Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
We find in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair that a thin line lies between fleeing and finding God. The subtext of the main character’s plea, “O, God, leave me alone” could well be, “O, God, reveal Yourself to me.”
Some complain that when Maurice Bendrix makes his “Oh, God, leave me alone” prayer at the close of The End of the Affair, Graham Greene (1904-1991) leaves the protagonist’s relationship with God too open-ended.
I disagree and suggest that one is never closer to finding God than when crying out, “God, leave me alone.”
Graham Greene called himself a Catholic agnostic. Even after his conversion, he found it difficult to reconcile logic and the mystery of the Church. He wrote in his autobiography: “If I were ever to be convinced in even the remote possibility of a supreme, omnipotent and omniscient power, I realized that nothing afterwards could seem impossible.” Greene’s ambivalence over the existence of God surfaces as a major theme in The End of the Affair.
A thin line lies between loving and hating God; denying and believing in God; fleeing and finding God. Professing a belief in God often follows on the heels of protesting against God. Actually, the subtext of “O, God, leave me alone” could well be, “O, God, reveal Yourself to me.”
Bendrix’s whole prayer reads,
O God, You’ve done enough, You’ve robbed me of enough, I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone for ever.
Even Bendrix’s hatred reveals that despite all his efforts he can’t escape the reality of God. After Sarah’s death, he imagines telling her, “All right, have it your way. I believe you live and that He exists, but it will take more than your prayers to turn this hatred of Him into love.” God won’t leave him alone. He has him right where He wants him.
Billy Bob Thornton’s character in The Apostle portrays a heartwarming example of this principle. Billy Bob inexplicably shows up at a church determined to bulldoze it to the ground. The scene ends with him kneeling and weeping as Robert Duvall (The Apostle) prays with him. Click here to watch the sequence.
As Maurice Bendrix struggles with unbelief, he directs his thoughts toward Sarah, his deceased lover, and an ardent believer. Maurice’s bitterness toward her conversion continues after her death and becomes stronger as he wrestles against the existence of God.
If you are a saint, it’s not so difficult to be a saint. It’s something He can demand of any of us, leap. But I won’t leap. I sat on my bed and said to God: You’ve taken her, but You haven’t got me yet… I don’t want Your peace and I don’t want Your love… I hate You, God, I hate You as though You existed.
But Bendrix was gotten. Earlier he said, “I’m a man of hate. But I didn’t feel much hatred… my own words were overcharged. I could detect their insincerity. What I chiefly felt was less hate than fear. For if this God exists…”
The tortured life of Francis Thompson (1859-1907) in some respects resembles that of Maurice Bendrix. Although a devout Roman Catholic, even entering the priesthood at one point, he drifted and fell away. He fell into poverty. He fell into drug addiction. In every aspect of his life, Thompson ran from the God he once knew intimately. He wrote his most notable poem describing the experience. The Hound of Heaven follows a person running from God, endeavoring to escape a loving God in order to maintain the pleasures of a decadent lifestyle.
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
But at last, the pursuing God, at a time of His choosing, overtakes the fleeing one.
That Voice is round me like a bursting sea…
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms…
Rise, clasp My hand, and come…
Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
No one showed more hatred for Christ and His followers than Saul of Tarsus, later Paul, the Apostle. The Book of Acts records in Acts 9:1, 2:
Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.
But as Saul zealously pursues his diabolical mission fueled by hatred for Jesus, he comes face to face with the One from whom he fled (Acts 9:3-6 NIV).
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
We may observe that at the point Saul’s hatred and opposition to Christ and the people of The Way was strongest, his conversion was close at hand. When he appeared further from the Kingdom of God than ever, he was closer than he could imagine. That’s the way God works. He turns our hatred to love; our cry, “Oh, God, let me alone,” to a call for help. We find this principle playing out in the story of William Belibaste (see blog, William Belibaste: the Great Pretender.)
When God sends the prophet Jonah on a mission to Nineveh, “Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:3).
You’re familiar with what happens next. The crew hurled Jonah into the sea while a storm threatened to capsize the vessel in the middle of the Mediterranean. At the bottom of the sea, swallowed by “a great fish” (Jonah 1:17), seemingly as far from God as his flight could take him, he was nearer than ever to God and a breath away from a profound turnaround.
“When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord” (Jonah 2:7 ESV). He prayed, the Lord heard, and the fish deposited Jonah on dry land. Now, when the Lord commanded “Arise, go to Nineveh… Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh” (Jonah 3:2, 3).
David, the sweet singer of Israel, lived a life of hills and valleys. His affair with Bathsheba amounted to a flight from God in which he chose fleshly pleasures over the presence of his Maker. But he could not escape. The Bathsheba event could not separate him from a God who refused to leave him alone. He later writes of the experience in Psalm 139:7-12.
Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.
If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;
Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.
We learn the futility of resisting God’s advances at critical junctures in our lives. Archbishop Richard Chenevix Trench pictures the outcome of our flights from God.
If there had anywhere appeared in space
Another place of refuge where to flee.
My soul had found a refuge in that place
And not in Thee.
But only when I found in earth and air
And heaven and hell that such could nowhere be.
That I could not flee from Thee anywhere
I fled to Thee.
Line 219 of Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, reads: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Hamlet’s mother speaks these words as she observes a woman who tried too hard to get a point across. Her protest came across as doubtful.
Such was the case of a young man, an intellectual who took pride in reciting all the arguments against the existence of God. Ironically, out of love and respect for his widowed mother, he took her to worship every Sunday and sat with her, obviously bored to tears during the service.
At one of my visits, the conversation, as before, gravitated to faith vs. reason, belief vs. tangible evidence. Only on this occasion the man became embarrassingly vociferous and launched into a tirade culminating with, “I will not believe in what my eyes cannot see!” I left, vowing to not pursue the subject again.
The following Sunday, the young man showed up with his mother. He appeared more uncomfortable than usual, but he sat quietly through the service. I gave opportunity for new converts to express their faith in Christ during the closing hymn. Before we finished the first stanza, the young man almost ran down the aisle to profess a newfound belief in Christ and a desire to serve Him.
I could find no dry eyes in the sanctuary that morning. I’ve often thought of his protest, “I will not believe,” and wonder if perhaps at the same time his heart was crying, “I want to believe.” He doth protest too much.
If you, like Maurice Bendrix, are pleading, “Oh, God, leave me alone,” you may be closer to the Kingdom of God than ever before. After all, you would hardly protest against one you believe doesn’t exist. One can hardly hate a God that one cannot also love.
Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.
–Augustine of Hippo, Confessions