The God Who Hides His Activities.
Sometimes God does not so much hide himself as he hides his activities.
God actually spends most of his time traveling incognito. He works in disguise. God is omnipresent and yet most of us most of the time we are unaware of his nearness.
In the incarnation, when God became man, he lived among us and we were hardly aware of it. For 30 years he lived in Nazareth, walked its streets, attended its synagogue, and yet his neighbours did not know that the Son of God and the Saviour of the world lived on their block. When we crucified him, we thought he was a dangerous revolutionary; we never dreamed that he was the Life and light of the world, for he hid his glory.
But that is not only history, it is also parable. For God has always lived on our block, he has always been our neighbour, he attended the same schools we attended, sat next to us in our church pews and we rarely recognized him. The presence of God has always been with every person who has ever lived and yet very few of us ever seem to be aware of his closeness.
Yet, not only is the presence of God everywhere, but unfelt, so also are the acts of God. There are continuing miracles all around us, but we put them down to other causes. We put them down to other causes because God hides himself and his actions, except from those with eyes to see.
In the middle of Jesus’ ministry something strange happens. For some months Jesus has been teaching things like that found in the Sermon on the Mount. Then one day he changes his entire modus operandi. He begins to use parables instead of straight teaching. His disciples are puzzled. Notice Mark’s version: (Mark 4:10-12,33-34)
And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked him concerned the parable. And he said unto them, “Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should turn again and be forgiven….”
And with many such parables he spoke the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable he did not speak to them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.
A parable is a way of hiding truths from those who are not interested, but revealing enough to elicit interest from those who are seeking. God hides himself and his work from those who choose not to believe, but to those who long to believe he will give insight and revelation. Have you noticed that after the Resurrection Jesus only appeared to those who believed or wished to believe? Annas, Caiphas, Herod or Pilate did not see him. But over 500 who loved him were given the great experience of seeing him alive.
But the question arises of its own accord, Why does God hide his stately steppings? And what does all this have to do with unanswered prayer? Let me suggest two reasons why God may say either “No!” to my prayer or may say “YES” but will hide his answers.
1. God may say “NO” because he loves sinners.
If God answered our prayers too obviously or too openly, people would want to flock into the Kingdom of God. They too would want this Rabbit’s Foot, this good luck charm, this four-leaf clover.
In John chapter 6 the crowds have been fed with bread and fish. Their stomachs were filled. And if the changing of water to wine is any indicator that bread may have been the best they ever tasted and the fish would have been a culinary delight! And they want to make him KING on the spot. But Jesus does not want people coming to him for those reasons. And so he escapes the crowd. He will not allow any miracle that he does to bribe men and women into his kingdom.
Do you remember how Jesus responds to the Rich Young Ruler? Here was a man who had so much to offer the Kingdom. But when Jesus says, “Sell what you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.” that young man went away sad, because he had great riches. Now if I had been among that apostolic band I would have chased down that young man, and changed the terms, lowered the demand, sweetened the pot. But have you noticed that Jesus discourages followers with a frank realism. He never offers an easier way, but the only way. He does not offer an easier life, just life. Not for a moment does Jesus make easy promises.
What do you think would happen if Christians could pray and get what they wanted (within reason of course)? How many could resist becoming a Christian? If it were known that when your child was ill, “a little prayer to Jesus made it right”, people would be flocking either to your door, or the church’s door to get in on the power. If a Christian never was unemployed because a little prayer would fix things, do you not think that people would gladly follow God? It would be the best deal in town.
Christians are not to be immune from the realities of living life. A Christian is committed to doing right because it is right, not because it pays! We give generously because we want to share with others, not because it pays to give. We fast because we have a greater hunger for God than for food, not because we can get more things out of God if we suffer a bit more. Christianity does not always pay. At least not in bread and fishes, not in health and wealth.
God wants each person to come to him for the right reasons. He wants us to come in gratitude, not for greed or gain. He wants us to come in faith and penitence, not for selfish ease.
So God may say “NO” to some of our prayers lest we leave behind the impression that Jesus is better than Visa or MasterCard.
2. God may say “YES” but hides the answer.
But, God loves to answer prayer, so he may answer more of our prayers than we dream, but he may hide the fact.
Many of the answers to prayer that we receive are always open to a second interpretation. We pray for rain on drought stricken land. We see the descending rain as an answer to prayer. But our neighbour says, “Ah, finally the weather pattern has changed.” We pray for a sick child. We see the returning health as an answer to prayer. Our neighbour says, “Ah, I see the medication finally took hold. Isn’t that great!” We pray for safety on the highways and return thanks after getting to our destination but our neighbour presumes that our concern made us drive more carefully, and that is why we got there safely.
And God has left room for doubt in all that he does. For almost every important question the evidence is usually about 50-50, and our decisions often ride on a teeter-totter. C.S. Lewis reminds us that even atheists suffer from doubt and second guessing themselves. God could convince every atheist of his existence by tomorrow morning, but chooses not to do so. He will not coerce faith and trust in anyone. He could persuade every agnostic of the irrationality of his unbelief and disbelief, but any person convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still. God has sprinkled the world with enough evidence for those who want to believe, but not so much that any person must believe.
So God’s miracles can always be discounted. Every healing can be seen as slight of hand, hypochondria, or mind over matter.
But let me turn our minds to the words of Elisabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth is crammed with heaven
And every common bush is afire with the presence of God.
Those who see, take off their shoes
The rest sit round and pick blackberries.
William Blake, the strange poet-theologian would come home saying with exultation, “I have seen Ezekiel in Trafalgar Square.” Another time he was sure that he saw Angels in the treetops. His peers thought him eccentric and a little mad. Perhaps so. But perhaps he saw realities because he walked through life with eyes wide open to the marvels of this world. Miracles and answered prayers may abound, but only those who are looking see them. God is sacramentally present in all things, not just in water, bread and wine.
There is a fascinating story in the book of II Kings chapter 6. Elisha the prophet is at Dothan. The Syrian army has surrounded the town. Elisha’s servant wakes up, looks out of the window and is terrified. “Alas my master! What shall we do?” Elisha’s response is strange. “Do not be afraid! Those that are on our side are more than those on the other side.” Then the text reads, “Then Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes that he may see.’ so the Lord opened the eyes of the young man and he saw that the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire” of God. They had been there the whole time. One man saw, the other didn’t.
I say all of that to say all of this, that God may be answering our prayers without broadcasting the results. He may still be working in our lives incognito. But those with eyes to see will be like Bliss Carmen who wrote “I took a day to search for God and found him not, but as I trod by rocky ledge, I saw his footprints in the sod.” and that may be all we really need.
The Prime Directive
I was an early Star Trek fan. When I heard “The Prime Directive” of that program, I confess it influenced my understanding of “Divine Interference.”
Starfleet allows scientific missions to investigate and secretly move amongst pre-warp drive civilizations as long as no advanced technology is left behind, and there is no interference with events and no revelation of their identity. This can usually be accomplished with hidden observation posts, but Starfleet personnel may disguise themselves as local sentient life and interact with them.
“For it is the right of each species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution, and no Star Fleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely.
Star Fleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.
In one episode one of the characters say, “Some day, my people are gonna come up with some sort of a doctrine, something that says what we can and can’t do out here, should and shouldn’t do. But until someone tells me that they’ve drafted that…directive, I’m gonna have to remind myself every day that we didn’t come out here to play God.”
God may also choose to follow that prime directive as he evolves humanity to that point in the future where “righteousness covers the world as the waters cover the seas.” God is everywhere, and everywhere nudging, particularly his devotees, (where 2 or 3 are gathered together in my name) in that direction.
So God himself may answer our prayers, but mostly covertly, more like Star Fleet, and less like Superman the ultimate intervener. It seems that God prefers to remain invisible, but is often content to inspire courage, wisdom, insight, compassion in people to answer the prayers of those that pray and those that don’t. So prayer doesn’t actually “work”. Prayer may be primarily talking matters over with God, who might “work” in me to “work” in my world and “work together” with others to change things.
So what do we do if we find that God seems absent? Let me close with a poem adapted from Betty Swinford.
The Storms beat,
The battle waxes strong,
And, I cannot find God.
Strange that he should hide Himself
When I need him most.
How skillfully he hides!
I speak to my heart, I say
“I’ll seek him here,
I’ll seek him there!”
But no matter where I look,
God cannot be found.
I’ll sing that song again!
That song that touched my heart
that wondrous day.
I’ll go to the meeting place
where God came down
and met my deepest need.
I’ll hold that scripture to my heart,
the one he made alive to me.
But… The song is empty,
And, he is not there at the place
where I met him so wonderfully.
Nor is he in that verse.
He isn’t anywhere.
And Yet!… Because I cannot feel or find Him,
Because my emotions are unable to sense Him,
Even so, he is here!
For I could never turn away,
And he has said,
“I’ll never leave you not forsake you.
O yes, God reigns!
Though hiding, he has NOT gone away,
He still is here with me.