June 6, 1993

THE GOD WHO HIDES

“Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.” Isaiah 45:15

If God exists, and if he wants everybody to believe in him, why does he hide himself?  Why doesn’t he just show himself or do something so spectacular that it leaves no room for doubt?

That’s a question many of us ask, and it’s a question the late philosopher Norwood Russell Hanson once asked.  Hanson taught at Yale a few decades ago, and he was an atheist.  He didn’t believe in God, but he said he’d be willing to change his mind under certain conditions.  Hanson wrote:

Suppose … that on next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear-shattering thunderclap.  Snow swirls;  leaves drop from trees;  the earth heaves and buckles;  buildings topple and towers tumble;  the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light.  Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open–the clouds pull apart–revealing an unbelievably immense and radiant Zeus-like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests.  He frowns darkly as lightning plays across the features of his Michelangeloid face.  He then points down–at me–and exclaims for every man, woman, and child to hear, “I have had quite enough of your too-clever logic-chopping and word-watching in matters of theology.  Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I do most certainly exist.”

Hanson went on to say,

Please do not dismiss this example as a playful, irreverent Disney-oid contrivance.  The point here is that if such a remarkable event were to transpire, I for one should certainly be convinced that God does exist.

Doesn’t this man have a point?  God could certainly make it a lot easier for everyone to believe in him, couldn’t he?  Sometimes it seems that God keeps himself so well concealed that it’s hard even to believe he exists.  Why doesn’t God just silence the scoffers by making a public appearance?

The prophet Isaiah longed for the Lord to do just that.  In Isaiah 64:1-2, he prays,  “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!  …Come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you.”  The Lord’s been keeping a low profile.  It’s hard for his people to trust him and easy for his enemies to ignore him.  Isaiah wants God to come out of hiding and unleash his power for all to see.  It sounds like he wants the Lord to do the sort of thing that N. R. Hanson suggested.

You see, the hiddenness of God isn’t a problem just for atheists.  Sometimes, even when you’re convinced that God exists, he still doesn’t feel very near, and his ways don’t seem very clear.  You go through spiritual dry spells.  You believe in God, but you don’t really sense his presence, and your heart feels empty and dry.  That’s how David felt when he wrote in Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When can I go and meet with God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?'”  It’s hard when you’re panting for God, and he’s nowhere to be found.  Even if God doesn’t appear publicly for all to see, can’t he at least show himself to you personally and refresh you with his presence?

The problem becomes even more intense when you’re feeling crushed by hardships and pain, and God remains hidden.  You call on the Lord, you pray to him with all your might, but nothing happens.  The cancer keeps advancing, or the marriage keeps crumbling, or society keeps going downhill.  You keep praying, but God keeps hiding, and the only answer you get is silence.  As the writer of Psalm 88 put it, “I cry to you for help, O Lord;  in the morning my prayer comes before you.  Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (v. 13-14).

Good question!  Why does God hide, just when it seems we need him the most?  Why doesn’t an atheist get a revelation of God that he simply can’t deny?  Why doesn’t a Christian going through a spiritual dry spell always get a wonderful supernatural experience to refresh her spirits?  Why is it that people in trouble can pray and pray, but God gives them no miracle and no explanation?  Why is it so hard to see God at work in the events around us?  In Isaiah 45:15 the prophet says, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel.”  Why is that?  What possible reasons could God have for hiding himself?

We’re thinking about the God who is everywhere present and yet often seems completely absent, who sometimes raises more questions than he answers.  We can’t see him, and often we can’t feel him or understand his ways.  I’m sure that most of us, at one time or another, could echo the words of Isaiah:  “Surely, you are a God who hides himself.”

God’s hiddenness may tempt you to deny his very existence.  You might think that if God exists, he should show his face and remove all possibility of doubt.  That’s what you’d do if you were God!  But before you demand that too loudly, you need to know what you’re asking for.

According to the Bible, the day is coming when the Lord won’t hide any longer.  He’s going to do exactly what N. R. Hanson and other unbelievers say he ought to do if he’s really God.  He’s going to crack open the skies, he’s going to shake the earth, and he’s going to make a public, earth-shattering appearance that will leave no room for any doubt.  However, the moment he does that, it will be too late for those who don’t already belong to him.  Listen to this vision from Revelation 6:

There was a great earthquake…  The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.

Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains.  They called to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!  For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (v.12,14-17)

These people would rather be buried in a landslide than stand in God’s awful presence.  His face is an unbearable terror to them.

So if you say you won’t believe in God unless he shows himself openly and convincingly, watch out!  If God met your demand, you wouldn’t just calmly change your mind and say, “Well, now I’ve got my proof.  I guess God exists after all.”  No, you’d instantly be terrorized and repelled by the awful splendor of God, and you’d be lost forever.

The Bible says that God hides himself and delays the public return of Christ because “he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).  When God hides himself, he may leave room for doubt, but he also leaves room for repentance.  When he stops hiding, there will no longer be room for either.  God’s face will have an eternal and overwhelming attraction for those who have learned to love him in his hiddenness, but for the rest, his face will have the opposite effect.  The irresistible force of his holiness will repel them and send them hurtling into oblivion and hell.

So don’t be too quick to demand the kind of encounter with God that will occur only at the Second Coming.  First, make sure you’ve accepted the Lord in his first coming. In Jesus God came as a humble man rather than in divine glory.  He had to hide himself in order to reveal himself in a form that would save us rather than destroy us.  God’s hiddenness may sometimes be a source of frustration, but don’t forget:  it’s also the source of salvation.  At one level, then, we can say that God hides himself because he is patient and merciful with sinners, and he’s giving them more time to repent and prepare to meet him face to face.

Still, you might wonder, even if God hides his face in order to spare us, couldn’t he make his presence a little more obvious?  He wouldn’t have to show himself directly;  he could just do something supernatural once in a while, to prove he’s alive and well.  Someone might point out that God has done some amazing miracles.  He parted the Red Sea for Moses; he toppled the walls of Jericho for Joshua; he sent fire from heaven at Elijah’s request.  But even if we believe these amazing stories, they don’t really solve our problem.  We haven’t seen the sea parted lately.  We haven’t seen God send fire from heaven to prove unbelievers wrong.

Jesus himself performed many miracles during his time on earth, but today, miracles seem few and far between.  Oh, there may be an occasional reduction of arthritis pain, or an unexpected recovery from cancer, or an amazing coincidence once in a while–but a miracle like Jesus performed?  When’s the last time you saw someone blind from birth given his sight, or 5,000 people fed out of one lunch box, or a man walking on water, or a dead person raised to life again?  Granted that God has to hide his face in order to spare us, why doesn’t he at least reveal himself through miraculous actions the way he did in Bible times?

That’s a tough question, and I don’t have an easy answer.  I suppose that in some ways the answer is as hidden as God himself.  However, here are a few things to keep in mind.  One is that God is the Creator and sustainer of everything that exists.  He’s constantly at work, even when he’s not doing what I might label “miracles.”  The ordinary workings of creation are God’s work just as much as the extraordinary working of miracles.  Without the eyes of faith, we may think that God’s doing nothing, when in fact he’s upholding everything.

Another fact to remember is that God is free.  He can do miracles whenever he pleases, and he can refrain from doing miracles whenever he pleases.  He can say “yes” to our prayers for a miracle, and he can say “no.”  He’s God.  We’re not.  He’s free to do as he pleases.

What’s more, the Bible shows us that miracles don’t have a very good track record in changing people’s hearts.  If you don’t love God already, you’re not going to start just because he gives a supernatural demonstration.  When God sent the ten plagues on Egypt, Pharoah simply became more stubborn with everyone.  When God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, they grumbled more than ever.  When Elijah called down fire from heaven to demonstrate God’s power, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel tried all the harder to kill him.  And when Jesus did his miracles, his opponents either tried to explain them away or else credited them to the power of Satan.

Jesus’ supreme achievement didn’t occur in any of his miracles but in his death.  His miracles didn’t remove sin;  it’s in his death that Jesus takes away the sin of the world.  The ultimate revelation of God’s glory didn’t occur in impressive miracles but in the disgrace of the cross.  Nowhere was God more hidden in deeper darkness, and nowhere was he more clearly revealed than at the cross.  So if we look for God only in miracles, we may never find him at all, but if we look for him at the cross of Christ, we’ll find him every time.

We have our own ideas of what we would do if we were God, but the fact is that we’re not.  If we were God, we’d use our power every chance we got.  We’d show off a little.  But the Lord often prefers weakness to power.  If we had God’s infinite wisdom, we’d take every chance we got to show how smart we are.  But the Lord takes special delight in doing things that seem odd and foolish.  If we were in charge of the world, we’d grind our enemies into the dirt and give our friends every miracle they ever wanted.  But the Lord is often kind to his enemies and puts his friends through difficult trials.

If we had been in Jesus’ shoes–a ridiculous thought, since we’re so unlike Christ–but if we had been in Jesus’ shoes, we’d have taken every opportunity to prove who we were.  But Jesus often preferred to hide himself.  Even though he did miracles, he often instructed those he helped to tell no one.  And he always refused to do miracles on demand when his opponents told him to give them a supernatural sign.  Even when he was being tortured, Jesus refused to use his divine power.  Some scoffers called for him to come down from the cross if he were really their Messiah and king, but Jesus took the abuse and kept hanging there.  That’s not what we’d have done if we had the power to rescue ourselves.

And even after his resurrection, the Lord appeared only to certain select witnesses before he returned to heaven.  Everybody watched Jesus die, but how many saw him after his resurrection?  In Jesus’ place, we’d have made a grand appearance to the entire city of Jerusalem and said, “I told you so!”  But the God who reveals himself in Jesus is a God who hides himself.  He refused to show himself to the crowds.  Instead, he appeared to those who loved him and then returned to heaven.  Everybody else would simply have to take their word for it that he was alive.

In all of this, God shows again that he’s God and we’re not.  As the Lord says in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.  “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (v. 6-7)

The Lord doesn’t consult us when he’s deciding what to do.  He does things his way, in his time, for his purposes.  As the apostle Paul puts it, religious people demand miracles, and educated people want wisdom, but the gospel message is Christ crucified.  That’s offensive to miracle-lovers and crazy to intellectuals, but to those who are being saved, Christ crucified is God’s power and wisdom (1 Cor. 1:18-25).  If you want to find the God who hides, you need to know where he’s hiding.  He’s not hiding in a logical proof or a sensational miracle.  His favorite hiding place is in the message of the cross, and that’s where you’ll find him.

As we saw earlier, God hides himself to spare us, but now we see another reason God hides himself:  he wants to humble us.  The way of God is the way of the cross, and the way of the cross is the way of humility.  The cross humbles us by showing that we’re sinners in need of Jesus’ sacrifice, and it humbles us by ignoring our demands for supernatural signs and logical proofs and showing us that our qualifications don’t count for much.

On one occasion Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.  Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”  (Matthew 11:25-26).

On another occasion, after his disciples had argued over who would be greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus

called a little child and had him stand among them.  And he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself and becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4).

God hides himself from us until we realize that we’re nothing but ignorant, helpless little children.  He’s God, and we’re not, and we’ll have to depend on him completely for our salvation and for everything else.  Only then are we ready to know him at all.  Only then can begin getting ready to meet him face to face.

But what if you’re already a Christian?  Why would God ever hide from you?  You’ve trusted in Jesus’ death and resurrection, you’ve trusted the Holy Spirit to fill you and lead you, and yet God may seem distant and far away.  Your soul is dry.  Your heart feels empty.  You’re going through a spiritual drought, and God is hiding.  What’s going on?  Sure, we can see why God might not reveal his glory to unbelievers, but why would he allow a Christian to feel so far from him?

Or you’re facing a terrible trial.  Awful things have been happening, and God hasn’t done much to improve the situation in spite of all your prayers.  Why would God hide himself or refrain from helping even someone who already belongs to him?

Again, I don’t have any simple or easy answers, but let’s look at this question from the opposite angle for a moment.  Let’s think about what might happen if you felt close to God 24 hours a day, if you always understood everything he was doing in your life, if you never found anything in the Bible puzzling, if all your prayers were answered with a “yes,” and if God gave you all kinds of supernatural abilities.  Sounds almost like heaven on earth, doesn’t it?

But what would really happen?  Well, the Bible gives us an example.  The church in the city of Corinth was one where God had given people some great insights and miracles and supernatural powers.  But ironically, this church, with all its knowledge and blessings, turned out to be terribly unspiritual.  They were so proud of what they knew that they became know-it-alls, and they became so satisfied with the miracles and supernatural experiences that some of them even thought the resurrection wouldn’t be necessary.  They thought they knew it all, and they thought they had it all.  They didn’t need anything more.

What happened in Corinth shows that if we know too much, it can make us proud, and if we’re blessed too much, it can make us complacent.  We know something of God, and if we’re not careful, we start to think we know it all.  We think we can figure him out for ourselves.  We think we’re experts on God.  We can become proud that God is our pal, that we know him up close and personal, and a lot of other people don’t.  At the same time, just as knowledge can lead to pride, so blessings can lead to complacency.  If our lives are one spiritual high after another, one answer to prayer after another, if God makes everything goes just the way we want, we could get so satisfied with life here and now that we don’t much care whether Jesus comes again to make all things new.

And that is perhaps why God hides himself even from Christians, why he allows us to go through spiritual dry spells, why he sometimes sends trials instead of blessings.  God hides himself to make us humble, and he hides himself and to make us hungry.  He makes us humble by showing us how little we know him or understand his ways, and he makes us hungry for heaven by letting us feel the pain and brokenness of this present world.

In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul wrote, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know.  But the man who loves God is known by God.”  According to Paul, one of the most important things you can know about God is that no matter how well think you know him, you still don’t know him very well.  What matters is that he knows you, and that he’s moving you to love him.

When Paul wrote the church in Corinth, he hammered home the fact that God’s supreme revelation is the cross, not flashy miracles or impressive wisdom.  He reminded them that right now, we’re still a long way from heaven.  We see dimly, and only later will we see face to face.  We walk by faith, not by sight.  Even when God doesn’t give the answers we want, his power is made perfect in weakness.  We must not only trust in Christ crucified, but we must walk the way of the cross ourselves.  This doesn’t mean we should stop longing for heaven.  It just means we realize we’re not there yet.  It doesn’t mean we stop longing for a richer relationship with God;  it just means we realize how far we have to go.

In Isaiah 45 the Bible says, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God and Savior of Israel…  But Israel will be saved by the Lord with an everlasting salvation;  you will never be put to shame or disgraced.”  Just a few verses later, this God who hides himself says, “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness;  I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.'”  It’s hide and seek.  God hides so that we will seek him, for only the seeking heart, the heart that is humble and hungry for God, can ever be ready to know God as he truly is.

Sometimes God teaches us more by forcing us to ask hard questions than by giving us easy answers.  He changes our hearts as much by making us feel what we don’t yet have as by making us rejoice in what we do have.  He shows as much about himself by what he hides as by what he reveals.  The Lord shows enough of himself in Christ and in Scripture to give us faith and hope and love, and at the same time he conceals himself enough to make us humble and to make us hunger all the more for the day when we see him face to face and he makes all things new.

PRAYER

Father, truly you are a God who hides himself, and we praise you for that.  Hide yourself from us for as long as takes to make us humble and hungry, and then refresh us with the joy of your nearness.  Give us a share in the suffering and glory of the cross, and then hasten the day when we see you face to face.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.