Why is it that God does not seem to show himself in a much more obvious way? One answer is that perhaps God’s existence is not a matter of reality and facts. Isn’t it more of a faith position, anyway, as isn’t the idea that you can prove God by reason or evidence muddled? It’s more about a leap in the dark, isn’t it? If you have faith, then God is, but if you don’t, then he is not.
I would agree that God isn’t “forcefully obvious”, but I don’t think that this confines him to being a “take-it-or-leave-it” matter of faith. I think it makes more sense to see God as clearly visible, whilst not being forcefully obvious.
Did you know that the Bible actually recognises the validity of the question we are asking? It tends to be a surprisingly honest book. Astonishingly, the Bible even contains verses that show God deliberately hiding or obscuring himself sometimes. First we see passages that affirm the human perception that God hides. In Job (23:8-9) we read, “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.”
Interestingly, there are also some further examples of God appearing as darkness or veiling himself, whilst still simultaneously offering his presence. We read that, “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21). Again, in Exodus 33:17-23 it says:
…the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence…you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live… I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen…
There are many further examples of the divine apparently hiding (Ps 10:1; 22:1-2; 30:7; 44:23-24; 88:13-14; 89:46; Is 45:15).
There are also examples in the New Testament too. In John 12:36 Jesus invites people to trust in him and then he leaves and hides himself from them. In John 5:8-13 we read the story of a paralytic man who is healed but then Jesus slips away into the crowd. Luke 5:16 records that, as news about him spread, “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Then in John 14:19 we read about Jesus telling the disciples that, “Before long, the world will not see me any more, but you will see me.” Interestingly in many of these cases God provides a clear sense of who he is, at the same time as veiling his fullness.
So perhaps an unavoidable part of the Bible’s answer is that the reason God seems hidden is that he wants to be? Yet if true, what might be the reason for this? What about those times when he doesn’t show himself when we need it most; when he could offer us real hope in times of suffering?
We are offered some explanations in the Bible. When Jesus resisted the crowd, he concealed his identity until exactly the right moment in time to explicitly disclose it. This was a wise decision as the consequences of more explicit or obvious disclosure (Matthew 26:64) led fairly quickly to a successful campaign to have him executed.
God isn’t unavoidably obvious, but he is clear in a more qualified sense (if understood to mean something that is easily perceived or understood – or, in other words, very clear, plain, self-evident, or apparent). Crucially, there is also no reason why something of this nature might not require some learning to begin to be perceived or seen. For example, imagine that I said that it is obvious , but not forcefully so, that you will need your passport to fly internationally.
Now, notice carefully that you have to learn this bit of information. It is certainly not like a forcefully obvious brick wall that you cannot avoid. But it would still perhaps be a case of a failure to grasp the obvious if you arrived at the airport, with your bags packed but without your passport. It’s this second sense (of non-forceful obviousness or avoidable clarity) that the case for God can be confidently approached.
We might reasonably wonder, though, if this is just a convenient little trick for those who are too weak to walk without supernatural security? Does this idea of God hiding provide a clever way out for Christians to cling onto God in a scientific and evidence demanding age? But this accusation doesn’t get off the ground, because the accusation is fundamentally mistaken. Christians, do not claim that God doesn’t show himself, but rather that he reserves the right to choose how he does so, and that he may hide himself to exercise that very choice. Hiding is necessary to bring focus to the way he declares his existence, through Jesus Christ. Divine hiding creates the possibility of a more obvious disclosure, or uncovering.
The famous atheist, Bertrand Russell, famously quipped that, if he were faced with God when he died that, he would demand an explanation for why God made the evidence of his existence so insufficient. We might be tempted to think he was being entirely reasonable. But perhaps the evidence that we demand for God is directly related to who we think God is, and what we think God’s purposes are. A hidden God would make no sense if his aim was to simply relate to us as an object of knowledge that offered no real relational connection or friendship. If this was God’s purpose – that we would simply acknowledge his existence – then I am sympathetic to Russell’s demand for more evidence.
But let us suppose that God was unwilling to make his approach to human life primarily through the intellect. Instead, let us imagine that God is seeking a relationship that is based upon a deeper and more profound personal insight, or perception. The perception in question might be an individual internal recognition of a moral shortcoming and an honest request for divine assistance to begin to address this. Have you ever asked what kind of a relationship God might want with you?
God has revealed himself “plainly” in the created world (Romans 1:19). Into this category we might also place the reality of his redemptive plan and action. The gospel is described as a mystery now made known through prophetic writings (Romans 16:25-26). Many Christians can also recall moments, or even seasons spanning years, where God has been plainly and clearly at work and where life has been saturated with his presence and grace. Faith isn’t a blind faith, but a
response to the evidence. It’s based on real events that can be investigated. A leap in the dark has never been on offer, as it is about stepping into the light.
God asks us to humble our wills (Matt 18:4; Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14), so that he can have relationship with us. If everything Jesus said and did is true, then who Jesus is, is clear.
God not only hides himself to allow us to choose to humble ourselves, he also hides himself in order to be able to do something else – to specifically reveal himself as a way to come in to relationship with him. There is a startling obviousness to Jesus, but it is not so overwhelming that people cannot refuse to believe. In Christ, God was still hidden enough so that people who didn’t want him wouldn’t have him forced upon them. He was “deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” (Mark 3:5) as some “will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). So perhaps the evidence that we demand is a consequence of who we think God is, and what we think his purposes are? If God loves you and wants you to freely chose to love him then perhaps giving his own son for you is enough to catch your attention? God has made himself clear, for those who want him to be. This isn’t forced, but is merely available.
As A. W. Tozer wrote, “God waits to be wanted.” This may demand more of us than a historical investigation, doing church, or theological reflections, as great as those things are. But you will come to discover this clarity only through a living relationship with him. Do you know him?
Blaise Pascal: “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t…”