December 14, 2019

Why isn’t God more Obvious?

In his book, Contact, Carl Sagan satirically asks why God doesn’t place a glowing cross in the sky at night to serve as irrefutable proof of Jesus’ resurrection. One could just as well ask why God doesn’t set up a website, or place billboards around.  Why must we read and understand an ancient book to know God?  Bertland Russell, the famous British atheist, once was asked what he would say, if, after his death, he came face to face with the God he had denied in life.  Russell’s response: “Not enough evidence”.

This is not just a question for non-believers.  As Christians, surely we all wonder why the evidence for God can be denied.  Doesn’t God want us to all know Him?  Then why doesn’t He make himself more obvious?  Why doesn’t he shout from heaven?  We certainly agree with Moses’ statement, “You are a God who hides himself”, but we usually have no clue why.

I think the answer to that is in understanding the difference between faith and knowledge, and why God desires faith.

Briefly, knowledge is the intellectual knowledge of what is (yes, I am aware of the different debates about knowledge, but am not going to get into them here, as they do not affect my main point).  Faith is a little more difficult to define.  I define it this way: Faith is choosing, for good but not unassailable reasons, to believe something is true, and then acting on that belief.  This seems to me the definition most inline with the New Testament word (pistis in Greek) which is translated faith, belief, or trust. Notice a couple things about this definition:

  • First, it is a belief that has consequences.  It is not a trivial thing, for this type of faith affects important choices (unlike, say, the belief that Van Gogh is better than Monet, or that the sun is around a million times the size of the earth).
  • Secondly, it is based on reason and evidence, but it is not compelled by them.  That is, it is not against reason or evidence, but may sometimes go beyond them.  I believe my spouse is faithful to me, not because I can prove it by evidence (I don’t have her video-taped 24/7) but because it is consistent with what I do know of her and our life together.
  • Third, to some degree, it is a choice.  I have no real choice in believing that snow is cold, or that the chair I am sitting in is black.  Unless I want to deny my sense experience, the belief is forced upon me.  Nor can my belief that two  plus two equals four be a faith decision; it is self-evident and irrefutable.  But faith can only be cultivated in doubtful soil.

Now, if this is so, then we may begin to see why God makes faith our only acceptable response to Him: Since faith is a choice, it involves moral, and not just intellectual, implications.  It is a whole-person decision. That is, to some degree, I will choose not just whether there is a God or not, but if I want there to be a God or not.  This is not to imply faith has no intellectual content, but to affirm that is also has moral content.  Reason can lead me to the water, but it can’t make me drink.  I still must choose.

C. S. Lewis claimed hell is locked from the inside.  The believer says to God, “I want you”, the unbeliever says, “I don’t want you”, and God says to them both, “Your will be done”. Or Blaise Pascal: “In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t…”. I hasten to clarify that I would not claim that everyone who does not believe in God does not want to; I’m not in their shoes. My main point is that faith in God must be a choice, not a deduction, else it is not really faith; and only the hiddeness of God allows that choice to be real.

Finally, we should also stop to ponder the question of what effect it would have on our faith if God was more obvious, and his ways shown with certainty to be true.  For example, why doesn’t God automatically and visibly reward each act of faith and obedience?  Every time I refuse some tempting sin, or every time I obey Him, why doesn’t He boom from Heaven, “Good job!”, and send down a twenty dollar bill (or solve whatever problem is bothering me)?

When put in terms like these, it is easy to see how this would distort our relationship with God.  We would be treating Him as an object, something we manipulate for our own gain.  Faith here would not only be stunted, but warped.

The example of Israel may be instructive here.  If ever God was  obvious, it was in His dealings with the Israelites, especially in the early years under the leadership of Moses.  Just think: they saw the plagues on Egypt.  They experienced the crossing of the Red Sea.  They heard God thunder from the top of Mt. Sinai.  In fact, the last verses of Exodus tell us that the visible sign of God’s presence was always with them:

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud (representing God’s presence) lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if it did not life, they did not set out – until the day it lifted.  So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel during all their travels. (Exodus 40: 36-38).

God certainly could not have been much clearer than that.  Yet, the faith and obedience of the Israelites in the desert was anything but exemplary.  Philip Yancey notes:

I also noticed a telling pattern in the Old Testament accounts: the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith.  Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly?  Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results? …In short, why should the Israelites act like adults when they could act like children?  And act like children they did, grumbling against their leaders, cheating on the strict rules governing manna, whining about every food or water shortage. (Disappointment with God)

On the contrary, when God wanted to raise up David as His ideal King (thus representing His people) He did so by often seeming silent and even unfair (just check out the Psalms).  In short, God knows what He is doing with us, and His silence and hiddeness have purpose.

Comments

  1. Daniel , thank you for this . It touched my heart and activated my brain, a double play. Well done , well said and just a wonderful message.

  2. “the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith. Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly? Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results?”

    Does this possibly explain a lot of what we see in fundamentalisms of whatever flavor?

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Hmmm…good question. Having grown up in a fundamentalist church, I would say you may be on to something. The people had many good qualities. But they did seem to have a high need for certainty, and were uncomfortable with ambiguity or doubt.

    • Based on my experience, definitely. I grew up in a fundamentalist church, and they were big into proving that God was real and the Resurrection happened. I remember reading that you can’t argue someone into the faith and thinking “you can if you have a good enough argument”.

      Ironically, I hate arguing with people…

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I grew up in a fundamentalist church, and they were big into proving that God was real and the Resurrection happened.

        “Always trying to prove that God exists — as if God had nothing to do but Exist!”
        — C.S.Lewis, The Great Divorce (from memory)

        I remember reading that you can’t argue someone into the faith and thinking “you can if you have a good enough argument”.

        “Argument” or “browbeat until they give up”?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Does this possibly explain a lot of what we see in fundamentalisms of whatever flavor?

      It does.

      Also the Perfectly-Parsed, Utterly Correct Theology of those more Calvinist than Calvin.

      Or any System that Has God All Figured Out.

  3. …the very clarity of God’s will had a stunting effect on the Israelite’s faith. Why pursue God when He had already revealed Himself so clearly? Why step out in faith when God had already guaranteed the results?

    Does this mean that, in the eschaton when God is presumably completely revealed and known, and results are already in some sense “guaranteed”, there will be no more stepping out in faith, there will be no more faith?

    Or will the eschaton also be a time of uncertain results, and God’s continuing silence and hiddenness, and thus faith, that is, trust in God, will still be necessary? And if it will be the same in this respect, how will it differ from the way things are now?

  4. senecagriggs says

    ” I define it this way: Faith is choosing, for good but not unassailable reasons, to believe something is true, and then acting on that belief. This seems to me the definition most inline with the New Testament word (pistis in Greek) which is translated faith, belief, or trust. ”

    I like that D.J.

  5. Honestly, I feel like the whole conversation about “why doesn’t God give us proof” is just showing that our minds, locked within our particular cultural context, can’t grasp the mind or the nature of God. We talk about it as if God has sort of weighed the pros and cons of being more versus less obvious and has chosen the latter, presumably because it will have some positive effect on us. But maybe that just shows how we misunderstand God when we try to “figure out” God logically.

    Ancient mystics talked about kataphatic vs. apophatic knoweldge of God, i.e. knowledge coming from reason and defining things vs. knowledge coming from letting go of ourselves and embracing mystery and ambiguity. Because we modern Western people idolize reason and logic, we make a God in our image and assume that the best path to God is the kataphatic route. But what if the simple truth is that the mystics were right and the deepest knowledge of God comes through apophatic prayer and apophatic theology?

    Then, it’s not so much that God is hiding from us, than that we’re just not looking with the right set of eyes.

    • Thank you for this.

      We’re so tied up in our goldfish bowl of rationality that we don’t even know that there are other ways of thinking.

    • I think you’re on to something, Michael Z. I wouldn’t call myself a “mystic” by any means. My Evangelical upbringing still makes me uncomfortable with such a characterization. But, as I get older I do find my faith becoming less “kataphatic” and more “apophatic”–at least as you define those terms.

      • Perhaps we can have equal helpings of both?

      • not sure who is more “aware” of ‘The God Who Is Love’?

        the atheist who is patient, kind and caring to wounded animals
        or
        the self-important theologian who tells his followers to have contempt for ‘the others’ who are not like themselves

        what is AWARENESS of God, anyway?

        what forms does it take?

        . . . a deep sense of gratitude? . . . . a feeling of being comforted in the midst of grief?
        or wonder in the presence of that for there exists no words ?

  6. I need to bookmark this post and read it regularly. Certainty about God is maybe the thing I want most in my faith, and the thing I’m least likely to get.

    Ultimately, I can never truly be 100% certain about anything – my perception of the world is limited to what my senses tell me.

  7. Nature itself is subtle. It’s not obvious how it all works. It takes huge effort to get it to reveal its secrets. So objections to a God that is “non-obvious” aren’t necessarily as strong as many think: all meaningful knowledge is hard to come by. And an infinite God would be pretty big.

    However, a generically inscrutable God isn’t really the God of the Bible. If our eternal destiny is tied up in any way to a correct apprehension of this difficult-to-grasp God, then His hiddenness takes on a rather monstrous dimension. Since His revelation as understood in the Scriptures and in the subsequent development of the traditions do manifestly fail to convince so many even of His bare existence, Sagan’s snark might not be so much off the mark.

    To put the issue in parabolic terms, why doesn’t finding the 100th sheep NOT involve a further revelation on the part of God to convince the lost sheep that he has a Shepherd? An infinite God should have all manner of means of communication at His disposal. Why do Scripture, the Traditions, and one-off personal experiences suffice?

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Fair question. On the one hand, imo, faith cannot be faith unless there is a “live” option to reject belief. In other words, God is limited in His revelation not by ability, but by the dynamics of faith. On the other hand, if God desires our faith, why doesn’t he show more revelation to elicit it?

      So the question is not an either/or (should God reveal Himself or not), but a question of degree (how much should God reveal Himself to any one person).

      It would be likely, then, that both the kind of revelation (scripture, reason, experience, nature, etc…) and the amount of revelation will be fine-tuned to the way each person is wired. Or perhaps to what God simply knows about that person and what they would, or would not, respond to.

      In any case, I would not know how much God should reveal Himself to any one person. I can only assume that generally it will be enough for the person to have some reason or evidence to trust in Him, while not being compelling.

  8. I Want a Magic Wand God
    (R. Rosenkranz, 2014)

    My body’s bloated because my heart is weak,
    my cancer’s spreading and all I seek
    is a job that pays enough to pay the bills
    while dark rains lash at my window sill.

    I can’t breathe for my lungs are filled
    with infections, and a driving texter just killed
    my son, and on a cross was hung
    a friend who told me the victory’s been won.

    I want a Magic Wand God who’ll take away the pain,
    I want a Genie-in-a-Bottle God who’ll stop the rain,
    I want a Vending Machine God where all I need are two thin dimes
    to end the suffering, the sadness, the sun-less times.

    But I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    No, I don’t believe in the God that I want.
    There is no God like the God that I want.
    I’ve learned there is no God like the God that I want.

    So what do I do with all life’s misery,
    the hurts I see that can’t be fixed for free?
    What do I believe when there’s no magic wand,
    no Genie-in-a-Bottle, no vending machine from beyond?

    Can I believe in a God that’s not one I want to believe?
    Can I believe in One who doesn’t, at snap of finger, bring relief?
    Is it okay to feel forsaken as Christ felt on the cross,
    when there’s no healing, no light, and all appears lost,

    when bodies are bloated and cancer spreads,
    when death is in a text and life’s hanging by a thread?
    Can I believe there’s a God who’s with me in the weather,
    when He doesn’t magically appear to make things better?

    So, no, I don’t believe in the God that I want,
    a void that leads me to a place hollow and gaunt,
    haunted by a cold emptiness, which leaves me with one
    choice: believing in a God who didn’t save His own son.

    • Daniel Jepsen says

      Wow; that is a great poem. Very moving.

      • I find it painful… maybe that is a good thing.

        • I don’t have the strength to believe “in a God who didn’t save His own son.” Such a human father I would certainly not consider a good father, if a father in any real sense at all. If I’m to believe it, God will have to do the believing for me; he has the strength, I don’t.

          • I guess my thinking is that He ultimately DID save his son, only it was in a way that wasn’t expected…. and it’s in that exact same way He’ll save us.

            • Just to be clear: My comment is not a negative criticism of the poem, which I think is a fine and carefully wrought piece of writing. It’s my feeling about the matters the poem touches on.

    • Rick Ro. I came back today to read the comments, glad I did. What a wonderful use of language to convey such a thought that ties in with the great message above. Thank you.

  9. We could learn something from the mystics here. In my experience, the more one opens and allows ones self to be known by God, the more real God becomes. We gain only by giving ourselves up. The extent to which we do that is up to us. I for one do it very poorly, so I’ll freely admit to a very limited experience of God’s. I doubt a lot.

    One thing that affects the church on the more corporate/group level is that those who do experience God more because of the above dynamic rarely talk about it in any public or showman-like way. It’s too sacred for that.

    • “those who do experience God more because of the above dynamic rarely talk about it in any public or showman-like way. It’s too sacred for that.”

      The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”

      Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. – I Kings 19

      • Iain Lovejoy says

        “Gentle whisper” is in Hebrew literally “a sound / voice of thin silence” – the KJV has it best I think with “a still (= silent) small voice” I prefer to read it as “a small silent voice”.
        I am not sure the premise of the article that God is non-obvious is entirely true, or may be at least horribly misleading. I rather suspect God is as obvious as, or more obvious than, the air we breathe, the light by which we see and the warmth that keeps us alive. Everything else, every object, sound, sight and sensation is an endless distraction we can’t take our eyes and thoughts off long enough to spot the biggest thing in front of us.
        There’s a lovely experiment that gets done by psychologists from time to time where they tell a group of volunteers to watch a basketball game and carefully count every time the ball is passed. A bloke in a gorilla suit is then sent running straight through the middle of the match and half the volunteers fail to spot him.
        https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inattentional_blindness#Invisible_Gorilla_Test

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Once again, God does the Unexpected.

        It’s a theme you find all over the Tanakh & Gospels.

  10. Burro (Mule) says

    I got into all kinds of trouble a couple of weeks ago by pointing out that maybe God’s hand was more clearly discernible in his dealings with the Jews than with other people. I admit that would be an uncomfortable position (for the Jews) to be in, but its good to see that CM kind of agrees with me.

    The Jews and their God are inseparably linked. I can think of no other reason why they provoke such an irrational hatred.

    • Even before I became a believer, anti-Semitism never made any sense to me.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Jews seem to be THE default “Other”.

        “Oh the Protestants hate the Catholics
        And the Catholics hate the Protestants
        And the Muslims hate the Hindus —
        And everybody hates the Jews!”
        — Tom Lehrer, “National Brotherhood Week”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      The Jews and their God are inseparably linked. I can think of no other reason why they provoke such an irrational hatred.

      Idunno, Burro.
      I’ve heard that statement overused as an Airtight Apologetic to the point where it’s lost most of its meaning.

      And both our churches have a far-from-spotless record in that department.

      • Burro (Mule) says

        It’s just a Clue, not an airtight anything,

        …but Jew-baiting seems to scratch an itch that no other variety of hate even approaches.

        Somebody once asked Ray Bradbury if there were 3 predictions about the year 3000 he could be entirely certain about. He said yes, even on Tau Ceti or wherever we go in the Universe…

        1) Men and women would still be falling in love and producing children
        2) There would be a government levying taxes
        3) There would be Jews, and those who hate them.

        • The Jews and their God are inseparably linked. I can think of no other reason why they provoke such an irrational hatred.

          How is “the Jews” defined by God? Racially? Religiously? By self-identification? If we say racially, or ethnically, there is a problem, because many Jews, secular and religious, seem not to be of the same race/ethnicity as the Jewish people of the ANE. In addition, the Jewish scriptures and traditions of the ANE do not consider ethnicity the most essential defining quality of Jewishness; it is essentially defined by a religious commitment embodied in communal religious observance, not ethnicity.

  11. not sure who is more “aware” of ‘The God Who Is Love’?

    the atheist who is patient, kind and caring to wounded animals
    or
    the self-important theologian who tells his followers to have contempt for ‘the others’ who are not like themselves

    what is AWARENESS of God, anyway?

    what subtle forms does it take?

    . . . a deep sense of gratitude? . . . . a feeling of being comforted in the midst of grief?
    or wonder in the presence of that for there exists no words ?

  12. I’ve been thinking about pistis since beginning to read N.T. Wright, almost 20 years ago now… It seems that the translation of it as “trusting loyalty” allows for rationality, action and mystery/apophatic all at the same time. And remember that even the disciples who had followed Jesus for the whole of his ministry and saw everything didn’t know what to make of the Resurrection until Jesus explained it to them on the road to Emmaus.

    “Why must we read and understand an ancient book to know God?” Well, the first Christians hadn’t written the Gospels yet, but they knew God in Christ. The child or developmentally disabled person who can’t read and understand an ancient book can know God. There are many stories of martyrs whose trusting loyalty unto death inspired – one could say even compelled – some of the bystanders or even those martyrs’ torturers to declare that they, too, were Christians, and they, too, went to their deaths at the same time. Why do we believe any report about anything? It’s because we trust the witnesses, for whatever reason/s. The book is a witness and points somewhere. Our lives are often the most arresting witness, even (and I would say especially) when we live in a humble manner, faithful in the place where we are, without needing to “change the world for Christ.”

    And to turn this back to the hiddenness of God, Fr Stephen has written wonderfully on this.
    https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/?s=secret+hand

    Dana

    • Thanks, I read it. Profoundly he says this:

      “I can never begin to describe the difficult situations in which I have pondered and even doubted the goodness of God. I am sure that my experience would be echoed by the experience of many others. And yet, despite everything, I remain convinced of His goodness and kindness towards us in all things. I cannot say this in the manner of an argument. Someone else could see what I have seen and draw the dark conclusions.”

  13. What about people who join cults like the Mormons, Quakers, Methodists, etc.? Why doesn’t God show them the error of their ways?