Sometimes, God makes himself obvious and evident in our lives. He is almost tangibly present, and acts in ways that we can almost physically feel. He answers our prayers in powerful ways. He steps in and averts disaster. He gives us a blessing, or blesses our efforts beyond what we could hope or imagine. He speaks authoritatively to us through his Word, or through the advice of a friend, and our life is changed for the better. Sometimes it seems easy to “practice God’s presence,” as a popular book encourages us to do.
At other times, however, God seems hidden and veiled. We can’t see or feel him. He is distant from us, absent, apart. Frustratingly, it seems like there is no rhyme or reason for his sudden “disappearance” ― our life is going the same as it always has, we have been doing what we have always done. And just as frustratingly, it seems like the more we try to “find” him ― even when we are looking in all the right places ― the more hidden he becomes. Isaiah spoke a truth that many of can identify with when he wrote, “Truly you are a God who hides himself” (Is. 45:15).
But as one of my favorite books points out, “hidden” does not mean “absent.” Hiddenness, in fact, implies presence ― albeit in a way that we can’t discern as readily as we would like. We would like a God we can see and hear at all times, who makes his will unmistakably clear to everyone on earth. We would like a God who shows himself, in ways that we expect and predict. We would like a God who “performs” on command. We would like...
But frankly, who cares what we would like? Perhaps that’s the most important thing to think about when we think about God’s “hiddenness” and his “visibility”: Visible in what way? Known by what criteria? Obedient to whose standards? Who gets to decide how God is supposed to act?
We know the answers to those questions, don’t we? As much as we would like God to obey our rules, meet our expectations, and conform to our will, we know that the reverse is true. It is we who need to obey God’s rules, we who need to meet God’s expectations, and God who gets to conform to his own will. We can’t say to God, “If you really love me, you will do this.” God is the one who gets to set the standards, and our God is a God who, at times, chooses to hide himself.
Well, if God is a God who hides himself, where does he hide?
Every day, God hides in plain sight, in the beauty of the creation he has made (Acts 14:15-17). We are supposed to look at creation and praise the Creator. God is also hidden in the needs of other people. Christ himself says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The reverse is also true: God hides himself in the ministry of others, who help us and meet our needs. Who of us hasn’t seen Christ in a fellow believer who brought physical help or a word of comfort at the right time?
God even hides himself, in a way of speaking, in Jesus Christ: True God hidden in the form of True Man, the almighty creator of the universe who empties himself to lie in a food trough and die on a cross so that we might be remade in his image and share heaven with him someday. Jesus became a human like us, and yet he says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:6-10). In Christ, God is both hidden and revealed.
God is also hidden in the Gospel, the Word of God itself. The message of forgiveness of sins through Jesus is the place where God is most “hidden,” exactly the place where God acts most contrary to the expectations that human beings have about “how a proper God should act.” St. Paul says it best in the first chapter of First Corinthians:
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to
us who are being saved it is the power of God ... God was pleased through the
foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand
miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a
stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has
called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18-24).
Finally, last but certainly not least, God is hidden in our suffering. In our darkest moments, though we might not see or feel him, God is there ― not to remove our suffering or take us out of it ― but to go through it with us, and bring us through to the other side of it. There is nowhere, says Psalm 139, that we can go that God isn’t already there with us, not even the “depths” of the grave. Even death itself is somewhere that Christ has been. It is as though divine footprints lead all the way to the tomb, and out through the other side.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor martyred by the Nazis, wrote, “Only a suffering God can help.” A suffering God, a hidden God, is the only God whose existence is not made laughable by the suffering and evil in the world. A suffering God, a hidden God, is the God of those who are suffering (sometimes suffering at the hands of the rich and powerful, who claim a rich, powerful, triumphant, visibly successful God as their own).
A suffering, hidden God is the God spoken of by the prophet Isaiah: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4,5).
The Jews expected the Messiah to come as a king, to ride a white stallion swinging a sword and kicking the Romans out of their land once and for all. They got a humble rabbi riding a donkey. Sometimes we expect God to act in big amazing, fantastic ways, too: heal the sick, right the wrongs, answer our prayers the way we would like them answered. Do away with social injustice. Legislate Christian morality. Establish his kingdom on earth. Give us success and achievement in the world because we are his disciples. We expect power and strength and success and glory. We get a weak and humble Savior, dying on a cross.
In the poem “Nondum,” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins explores the theme of the hidden God, a God who does not meet the expectations of human beings. Read the poem. Hear the poet’s cries of anguish, and listen to the imagery of God’s reply ― an empty room in which the lights are on, but no one’s home; silence; night; a vacant maze; a host of enemy; the destruction of the weak (“pity bleeds”); even death and dying.
But still, in the end, he says to God, “Thou art, and near.” “Hidden” does not mean “absent” ― God exists, and he is near to help his people by bearing their suffering with them until the consummation of the world on the last day.
At the end of the poem, the poet prays for patience to wait, confidence that removes the fear of the unseen unknown, and hope in the joy that awaits us. What is God’s answer to that prayer? What is God’s answer to the prayer that he reveal his hiddenness?
It is in the title of the poem: “Nondum” is Latin for “Not Yet.”
God, though to Thee our psalm we raise
No answering voice comes from the skies;
To Thee the trembling sinner prays
But no forgiving voice replies;
Our prayer seems lost in desert ways,
Our hymn in the vast silence dies.
We see the glories of the earth
But not the hand that wrought them all:
Night to a myriad worlds gives birth,
Yet like a lighted empty hall
Where stands no host at door or hearth
Vacant creation’s lamps appal.
We guess; we clothe Thee, unseen King,
With attributes we deem are meet;
Each in his own imagining
Sets up a shadow in Thy seat;
Yet know not how our gifts to bring,
Where seek Thee with unsandalled feet.
And still th’unbroken silence broods
While ages and while aeons run,
As erst upon chaotic floods
The Spirit hovered ere the sun
Had called the seasons’ changeful moods
And life’s first germs from death had won.
And still th’abysses infinite
Surround the peak from which we gaze.
Deep calls to deep, and blackest night
Giddies the soul with blinding daze
That dares to cast its searching sight
On being’s dread and vacant maze.
And Thou art silent, whilst Thy world
Contends about its many creeds
And hosts confront with flags unfurled
And zeal is flushed and pity bleeds
And truth is heard, with tears impearled,
A moaning voice among the reeds.
My hand upon my lips I lay;
The breast’s desponding sob I quell;
I move along life’s tomb-decked way
And listen to the passing bell
Summoning men from speechless day
To death’s more silent, darker spell.
Oh! till Thou givest that sense beyond,
To shew Thee that Thou art, and near,
Let patience with her chastening wand
Dispel the doubt and dry the tear;
And lead me child-like by the hand
If still in darkness not in fear.
Speak! whisper to my watching heart
One word-as when a mother speaks
Soft, when she sees her infant start,
Till dimpled joy steals o’er its cheeks.
Then, to behold Thee as Thou art,
I’ll wait till morn eternal breaks.
―Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
(This essay also appears, in altered form, here, at the website of Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church. It is also the proud recipient of a Golden Aardvark Award.)