One of our professors liked to tell the story of how his atheist friend would gather people around him and ask them why, if God exists, he does not simply show himself? Then he would look up to heaven and call out: “God, if you exist, prove it by striking me dead!” When nothing happened, he would ask his audience, “So if God really exists, why didn’t he strike me dead?”
My professor was witness to these little performances on more than one occasion. Once, when his friend asked the group, “So if God really exists, why didn’t he strike me dead?” he leaned in and whispered, “Just give him time.”
I love my professor’s response, but I can also appreciate his friend’s skepticism. Why, if God exists and wants us to know him, doesn’t he do something miraculous to convince the world that he is here? Why doesn’t he turn the sky green for a day or rain down food on the starving refugees in South Sudan? Why does God remain hidden?
Better people than I have asked that question – including some of history’s great men and women of faith. Job, who is famous for his patience in trial, cried out to God, “Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?”
Many poems by David (known as “a man after God’s own heart”), include the complaint that God had hidden himself. “Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” he moans in one, and in another he cries, “Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?”
These men were not atheists. In fact, they were renowned for their spiritual depth and perception, and yet they too wondered why God did not show himself. The prophet Isaiah also acknowledged God’s hiddenness: “Truly,” he said, “you are a God who hides himself.”
Even Jesus acknowledged the secretiveness – some have called it, “the shyness” – of God. Three times he described God to his followers as “the one who sees in secret.” The idea that God is hidden is not infrequent in the pages of Scripture.
Responses to God’s hiddenness vary greatly. Because he is hidden, some people go in search of him. When St. Paul went to Athens, the intellectual center of the world in his day, he told an audience of philosophers that God made things the way he did “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him.”
Others do not look for the hidden God; they ignore him. If he doesn’t bother them, they’re not going to bother him. Let sleeping Gods lie. Still others vehemently deny God’s existence and do their best to convince others that he does not exist as well. Of course if he does exist, God could easily put an end to all this. So why doesn’t he?
There are several likely answers. First, it seems that God is not primarily interested in proving his existence to people. Even if everyone were to believe he existed, God would not be satisfied. He wants so much more than that. He wants to restore his creation, make right what has gone wrong and bring about an unending era of justice, love and peace. Merely convincing people that he exists will never accomplish his purpose.
Secondly, were God to constantly reveal his presence to individuals by miraculous acts, or to the world by one undeniable revelation of himself, people might do what God wanted but they would neither want what he wanted, nor want him to be God. His intention is to transform humanity into a people of justice, love and peace, not to intimidate them into compliance.
Thirdly, God must remain somewhat hidden in order to preserve people’s freedom. Were he to reveal himself fully, the freedom of choice (without which humanity is less than human) would disappear. That’s why C. S. Lewis pondered “whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does.” When he does, freedom of choice will end and the reality of what people have chosen will become apparent.
Another, and related, reason for God’s self-restraint is that he is giving people the opportunity to change their minds about him. The Bible calls this change of mind “repentance.” So St. Peter states, “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” St. Paul agrees: “God’s kindness leads you toward repentance.” This change of mind is far more than a belief that God exists. It is the realization that he is right and I am not; that he is good and that the life he offers is the best thing going.
If God seems hidden, it is not really because he is shy but because he is loving – fiercely, thrillingly, astonishingly loving. Lewis again: “You must have often wondered why [God] does not make more use of His power to be sensibly present to human souls in any degree He chooses and at any moment. But you now see that the Irresistible and the Indisputable are the two weapons which the very nature of His scheme forbids Him to use. Merely to override a human will (as His felt presence in any but the faintest and most mitigated degree would certainly do) would be for Him useless. He cannot ravish. He can only woo … the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.”
When my friends are sick, when my children are threatened, when things are spinning out of control, I want God to rethink and override this policy. I want him to come out of the shadows and show himself. I would undo all the long work of redemption to have things my way. But I know better. I know that he is good, not only when he comes out of the shadows but when, for love of us, he does not.
One more thing should be said. We think that God is hiding, and perhaps he is. But there is another way to look at it. Perhaps we are the ones hidden away, not him; hidden in a place where we cannot, for the moment, see him. Perhaps we are even hidden there for our protection, the way a joey is hidden in the mother kangaroo’s pouch or, better, yet, the way a fetus is hidden in her mother’s womb.
Earth is a womb. This is our gestation period. In the womb we cannot see our Father, though we sometimes hear his reassuring voice. It is here that we have the opportunity to receive the life we need to thrive in the larger world of heaven and to develop into the kind of beings that can live there. Our time here is preparing for that startling moment when we will see the Father face to face.
No one who is delivered into that larger world will complain about their time in this one, any more than a healthy, happy child complains that his mother’s womb was too dark and crowded. In the larger world, sorrows will be forgotten, tears will be wiped away and mortality swallowed up in life. All God’s children – and he has so many in the womb of mother earth – will experience “joy inexpressible that is full of glory.”
He knows this is so, and he waits. He understands what to do for us and how to rescue us. Though things can get pretty painful and scary in this womb called earth, the Father is not afraid. He sees the joys that await us, joys that we cannot now imagine, and he is glad.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/18/14