Tag Archives: Hiddenness of God

Let Down?

“Nero’s Torches – Leading Light of Christianity” by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876

Have you walked away from God because you think He let you down? I’ve noticed in several “deconversion” stories a common thread of feeling “let down”, whether by unanswered prayers or the more general “problem of evil” that tends to assume that God can’t exist because of the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world. This past Sunday, one of the songs in church had the refrain “He’s never gonna let, never gonna let me down”[1]. What does that mean? And do the testimonies of those who clearly felt God did let them down (and concluded that God either doesn’t exist at all or doesn’t exist as portrayed in the Bible) undermine that encouraging lyric? Let’s work through that objection today.

What are some reasons people give for thinking God has let them down? Sick or seriously injured family members who died despite fervent prayers is a common one. Praying for relief from abusive situations, (often, sadly, at the hands of those who call themselves Christians) is another example I’ve read. How we define our terms will go a long ways toward determining whether we feel let down by God in those situations. But first, let’s look at some examples of people who have gone through really tough times and who didn’t come away thinking God had failed them, and see if there is anything to learn from them.

  • In 2017, at the age of only 34, Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim turned Christian apologist, died from stomach cancer after a protracted battle. He and many Christians, myself included, prayed for his healing, but it didn’t happen. Did God let him down? No.
  • In 2015, the terrorist group ISIS made the news with their video of 21 Coptic Christians being beheaded after refusing to deny Christ. Did God let them down? In spite of the lack of miraculous intervention, no, God did not let them down.
  • In the mid-20th century, when Romanian atheist-Jew-turned-Christian-pastor Richard Wurmbrand was jailed and tortured for 14 years, did God let him down? No. Or when Bulgarian atheist-turned-Christian-pastor was jailed and tortured for over 13 years, had God abandoned him? Hardly. Rather they said it was God who sustained them.
  • Corrie ten Boom, and her sister Betsy, were sent to Nazi concentration camps in WWII. Betsy died there shortly before Corrie was released. Did God fail Corrie in not delivering her sister? Not according to Corrie.
  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells the stories of many, many Christians over the centuries killed for their faith, like the Christians being burned alive as human torches in Emperor Nero’s gardens in the opening artwork above. And yet they didn’t consider themselves abandoned even then.
  • Consider the apostle Paul, who counted all his previous accomplishments and credentials as rubbish compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus [Php 3:8], but got flogged, beaten, imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally beheaded [2Cor 11:25]. No prosperity gospel for him…
  • If anyone could claim God had let them down, Job, who is the archetype for endurance of suffering, could surely say that. Yet this “blameless” man, after losing his family, his possessions, and being covered in boils, could still say “though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15]

These people understood what many in our culture today have a hard time understanding: the character of God. We tend to think of God as some doting grandpa looking for every opportunity to give us whatever cool toys our hearts desire. And when that doesn’t happen, we may begin to doubt that He loves us or that He even exists. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Yes, God is more loving than we could ever be, but He is also more just, and holy, and perfect, than we could ever be. He is sovereign, and all-knowing. In fact, He is the only being worthy of worship. And He doesn’t live for us; rather, we live for Him. Until we recognize that, passages like Acts 9:16, where God says He “will show this man (Paul) how much he must suffer for My name’s sake”, won’t make much sense. Neither will the passages in almost every book of the New Testament that speak of the suffering Christians will endure if they follow Christ faithfully. If we think God’s purpose for us is for us to be happy or comfortable, then we’ll be disappointed a lot. After all, “Into each life some rain must fall”[2], as Longfellow would say. For some, the rain seems to never stop falling. However, as Longfellow aptly pointed out, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” The presence of misery in our lives no more refutes God’s existence than storm clouds deny the sun’s existence. But if we recognize, like the apostle Paul did, that God’s purpose is for us to glorify Him, then we’ll be able to say with Paul that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” [2Cor 4:17] And that’s a significant statement given the afflictions that he endured.

While we tend to use the term “unanswered” prayer, the reality is that God’s answer isn’t what we wanted, whether that’s a “no,” or “not yet,” or something else besides “yes.” And the history of Christianity is filled with people not being delivered from their trials and, oftentimes, their tortured deaths; but it’s also filled with testimonies of God strengthening, comforting, and even giving peace and joy, in the midst of some of the most evil circumstances mankind has dreamt up. Did God let any of those people down? From the world’s perspective, it might appear so. But the Christian knows better.  For the Christian knows he is called to be a faithful witness of God in every situation [1 Cor 10:31, 2Cor 5:20-21], and God’s light shines bright in the darkest places.


[1] “King of My Heart”, written by Sarah and John Mark MacMillan, © 2015.
[2] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”, 1842.

Hiddenness

FreeImages.com/joaska-50512 - hide and seekI was taking part in a discussion on a friend’s facebook page recently about the problem of “divine hiddenness”.  Skeptical participants questioned the existence of God based on the idea that if He existed, they would expect Him to make Himself known to us (in a way that would satisfy them, that is). Now, I could take this opportunity to talk about how the Standard Cosmological Model (aka the Big Bang Theory) and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics point us to the necessary existence of God. Or how the world around us, the universe beyond, and even the amazing DNA inside of us all testify to the existence of an incredible Master Designer, in what we Christians call “natural revelation.” Or how the Bible is the most direct, specific way God has revealed Himself, revealing details we could never learn from our scientific observations alone. This is what we call “special revelation.”

Instead, I want to take a moment to simply point out something about this whole “hiddenness” issue. The Bible records some times that God was not so hidden.

  • In the Garden of Eden, immediately after Adam and Eve had disobeyed God and eaten the forbidden fruit, we are told that they “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” [Genesis 3:8]God came to them, but they are the ones who hid (or tried to).
  • Later, in the book of Exodus, we read of God giving Moses the 10 Commandments: “All the people perceived the thunder and the lightning flashes and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood at a distance. Then they said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we will die.'”[Exodus 20:18-19] Here, God reveals a hint of His power, and the people fear for their lives and don’t want Him to speak to them.
  • In the book of Revelation, John records his vision of the end times, when “the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence 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 is able to stand?”[Revelation 6:15-17]
  • This echoes Isaiah’s description of the Day of Reckoning, when people will try to hide themselves from the presence of God when He chooses to reveal Himself beyond all shadow of a doubt. [Isaiah 2:10-22]

In each of these cases, we see sinful people unable to bear God revealing Himself in an undeniable way. The response each time is to seek shelter from such non-hiddenness on God’s part by themselves trying to be hidden.

But see how God has chosen to reveal Himself in the person of Jesus Christ: in humility, in gentleness, in self-sacrificing love. Moreover, He came in a relational role; still perfect, but able to sympathize with our weaknesses, having lived as “one of us”, yet without sin. [Hebrews 4:15]

Consider what Blaise Pascal said in his Pensées: Christianity “endeavors equally to establish these 2 things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart”. [1] Similarly, Matthew Henry, commenting on John 20:30-31, says that the miracles recorded in the Bible are “sufficient to convince those that were willing to be taught and to condemn those that were obstinate in their unbelief; and, if this satisfy not, more would not.” [2]

Is God’s divine hiddenness the issue it’s often made out to be? Honestly, I don’t think so. The issue seems to be more about the attitude with which we approach evidence rather than any inactivity on God’s part. When we look at evidence, do we expect total proof, beyond all possible doubt, or adequate proof, beyond reasonable doubt? But even setting aside that question of our presuppositions, if the above biblical passages are any indication, then those who say they want God to prove His existence to them might do well to heed the old maxim “Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it.”


[1] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 1671, #194 (quote from 1958 English edition).
[2] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1630.
John 20:30-31, NASB – “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Hide & Seek

Paul speaking to the Athenians at the AreopagusOver the last couple of decades in the engineering field, I’ve had the opportunity to use several different pieces of software aimed at speeding up different aspects of engineering design. At my current job, I use several different programs for specific tasks like wood design,  steel design, or general purpose structural analysis. When they work like I think they should, life is generally good. On the other hand, when the results aren’t what I was expecting… well…. Deadlines approach quickly as I try to figure out whether the program has a bug in it, or if it is calculating something I’ve been neglecting all these years. Did the software  developers interpret some building code statement differently than I did? Who’s right? I hate not knowing why something isn’t working, and when these things happen, I’ll spend the time to get to the bottom of it. Several times, I’ve found serious program bugs that the developers corrected when I reported them. Other times, I learned I was the one that was wrong. But every time, I learned far more about a particular aspect of building design in the process of researching the issue than if things had gone smoothly. In a deadline-driven world, though, it’s all too easy to do a cursory review and say “Oh good, looks like it worked, moving on.”

Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes an interesting point about this: “We investigate what we are surprised by, not what we already know or think we know and take for granted [1].” A common complaint about God is His “hiddenness”. The skeptic says, “If only God would plainly reveal Himself to me, I would believe.” But inherent in that seemingly open-minded statement is a demand housed in the word “plainly”; namely, that God reveal Himself to me in the time and place and method of my choosing. Not only would this be different for each person, but it also would reduce God to some genie working miracles on demand. Our desire for God to make Himself known to us in the way we choose is, in effect, a desire to reverse roles and make Him subservient to us.

Instead, God has revealed Himself in His own way, first through the general revelation of the natural world, with it’s grandeur and design that are apparent to the simple and unlearned, and yet, ironically, even more apparent the deeper we explore fields like astronomy and genetics. Second, through the specific revelation given the various prophets and writers collected in the Bible. So why does He not give us “more”? It might be that He does not reveal Himself to us completely to keep us searching. Like a puzzle, we fill in what we know of Him from general and special revelation, but if He gave us every piece of the puzzle, would we still hunger and thirst for Him? Would we think we had Him all figured out (as if we could figure out an infinite God) and stop chasing after Him to focus on something else we don’t grasp yet? By keeping some of Himself just out of view, does He excite our curiosity and drive to learn? Could a deliberate hiddenness be one way He draws those to Himself who wouldn’t otherwise come to Him, who would be content with where they are? The apostle Paul, in his discussion with the Athenian philosophers in Acts 17, states that “…[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” The word translated as “seek” comes from the Greek word ζητέω (zeteo), meaning “to seek in order to find; to seek in order to find out by thinking, meditating, reasoning; to strive after.” This isn’t casual skimming here; this is intensive searching, analyzing, studying. This is like the last 10 minutes of an open-book final exam – pages are flying as you frantically search for what you can’t quite remember. The word “find” comes from the Greek word εὑρίσκω (heurisko) meaning “to find, learn, discover, especially after searching” or “to find by inquiry, thought, examination, scrutiny, observation, hearing; to find out by practice and experience.” To use the college example again, this isn’t flipping the textbook open to the right page and stumbling on the answer. It’s more like the time in college I spent most of the night working one awful thermodynamics homework problem – I was definitely groping for the answer then![2] And if we ignore the collection of direct communication that God has provided, even if it’s maybe not what we want to hear, then we will be groping in the dark, though He is “not far”.


[1] Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica (South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2012), p. 16.
[2] FYI: if your teacher normally assigns multiple problems and you get an assignment with only one problem, watch out! 😉