Shame Is The Great Presence-Killer

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Why have I heard from God?

Why have I not heard from God?

***

I was eight. Each night I got out a book of children’s prayers and tried to connect to God after my parents turned out the lights at bedtime. My family was falling apart that year in spectacular ways—in a few months, both of my siblings would be basically living in a group home for abandoned kids. 

For a few months or weeks or days I pulled out the book, found the Lord’s Prayer, and asked for God’s help.

I didn’t hear diddly squat. I didn’t receive any assurance, any peace, any sense that prayer worked. Eventually, I quit praying at night, chose Ramona instead. At least novels didn’t break my heart.

***

I was depressed and 21. One night while all my roommates were asleep, I sat on a second-hand couch and decided I was done with Christianity. I took stock of the years I’d spent as a Christian since praying the sinner’s prayer at 13. Had it all been an elaborate self-deception? It would be more honest, I thought, to stop using faith as a way to run from my problems.

Just as I had decided this, this thought popped up: I won’t ever leave you, no matter what you do

It wasn’t my voice—it was completely unlike the razor-wire loops of my toxic interior monologue. This was a voice of generosity, of patience, of such deep love and acceptance it could not have been me. 

You don’t have to do anything, anything, the voice promised. I knew what it meant. I did not have to believe things that hurt me. I did not have to read my Bible if I didn’t want to. I did not have to go to church. I did not have to evangelize. If something gave me spiritual hives, I could stop it. 

I won’t leave you, it promised again. 

The idea that God—the voice—would stay with me even if I did not cut myself to fit in a box was incredible and unexpected. It was such a generous offer that my idea to stop being a Christian sounded as silly as turning down free ice cream on a sweltering day. There was no contest.

***

Two dark nights. One absence, one presence. 

I would like to say I have only good feelings about the day I felt God’s presence in my heart, in truth, the gift leaves me feeling guilty. I have questions. I have so many questions.

It is an incredible blessing to me that I have felt God’s presence so palpably. It is a precious thing. Still I wonder—why me? A friend of mine, who considered Christianity seriously in high school but found that atheism made more sense for him, told me he had never once felt the presence of God in his life, even when he was most serious about faith. Why have I? 

I do not understand the presence and absence of God. I do not know why it is given generously and stingily, why temperament or culture or life experience keeps some of us from an encounter of the divine. 

I am so angry that Christians sell a story that we have to work harder or be fully Bible-optimized to hear from Jesus. My 20-year-old self was the least “Christian” she’d been in years when God showed up to break through her despair. I avoided my Bible, skipped church, and was ready to scrap faith altogether. I was not qualified to hear from God. My qualifications were beside the point.

It was a gift. I know, so viscerally, that it was generously given to a beloved child. The voice that came to me was so available, so generous.

The only problem is I don’t know why all of us do not encounter that voice more often.

So no, we do not use perfect faith-attendance to prime the pump of God-visions. Yet as awful as I think that teaching is, it does, like all lies, have a grain of truth in it—one that I think we have to reckon with to understand God’s absence.

Our habits of mind, culture, temperament, gifts, theology, understanding, and particular strain of brokenness can hinder our receptivity to God’s voice.

My own self-loathing has dimmed my ability to hear God. My try-harder perfectionism and alienation from my own emotions wouldn’t have helped. Others who might expect God’s voice to sound like Morgan Freeman’s can feel alienated from the still small voice in their heart. Comparing your experience of God’s presence with others’ can deafen and numb us. We won’t all hear God the same.

It’s not that we have to try harder to make space for God. It’s not that we have to deserve it. It’s not that we are at fault if we feel God’s absence. It’s that we live in a broken world and healing is a long-haul journey.

I believe God is present with every single human person. And as angry and bewildered as it makes me feel to say it, we will not all feel that presence, and a lot of times, that is not our fault. Yes, “sin” is involved, but not as a demerit system of points taken away when we chew gum in class. No, sin is a stain that can spread through communities like dye in a water glass. We do not personally deserve all the darkness we inherit.

Shame is the great presence-killer. Shame tells us that we are doing it wrong, that we are unworthy, that we do not know enough, that our bodies are enemies, that our thoughts are traitors. Shame sows despair. Shame alienates us from ourselves and thus from God. Each one of us  deserve to know God’s presence. We need it, so much is bearable when the Divine floods our hearts with love.

I do not understand why the presence of God is so hard for many of us to come by. I feel angry knowing many people do not feel it at all. This is not a good system, I tell Jesus. 

I have not yet gotten a reply.

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Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri is a writer and artist from San Diego who is happily content with being an awkward Christian. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, "Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri
Heather Caliri

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