize them.

  • Al Cruise says:

    Spiritual struggles are normal for Christians. Very true, most people have it backwards, the Christian life is one of lament interspersed with moments of Blessings. It can even be a struggle at times to recognize them.

  • toddh says:

    In this year to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I like to remember Luther’s saying, “crux probat omnia” (the cross is the test of everything). If we don’t start and end there with the New Testament, we are bound to head down the wrong paths. And I love what was said here about the precursors to this in the OT.

  • toddh says:

    In this year to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I like to remember Luther’s saying, “crux probat omnia” (the cross is the test of everything). If we don’t start and end there with the New Testament, we are bound to head down the wrong paths. And I love what was said here about the precursors to this in the OT.

  • Occasional Commenter says:

    Pete, this is very helpful, thanks. I’ve always loved Psalms 73 and 88 for reasons similar to what you describe here but the post highlights aspects of both I’ve previously failed to consider. Your perspectives here and in other posts on Job have been very helpful as well. Much of what I read on your blog helps to normalize parts of my own experience. This is invaluable to me.

    I like the observations in the post about the New Testament as well. There is much in the NT, and certainly in the ways it was often presented to me (“The Bible commands us to rejoice in the Lord always…”) to which I do not easily relate. I’d add, for what its worth, that I’ve found the sufferings of Jesus described throughout the Letter to the Hebrews, and the very idea that that Letter – which talks about suffering in ways that go far beyond simple reductions to formulas of sin and righteousness – had to be written, encouraging exceptions in that regard.

  • Occasional Commenter says:

    Pete, this is very helpful, thanks. I’ve always loved Psalms 73 and 88 for reasons similar to what you describe here but the post highlights aspects of both I’ve previously failed to consider. Your perspectives here and in other posts on Job have been very helpful as well. Much of what I read on your blog helps to normalize parts of my own experience. This is invaluable to me.

    I like the observations in the post about the New Testament as well. There is much in the NT, and certainly in the ways it was often presented to me (“The Bible commands us to rejoice in the Lord always…”) to which I do not easily relate. I’d add, for what its worth, that I’ve found the sufferings of Jesus described throughout the Letter to the Hebrews, and the very idea that that Letter – which talks about suffering in ways that go far beyond simple reductions to formulas of sin and righteousness – had to be written, encouraging exceptions in that regard.

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Thank you, Pete. I look forward to all your posts. They are encouraging.

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Thank you, Pete. I look forward to all your posts. They are encouraging.

  • Larry says:

    Pete— have you seen the video God on Trial? Jews who are facing extermination at Auschwitz weigh the case against God for abandoning his chosen people. While some passionately defend their faith, others challenge their perspective and decide to put God on trial. The concluding verdict as their death approaches offers a challenging and insightful conclusion. Highly recommended!

  • Larry says:

    Pete— have you seen the video God on Trial? Jews who are facing extermination at Auschwitz weigh the case against God for abandoning his chosen people. While some passionately defend their faith, others challenge their perspective and decide to put God on trial. The concluding verdict as their death approaches offers a challenging and insightful conclusion. Highly recommended!

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