On God’s Hiddenness

The existence of God is not obvious. We often feel that we ought to encounter God himself—or at least tangible, overt evidence—if he truly exists. Many ask why God does not make himself more clearly known. Could he not write a message in the sky, or speak as an answer to prayer, or come like a thunderclap to display his power? In the midst of great trial even a Christian often feels, “a door slammed in your face […] After that, silence” rather than a reassuring presence of God. [1] It is a question I sympathize deeply with. I do not think there is one sufficient answer to this issue, but the following are ideas that serve as a comfort and assuage some of my misgivings.

The divine hiddenness argument is that if God exists then his existence must be apparent. Especially in light of the vast consequences that occur in the presence or absence of right belief in God, a truly benevolent God would make himself more clearly known to man. A positive framing of this is that, if a relationship with God is critical to being with him and receiving the infinite goodness of himself in heaven (as opposed to the punishments that a lack of belief might incur), then God should make himself explicitly known. If God is truly good and all-powerful, then he must make himself known to others. Since his existence is less than obvious, or “hidden,” God’s nature must not be benevolent, or he does not exist at all.

One response is that God may choose to make his presence non-obvious in order to allow for certain other greater goods, such as giving man freedom to make choices without coercion. 

In order to give men the gift of free-will, he may refrain from obvious displays of himself and the consequences like heaven and hell. By giving man the ability to make choices without coercion, he offers him the opportunity to love or not love God. Free will requires that a being is free to perform the action and free to refrain from performing it. In order for man to be able to realize his free will, he cannot be constantly coerced away. The alternative choice, to divert from God’s will, must be a legitimate option that he can pursue in order for him to have free will. In a binary choice, man either freely takes or freely rejects, and one of them must be true in the possible world. Real love is a choice made without compulsion. If we were to see overt displays of power as a forced impression of God, and not because we willingly sought him out, we may likely succumb to fear or desperation or simply be compelled by the irresistibility of his presence, and not because we truly desire him. God gives us the choice between two realities – a life with him and a life without him and the good and bad personal consequences that come with both. It may be that God’s presence is so overwhelming, that any more display of who he is would deprive us of the ability to make informed but un-coerced choices. God’s holding back may not be out of a desire to confuse or mislead his people, but rather out of love to give them the opportunity to choose a life away from him. As Nouwen describes in his analysis of the story of the prodigal son, “The Father couldn’t compel his son to stay home. He had to let him go in freedom, even though he knew the pain it would cause both the son and himself […] It was love itself that allowed him to let his son find his own life, even with the risk of losing it.” [2] 

Related to free will, God allows for our characters to be built and our individual wills to align with his will. By removing overt coercion, he gives man the ability to choose to obey for its own sake and not because he feels pressured into it.  As Lewis describes in the Screwtape letters, the very real presence of God, by nature being irresistible and so formidable, would immediately “override the human will.” However, God’s intention is to preserve us as individual persons and not as coerced automatons, for “the creatures are to be one with Him, but yet themselves; merely to cancel them, or assimilate them, will not serve.[3] His purpose is real relationship, and that means preserving our individual wills that freely choose eager, consenting alignment with God’s will. By allowing religion to be something that requires seeking out, and continued faithfulness something that needs to be endured through trials and suffering, man’s will is strengthened and grown as its own entity.

God’s hiddenness may also demonstrate one aspect of his character – that he can be soft, and gentle, and not forceful. God does communicate with his creation but, “the true voice of love is a very soft and gentle voice speaking to me in the most hidden places of my being. It is not a boisterous voice, forcing itself on me and demanding my attention”. [2] God’s lack of overt displays of power may be a demonstration of his humility. This is not to say that in his wrath, or in his pursuit of justice he will be weak; there are displays of his power and majesty. He is after all, a God who created supernovas and split the red sea and began the world with the big bang. However, when he calls us to love him and know him, perhaps he chooses not to demand attention. This attention is owed, justified and will be inescapable in the final days when God’s glory is revealed and every knee will bow down and every tongue confesses in response. It is, in light of this, both a mercy and a show of his humility and patience, that he would speak to us tenderly.

The bible shows us a sort of paradox – in one sense, he seeks to allow us to be free from coercion by his hiddenness and the gift of free will. However, at the same time, throughout Scripture it is God who takes initiative. It is he who formed us, he who loved us and chose us from “before the foundations of the world.” It is he who wrote himself into the story – leaving the glory of the throne as king and descended into the mud and mire. He is the pursuer, like the shepherd out into the wilderness for the sake of one lost sheep.

He is hidden perhaps as he gives room for us to freely love and pursue him, but at the very same time he is determinedly pursuing us.

Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.

Still with unhurrying chase,

And unperturbèd pace,

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

Came on the following Feet,

And a Voice above their beat—

‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’

The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson

[1] C. Lewis, A Grief Observed (1961)

[2] H. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son. (1992)

[3] C. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1952)

[4] M. Rea, Divine Hiddenness, Divine Silence


One response to “On God’s Hiddenness”

  1. Fr Bruce Wren, LC Avatar
    Fr Bruce Wren, LC

    Really good article. I might add a thought from Pascal for your meditation: “God gives us just enough light so that those who really want to find him can, but not so much light that those who don’t want to find him don’t have to.” (Pensées)

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