Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Is God Asleep?

Arriving back to the wilderness, I am learning to read creation as reverently as I read the Word. In the frigid cold of this early spring morning, everything seems still up here. Even lifeless. I step out of my cabin into the early morning gray, and all of nature seems to be in its last stretch of sleep. The birdhouses are vacant. Dormancy is all around. I look up upward and sometimes wonder if this reflects God. Is he also asleep, or is he on the move? And if so, where?

It’s not as if I am losing my faith. In some ways, it is stronger than ever. Nonetheless, there are moments I ask myself—“Why isn’t God more active in this increasingly dysfunctional world?” I watch the horrific events play out in Ukraine while praying the prayer of a Ukrainian pastor’s wife each day. I come to her words, “Our Father-God—the worst is yet to come, Lord, if you do not stop it,” and I wonder why he doesn’t.

In our own nation, the effects of a pandemic that refuses to end and the pain of rising inflation, one that is causing the poor to become poorer, are taking their own toll. What if there is another mutation? Are we about to enter stagflation, where inflation combines with a stagnant economy? Will our savings get us through? Will my kids have a future?

It doesn’t help to turn to The Atlantic yesterday and read Molly Jong-Fast’s article, “These Dreadful Days.”

In the religious world I live in, more and more institutions committed to training future pastoral leaders are in decline, eliminating faculty positions to head off a financial crisis. This was the headline in Wednesday’s Christianity Today. In the church I attend, I can’t but wonder if the church will recover from the polarization and the pandemic. Will people come back to church? Will evangelicalism regain respect in a nation that mocks it?

In my own quiet, I can’t help but wonder if my daily prayers are making any difference. So many things I pray for seem to remain in the same static condition—if not worse. Perhaps as I am entering what Ford calls “that border time between afternoon and evening,” a liminal, in-between time, I am more anxious to see the greater acts of God while I still have a residence in this life. In my restlessness, I sometimes wonder if God is on hiatus. Has he decided to take a break from it all? Take a Sabbatical?

In the seventy-eighth Psalm, the writer recounts turbulent Israel in its adolescent years. It too was in a dark space experiencing a sense of absence. The Psalm is meant to, as Kidner put it, “search the conscience.” Despite the grace of God, and the sharing of his generous gifts, Israel turned away to its own self-interests. As the writer recounts, this brought its own dreadful days. But God, ever mindful of his creation, “awoke as if from sleep” (v 65) and gave Israel a second chance. He still does.

Is this to suggest that God slumbers? Has he fallen into another deep sleep? If so, when will he (will he?) awake?

As it always does, the Word of God recenters me. One of my spiritual guides in these days is the theologian Donald Bloesch, who writes, “The living God is not static being but act in being.” In other words, God is ever on the move. The writer of the Ascent Psalms makes the same point: “He who watches over you will not slumber” (121:3). The One who set the world in motion is ever in motion, underscoring that God is not some pure essence—unmoved and unmoving. His love will not allow it. It may seem like he has stopped to ponder his next step, but every possibility that will be realized in the world is already realized in his mind. God is never unaware or surprised. He knows the end as clearly as he knows the beginning. He does not need to catch his breath; God is the essence of energy and power.

There is a stillness to God, but Augustine best captures the tension: “He is simultaneously ever at rest and ever at work.” It may seem he is absent, but God is more present than we are to ourselves. It may seem he is stagnant—but he is action in being.  It can sometimes feel like God is towering above this temporal and material world in some lofty detachment, but the truth is he is engaged with his creation 24/7 bringing it toward its divinely appointed goal.

My limited perception misses the fact he constantly intercedes and intervenes. He is, as Bloesch puts it, “constantly active in shaping both nature and history according to his purposes.” This explains why, when confronted with healing on the Sabbath, Jesus responded, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working” (John 5:17). Like yeast doing its invisible work of expanding the loaf, or like a seed germinating underground, God’s kingdom is at ever at full press, even if we can’t always see its effects (Matthew 13).

In this, I find great hope. Even here on this cold and seemingly still morning, I am sure I would be astounded to know just how much activity is going on. Behind it all is a perfectly wise and good and all-powerful God who is more than a static “being there.” He is actively present to every creature in every moment (Psa 139:3). The far bigger concern is whether I am awake to God and actively present to him.

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