When God Hides Himself
Palm 44:23-24, 89:46. 13:1, 22:1
We have been speaking about why God does not say “YES” to most of my prayers. And we can easily understand those reasons. But there are times when I do not want anything, except Him. I want to draw near to him and sense his nearness. But there are those terrible times when I cannot find him.
Psalm 44 helps us reflect upon this grave difficulty.
1 We have heard with our ears, O God,
our ancestors have told us,
what deeds you performed in their days,
in the days of old:
2 you with your own hand drove out the nations,
but them you planted;
you afflicted the peoples,
but them you set free;
3 for not by their own sword did they win the land,
nor did their own arm give them victory;
but your right hand, and your arm,
and the light of your countenance,
for you delighted in them.
4 You are my King and my God;
you commanded victories for Jacob.
5 Through you we pushed down our foes;
through your name we trod down our assailants.
6 For not in my bow do I trust,
nor can my sword save me.
7 But you saved us from our foes,
and put to confusion those who hated us
8 In God we have boasted continually,
and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9 Yet you have rejected us and abased us,
and have not gone out with our armies.
10 You made us turn back from the foe,
and our enemies have gotten spoil.
11 You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
and have scattered us among the nations.
12 You have sold your people for a trifle,
demanding no high price for them.
13 You have made us the taunt of our neighbors,
the derision and scorn of those around us.
14 You have made us a byword among the nations,
a laughingstock among the peoples.
15 All day long my disgrace is before me,
and shame has covered my face
16 at the words of the taunters and revilers,
at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17 All this has come upon us,
yet we have not forgotten you,
or been false to your covenant.
18 Our heart has not turned back,
nor have our steps departed from your way,
19 yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
and covered us with deep darkness.
20 If we had forgotten the name of our God,
or spread out our hands to a strange god,
21 would not God discover this?
For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22 Because of you we are being killed all day long,
and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.
23 Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
Awake, do not cast us off forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For we sink down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
26 Rise up, come to our help.
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
Psalm 44 is a psalm of lament. The first 8 verses are the remembrance of things past. There is the remembrance of God’s great goodness to Israel in former years.
But the next 8 verses are a cry of lament. Israel is in trouble and God is apparently not doing anything about it. God may have been in our past, says the Psalmist, but he sure does not seem to be in the present. The next 6 verses are a declaration of the Psalmist that he is not aware of having done anything wrong. That is what is so puzzling. He knows that God will allow calamity when there is wickedness, but tragedy has come and there appears no cause for it.
Then come the last 4 verses. The lament increases. “Why do you hide your face?!” And on this sad note the psalm ends.
This psalmist, however, is not alone. This lament over the absence of God is repeated over and over again.
Psalm 10:1. “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?
Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?”
Psalm 13:1. “How Long, O Lord?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul?”
Psalm 22:1. “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me?….
O God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
And by night, but I find no rest.”
Psalm 27:7-9. Hear O Lord when I cry aloud
Be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come” my heart says, “Seek his face.”
Your face Lord do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me.
Psalm 35:22-23. O Lord, Do not be silent
O Lord, do not be far from me
Wake up and stir yourself for my defense
Psalm 38:21-22. Do not forsake me O Lord
O My God, do not be far from me.
Psalm 51:11-12. Do not cast me away from your presence
Or take your holy spirit from me
Psalm 63:1. O God, You are my God, I seek You
My soul thirsts for you
My flesh faints for you
As in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Psalm 69:16-17. Do not hide your face from your servant
For I am in distress
Make haste to answer me
Psalm 88:13-14. O Lord, Why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Psalm 89:46. How long, O Lord
Will you hide yourself forever?
The litany of cries for the presence of God rises from at least 17 of our psalms. But that cry is not just an ancient cry. Read the diaries and journals of the great saints throughout the history of the church. Hear the cry of William Cowper that has been repeated a million times,
Where is the blessedness I knew
when first I saw the Lord,
Where is the soul refreshing view
of Jesus and the Word.
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed,
how sweet their memory still
but they have left an aching void
the world can never fill.
Return O Holy Dove, Return
Sweet messenger of rest.
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn
That drove Thee from my breast.
I also believe that the cry of the Psalmist, and the cry of saints gone by, is the cry of some of our own hearts. When I need God the most, he seems most absent, and the question “why” forces its way into our minds.
I have seen a slogan on posters and in articles that attempts to speak to this dilemma. It reads this way,
IF YOU AND GOD DO NOT FEEL
AS CLOSE AS YOU USED TO,
GUESS WHO MOVED!?
The presumed answer to this question is, of course, that I moved. If God seems to be absent from my life, if his presence is not obvious, then I must have moved away from Him.
There is no doubt that if I regard iniquity in my heart God will not hear me. Isaiah reminds Israel that her sins have made a separation between God and Israel, so that God will not listen to her prayers.
Sin always interrupts fellowship with God. The Psalmist is aware of that as he cried, “Take not Thy holy Spirit from me, restore to me the joy of my salvation.” Psalm 51
He is aware that he has sinned, and he is responsible for the spiritual dearth in his life. Confession will lead to restored fellowship.
But I am convinced that that slogan is deceptive. It is unfair to presume that if there is the absence of the sense of God’s nearness, then I must be guilty of something. Let me suggest the alternative. Sometimes God moves.
Now I need to clarify that. God is omnipresent. That means that God is everywhere. In him we live, and move, and have our being. He is closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet. There is nowhere that you and I can go where God is not fully present. If I make my bed in hell he is there. If I go to the ends of the earth, he is there. God is never absent. (Ps 139:7-12)
There are times, however, when God will withdraw the sense of his nearness. He is not absent, yet we will not sense him anywhere. And God will do this, not because of any sin in our lives, and not because of any unbelief.
Many of God’s best people, those that church history called “saints,” spoke about the “dark night of the soul”. They spoke of times of spiritual dryness and drought.
They knew of times when God seemed so distant, prayer gave no pleasure, the Word of God brought no revelation, and Christian hymnody raised no songs in the night,
It has been the conviction of the church that God at times hides Himself even from his own children. Does that make God a tease? A sadist? Does God like to cause his children spiritual pain? Let me give a resounding “NO!” to that. There is nothing malicious or capricious in God. Then WHY does God withdraw the sense of his nearness from his children? Let me suggest several reasons that may help us as we go through the shadows.
1. God desires to reduce our dependence upon feelings.
Saint Theresa, a saintly woman back in the 1500’s tells of a vision that she experienced. She saw three women seated on three chairs at some distance from each other. Into the room came Jesus. Piled up in his arms were gifts. He stopped at the first chair where one woman sat. He started to give her all the gifts that he had brought. Then he talked for a long time with her, stroking her hair, touching her hand. Then he left, and came to the second woman. He gave her no gifts, but he touched her hand, and whispered for a few seconds in her ear, and then moved towards the third woman, but instead of giving gifts, or whispering words, he walked right by her and left the room.
There was an angel in the room. St. Theresa exclaimed, “O how he must have loved that first woman!” A look of alarm came on the angel’s face. “Oh no! It is not that at all.
The first woman cannot trust Him, cannot love him unless she senses his nearness and receives his gifts. She is so fragile in her faith that she has not learned to walk by faith.
The second woman walks by faith, but occasionally needs reassuring because at times she begins to doubt, but a few words of encouragement are all she needs.
But the third woman walks by faith, not by sight. She does not insist on his gifts or his touch before she will follow him or love him. She loves him best of all. Even if he slayed her, she would trust him.
There are some of us who walk by feeling rather than by faith. There are some of us who are so dependent upon feelings that life ends up being a roller coaster of mood swings.
Some of us are tyrannized by our feelings. We are Christian Hedonists. Our emotions are wonderful servant, but terrible masters. If we have to feel good before we will be good, and if we have to feel good before we will do good, we will be forever locked into immaturity.
The advice was given to John Wesley, “Only do what the Holy Spirit impresses you to do.” He did nothing for several days. He quickly reverted back to the advice he gave others as well as himself.
“Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.”
He did not want to trust what he called “frames and feelings” but to follow the pattern of his Lord.
And God wants to reduce our dependence upon feeling and to do that he may withdraw the sense of his nearness. He may withdraw the crutches that we have depended on too much, so that we can learn to walk well.
2. God desires to reduce our dependence upon Himself.
There is a second reason that God may withdraw the sense of his nearness. Dare I say it? God desires to reduce our dependence upon Himself. Some of us are too dependent upon God. God wants us to be child-like, but we insist upon being child-ish. God wants sons and daughters who are co-creators and co-redeemers along with him. We want to stay listed as “dependents”.
When a mother gives birth to a baby she holds him constantly, stays close, feeds him, changes his diapers, bathes him, dresses him, wipes his nose, makes his bed, carries him about, pushes him in a baby carriage, and a thousand other things.
But that mother knows that to be doing all of that for a 15 year old would be considered a tragedy. If a parent is overly protective, that child might find himself still attached to his mother’s umbilical cord or apron strings for the rest of his life. But if she is a wise parent she will look at her child and say, “I will miss you as you are, but look forward with joy to what you shall become!” knowing that her children must be given responsibility for themselves or they will be forever immature! When people ask me if Amy and I have any children, my answer, if I am alert is, “No. but we do have three daughters.” There is a difference.
In God’s family we all begin immature. We do need to be looked after. And God through his church provides us with surrogate parents and baby sitters. But God does not want us forever childish. He wants us to grow to the fullness of the stature of the Son of God.
God does not want obedience to Himself that stems from childish fear of him. He wants everyone to carry the title that was given Abraham. “A friend of God”.
To enable us to grow, God may hide himself from us, so that we must make decisions the best way we can.
This is the reason that many of us do not know “God’s will for our lives” in reference to our vocation. It may well be that God wants us to make that decision for ourselves. He does not want us forever putting out fleeces, forever insecure and afraid to make decision until we have felt an OK coming from God.
God may be silent to teach us how to make our own decisions and therefore become responsible for ourselves, and thereby responsible for the nurture of others.
3. God is Revealed in his Hiddenness
But there may be a another reason for God hiding Himself. In the very times that God hides Himself, it reveals something to us about who he is.
Throughout human history God has revealed Himself to those who sought Him. God has not always been silent or distant. But some of us live with a great presumption in our lives. We get the feeling that God is predictable. He is the cosmic bellhop who jumps every time we call. Not so! To presume that God exists for the satisfaction of my needs is a very inadequate view of the God who inhabits eternity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that God is not quite as “have-able” as we are prone to think. He is no genie in the bottle called prayer. He is the Lord God Omnipotent who rules according to his own will. He is under no obligation to keep us happy. He is under no mandate to advertise either his actions or his presence. And God may hide Himself from us to remind us of his sovereignty and his Lordship over his universe.
There are times then that God conceals Himself from us. Not because he is petulant or because he is mischievous. But because as the Divine Father he wants to see his children growing strong through the seasons of life.