When Gideon, that famous leader of Israel who constantly wondered whether he was correctly hearing God’s voice, first encountered the angel of the LORD, he was confused. The angel announced his presence with the words, “The LORD is with you, mighty warrior.” But as Gideon looked around he couldn’t see the evidence of it. “Pardon me, my Lord… but if the LORD is with us, why has all this happened to us?” (Judges 6:13) He couldn’t see how God’s presence could be squared with his people’s suffering. To be God’s people, we must be a favoured community, and favoured communities are successful and trouble-free.
Gideon was struggling with a common set of questions, usually posed while staring a hard situation in the face. He couldn’t make sense of the angel’s words because he’d become accustomed to seeing bad times as a sign of God’s absence. In fact, the opposite was true.
The LORD had recently sent a prophet to the Israelites, to point out to them their failure to hold onto their devotion to him. They’d recently been swayed by the culture surrounding them and had begun to worship the gods of the Amorites, their neighbours. This was in fact the key to their suffering. God had moved in close in order to shake them out of their complacency. The suffering was more a pointer to God’s presence and concern than his absence or neglect.
To be God’s child (as Israel was—see, e.g, Hosea 11:1) is to be held in such high regard that God doesn’t let our inattention or even self-destructive behaviour go unnoticed or unchecked. Like a parent holding back a toddler’s hand while reaching for the stove, God’s motives are primarily loving rather than punitive. And if that means that sometimes a wayward child of God lives with a nagging and miserable sense of inner turmoil, that very turmoil might be more a sign of the reality of their relationship with God than would a life of untroubled ease in the world pursuing its kind of success.
The community of God today, the church of Jesus Christ, experiences stresses from time to time. The pandemic years have thrown us into many aspects of this. But are we sure God has left us? Or might our struggles—even with decreasing attendance, whole sections of our congregations that seem to have gone missing, reduced volunteer forces, and so on—indicate God’s ongoing commitment to build from this group of straggling worshippers a genuinely committed, Christ-following people for his name?
It’s always a mistake to base firm conclusions about God’s intentions based on the circumstances we observe. It is just as mistaken, however, to say that our present ups and downs are proof of God’s absence.
When the angel responded to Gideon’s puzzled complaint, he didn’t try to answer Gideon’s question at all. Instead, assuring him of God’s presence in that moment, he sent him on into the future. Knowing God is with us, and being aware of our own tendency to wander, our best course of action is to cling to the reassuring voice of God now and to follow him wherever he is leading.