Our View of God
What does God look like to you—really—when you find yourself in the valley of ashes? Does He appear caring and compassionate, or perhaps unresponsive or dismissive?
This article appeared in a similar form in the Winter 2003 issue of Just Thinking. See the Afterword for further details.
Many conversations and experiences from years past are long forgotten. Yet there are some that remain as vivid as they were decades ago. We may not remember all the details, but they still whisper to us in their beauty, weep to us in their sorrow ... and even startle us from our sleep.
As an aside, I completed this article late one night and awoke the next morning to the terrible news of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. Like many of you, I remember where I was when the Challenger was lost: I was watching the launch in my college writing lab with my fellow tutors. I cannot fathom the losses sustained in such tragedies and pray in some way these feeble words might point to the source of all hope.
A Faceless Figure
Although I haven’t read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby since I was in the eleventh grade, I recall a disturbing motif that Fitzgerald weaves throughout his novel. The recurring scene is an advertising billboard with the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg looming behind yellow glasses. Writes Fitzgerald,
“But above the gray land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose…. [H]is eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground. The valley of ashes....,”2
Equally disturbing is what this sign points to: under “Doctor Eckleburg’s persistent stare”3 lies a garage where tragedy soon unfolds. A faceless physician looks over “the valley of ashes,” and he is incapable of responding or being moved.
Of course, the Bible speaks of “the valley of ashes” in numerous instances. This description is associated with the Kidron Valley surrounding Jerusalem, where David fled from his rebellious son Absalom, and King Josiah, under God’s reform, ordered the burning of vessels made for pagan gods.4
George Wilson, the disturbed garage owner in The Great Gatsby, identifies Doctor Eckleburg with God. But surely this chilling picture of an impotent, faceless figure is not representative of the God of the Scriptures—or is it?
“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” cries the psalmist (Psalm 10:1). The next ten verses of this psalm of lament characterize “the wicked” who taunts the righteous and arrogantly boasts, “God will never notice; he covers his face and never sees” (verse 11). Not insignificantly, of the 150 psalms, over one third of them are expressions of lament—a theme found throughout the Bible.
Nonetheless, this psalmist will soon interject words of hope and comfort: “But you, O God, do see trouble and grief; you consider it to take it in hand. The victim commits himself to you; you are the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14).
Hearts at Bay
One of my grandmothers enjoyed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing, and we used to chat about literature often. I don’t remember many of those conversations, but I do remember one months before she died. “Emily” was her name, but everyone called her “Sunny,” and that she was—bright, spunky, and good-natured. She married and had three children, and at seventy, became the oldest graduate at her university. Yet when she was eight years old, she lost her father, whom she adored, just before Christmas. At the age of 82, she told me that when her father died, she “learned to stop wanting.”
I don’t recall how I responded—I don’t know that I quite understood. But I’ve wondered since, how does one learn to stop wanting and go on to live for so many years? Certainly, like many of her generation, she just persevered and rarely looked back. But sadly, though she was a Christian, I don’t know whether she ever sensed God’s comfort in her loss.
Perhaps many of us understand her response all too well, for in the place of such pain, we may feel abandoned by God. So, we learn to stop wanting anything from God or from others. We may whisper or rage in moments when our hearts sink into desolation: want nothing, hope in nothing, then nothing or no one can ever disappoint you.
However, is such a life truly livable? Loss and longing are inescapable in our broken world, and throughout the Scriptures, God invites us to bring our heartaches to Him that He might renew our hope. In fact, the word “hope” and related words such as “desire” appear hundreds of times in the Bible. “You (God) have granted him the desire of his heart and have not withheld the request of his lips,” we read in Psalm 21:2. “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD,” writes the prophet (Jeremiah 17:7). Likewise, the apostle Paul affirms that even in suffering, such “hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom He has given us” (Romans 5:5).
Nevertheless, hope pries one’s heart open again, doesn’t it? For to hope is to place one’s trust in someone, and for the Christian, namely in the God who seemingly deserted him or her. Thus, we keep our hearts at bay, albeit perhaps unwittingly, all the while believing we are resting in God’s providence or “the Lord’s will.” Or maybe we’re not resting at all, but instead angry and running from God’s presence.
Your Real View of God
Colleague Os Guinness rightly suggests that only through such crisis experience is our true picture of God revealed. In his timeless book Doubt, he writes,
“Think back to some crisis…. What did your attitudes then show you of your real view of God? Or think back over some deep personal concern and the way it was brought to prayer. In situations like these we see our real views of God. What faith is asking always reveals what it is assuming.”5
Guinness describes the struggling person in a chapter aptly titled “Faith Out of Focus”:
“For some reason or other a believer gets into his head such a wrong idea of God that it comes between him and God or between him and trusting God. Since he does not recognize what he is doing, he blames God rather than his faulty picture, little realizing that God is not like that at all. Unable to see God as he is, he cannot trust him as he should, and doubt is the result.”6
Then he concludes, “If our picture of God is wrong, then our whole presupposition of what it is possible for God to be or do is correspondingly altered.”7
So may I gently ask, when you dig below your doctrine, what does God look like to you—really—when you find yourself in the valley of ashes? Does He appear caring and compassionate, or perhaps unresponsive or dismissive? Does He match the portrait of God revealed in Scriptures—Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6)—or perhaps someone else?
What does God look like to you—really—when you find yourself in the valley of ashes?
This past year I found myself, as it were, staring again into the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, and discovering, to my bewilderment, that this disturbing caricature symbolized my picture of God. In truth, I had seen these distant, emotionless eyes in a telling dream only a year before. I even wrote upon waking that while they seemed to represent God, “This is difficult to believe because I don’t think I see God in this way”—and most days I can wholeheartedly say that I don’t. However, one evening I perceived that God had closed a door, and He had nothing more to say to me about a certain matter. Suddenly, dread fell upon me. I sat stricken inside my car for three hours, as darkness descended, numbed by seeming abandonment. It was as if God walked out the door while I was still speaking with Him, dismissing my pain and me.
I was raised in a conservative, “Bible-believing” church and was graduated from a leading evangelical seminary where I took most of my courses in biblical studies and theology. The arguments for God’s existence and the problem of evil didn’t trouble me in the light of the evidence of Scriptures and other conflicting worldviews. But there were a few times when I questioned God’s goodness. I see now—and this is critical—that in every instance it was because I perceived Him to be unresponsive, and thus unmoved. It wasn’t that I thought He was incapable of responding, but worse: He was able and yet indifferent to my heartache.
Studying God’s Word didn’t lead me to this conclusion; rather, my experience of loss did, and over time this “doctrine” shaped my picture of God. The night I sat stricken inside my car, though I could cite verses that countered my predicament, in my heart it certainly seemed God was unmoved by my pain.
Ravi Zacharias has often said that when we listen to questions about God, we must consider that there may be a deeper existential concern behind the intellectual queries—because behind every question is a questioner. In other words, might a pointed question about evil mask heartache and the real difficulty: Why did God allow this loss in my life?
God Has a Face
It is not my intent, nor do I believe it is easily possible, to outline step by step how one’s view of God is transformed, and subsequently, one’s hope in Him. But surely, we must begin with his revealed Word. For in reality, unlike the faceless, emotionless Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, the triune God of the Bible has a face—and He seeks after us. Consider Jacob. God descended in the middle of night in the form of a man to wrestle with him and bless him. “So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel (meaning “the face of God”), saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered’” (Genesis 32:30).
God also revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, announcing, “I AM WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). By this namesake, He identified Himself as the unchanging, faithful and living God, both now and forevermore. God said to Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” reminding Moses of his covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Exodus 3:6). Incredibly, God intimately associates his name with mere mortals—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—calling attention to the truth that He desires a relationship with his people.
We see this portrait of a relational, desiring God throughout the Old Testament, whether in his words through the psalmists’ yearning, Isaiah’s wooing, or Hosea’s heartache: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). “I AM WHO I AM” is the God of the past, present, and future, who has come near to identify with his people and to call them by name.
The Scriptures declare that this God who comes near is, in truth, the God who “made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:6). He is Jesus, who, “upon seeing the people, he felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36). This Jesus, who when he “saw the city [of Jerusalem] … wept over it” (Luke 19:41). This Jesus who came “to bind up the brokenhearted … to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion, to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:1-3; cf. Luke 4:18-19). This Jesus who asked his father “to give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever”—the Holy Spirit, our comforter (John 14:16).
Although painful, there is a bittersweet beauty in brokenness, for in this valley of ashes stands Jesus, the crucified one, wounded for our transgressions. He not only walked through this valley but also crossed over it for us, triumphing over suffering, sin, and death. And in actual fact, John 18:1 says, “When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley”—yes, the valley of ashes. Where was he going? He was on his way to Gethsemane and finally, Golgotha.
Only a suffering God with a face can see our hearts and respond to us in our pain and anger. Sadly, if we envision God as emotionless and impersonal, we cut ourselves off from who He truly is and from his touch for which we desperately long. Might we look into his Word, dig under our doctrine, see what has shaped our picture of God, and invite Him to transform our view of Him, and ultimately our hope in Him.
Bible scholar Ajith Fernando encourages us likewise:
“But this I know: God does comfort. We must go to him in our desperation and cling to him. As we linger in his presence, we become like a frightened child with his head on the lap of his mother. In this position the Lord strokes our head, like the mother does, until our fear and anger subside. A ray of light creeps through the dark clouds. We reason, “God has acted on my behalf.”8
An Afterword: Rereading this article from so many years ago, I see a younger woman trying to resolve painful questions from trauma, a heartache with no easy solutions. Noticeably absent in my original article were three important pieces: the mention of community, wise counsel, and the promised work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a child of God. (I have since added a line about the Holy Spirit toward the end.) All these pieces came together over the years, and I can attest to the wondrous work of God in my life. When I was unaware and at loss for hope, the Wonderful Counselor was steadily and quietly mending and healing deep wounds. I pray this testimony offers you hope today wherever you may be in your journey with God. He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it (Philippians 1:6).
Danielle DuRant is Director of Research and Writing at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. This article was published in the 28.3 edition of Just Thinking magazine. To view the magazine in its entirety, click here.
1 Quoted in I, Fellini by Charlotte Chandler and Federico Fellini (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001), 146.
2 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995), 27-28, italics mine.
3 Ibid., 27.
4 2 Samuel 15:23 and 2 Kings 23:6. See also Jeremiah 31:38-40.
5 Os Guinness, Doubt (Tring, England: Lion Paperback, 1976), 70, italics mine. This book has been reprinted as God in the Dark: The Assurance of Faith Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1996). See also The Cry of the Soul: How Our Emotions Reveal Our Deepest Questions About God by Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1994). The authors, both biblical scholars, examine the emotions of God we find in the Bible—such as anger and jealousy—and show how our experience of these difficult emotions can be paralyzing or God-affirming.
7Ibid., 69, italics mine.
8 Ajith Fernando, Jesus Driven Ministry (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 112.
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