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Several months ago my ten-year-old son got his hands caught in a mechanical device that instantly severed three of his fingers. Harsh memories still sting from that gruesome day. The appearance of blood-strewn hands, the unbearable pain that couldn’t find relief, the exhaustion of hospital delays and emotional shock. A long, quiet ambulance ride rushed us to an awaiting medical team at a second, more specialized hospital. We prayed with the surgical staff before the operation and walked into the dark, empty, waiting room to pray. My husband and I thought of the permanent loss – instruments, sports, disfigurement. We wept silently, bodies collapsed onto one another, and prayed for over three and half hours for a reattachment miracle which never came. Four joints gone, across three fingers, involving both hands.

Where Was God?

Over the course of this storyline, I experienced God’s presence as a distant concept as well as an intimate, tangible experience. While I was sitting in the ambulance still stunned from the events, my emotions shouted louder than my theology. I gazed at my little boy – his fingers packed on ice within a cooler beneath his head. Why did God allow my child to suffer like this? I thought of the accident, the future pain and struggle to come, and the many people I knew who were suffocating within the confines of worse trials. My heart-wrenching emotions throbbed loudly against the wisdom of my faith. With my last bit of spiritual energy, I eeked out one feeble prayer in the hours-long journey to the hospital,

I don’t need to know how this story ends, but could I just feel your presence tangibly? That’s all I need right now…please?”

Although I’d experienced Christ’s nearness countless times in my Christian life, His ‘felt’ presence never showed up during that ambulance ride or in the two days that followed. Instead, I received several texts, many of them scripture, and read them out loud to my son who lay quietly on the stretcher. I’d felt alone, emptied, left. Here was an all-present God, watching my distress, and deciding not to answer me in the way that I’d wanted. 

Fast forward two days later and the feelings of abandonment dissolved. God’s tangible presence flooded my heart more powerfully than I’d known before, and all kinds of circumstances were transformed around us. I feared that my son’s faith would be crushed, but instead it seemed to flourish.

Devotions spoke precisely to daily needs. We were discharged home with copious amounts of pain medication that my son never asked for once. A fellow finger amputee described the importance of therapy on the exact day that my son had refused to continue it. In fact, two weeks after the accident a physician involved in my son’s care called on behalf of the medical team to ask the reason behind our family’s impressive response to such trauma. Jesus shone through us when we were at our weakest and didn’t even know He was shining out to be seen. While the stories of God’s transforming presence could continue, one thing is certain – my son’s hands were always held within the Son’s hands.  

The Presence of God

God was present at every stage of my son’s journey. While God permitted the accident, His presence also protected it from being a worse one. His presence was seen moving through the community of people who were positioned to help us along the way. There was the firefighter who ran over to apply pressure to open wounds at the start, the man who encouraged my son to do therapy near the end, and the vast amount of people whose prayers carried us to Jesus throughout the entire saga. His presence was seen through the miraculous acceleration of my son’s healing and pain, and shone through our family in ways that both believers and unbelievers were able to clearly see.   

What To Do When God Seems Absent

How do we respond in those seasons of life when we call out to God in our distress and the silence is deafening? It is here in the dark that we must lean into godly community (Hebrews 10:24-25). The practical support and prayers of our family and friends lifted our exhausted bodies off the floor and thrust us into the throne room of heaven itself. We must lean into scripture. While I didn’t receive the ‘felt’ presence of God immediately in the way that I’d requested, I did receive God’s presence through scripture because when we interact with scripture we interact with Christ Himself who is the Word (John 1:1).

We must lean into gratitude (1 Thessalonians 5:18). When the gauze was removed from my son’s hands one week later, the nurse looked shocked when we audibly shouted with joy upon seeing his largest amputation. We celebrated the portion of his finger that remained instead of mourning the two thirds that were gone. When we look with gratitude for where God’s presence is moving, what we’ll discover is that He’s been moving everywhere.

In the dark seasons where God is quiet, we needn’t doubt His presence. Not only is He there, but He is longing to take our broken pieces and replace them with His glory. There will always be those seasons of life when we long for God’s presence to show up in specific ways, and change our circumstances in ways that we can see. Yet it is often in those God-seems-absent times that He is changing us in ways that we can’t see.

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:7-12).