It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search it out.
It’s easy to look at the world and the Bible and get everything quite wrong. It’s important for believers to recognize how easy it is to get everything wrong, because I think we often think the few unbelievers we know who are willfully wrong about God accurately represent the vast majority of unbelievers who are, at least at first, unintentionally wrong about God. And we ourselves are far too quick to think we get God right when we don’t. The main problem seems to be that God, His creation, and His Word are easily misreadable.
So for the sake of compassion toward others and circumspection toward ourselves, let’s consider this a little further: how is it that people who seem earnest can get God so wrong so often and so easily, and does God actually want it this way?
Nature is Misreadable
Perhaps you are considering distant star-light and its speed, or the fact that we can see stars being born and stars dying but never the same star being born and then dying in human history. And perhaps, worn down by tweed-jacket-with-sweet-elbow-pads brow-beating or attempts to woo genuine seekers, you begin to think that “Time” must be like the philosophers say: more protracted and soporific in its uniform linearity than the “begats” of Genesis could possibly add up to, no matter how long the preacher takes to stumble over the Hebrew names, and no matter for how many centuries the church’s sleepy heads wilt under or bob over the pew backs.
And perhaps you reconsider our seeming family resemblance to apes and the Hubble “constant” and the time it takes for marble to form in the womb of the earth, and you throw in a personal family tragedy, a forbidden longing, the history of religion, and the brutality of it all, and then, suddenly or incrementally, 15 billion years (or whatever the runaway cosmic clock is up to now) seems a little more reasonable than 1,000-year-old men and a worldwide flood, speaking of the brutality of it all.
You aren’t necessarily meaning to undermine Christian tradition at this point: you’re just trying to do justice to the way things appear.
The Invisible Artist
So you wonder, I would say legitimately, if the Artist really could have been so skillful that hardly any sign of Him was left when He finished doing a work as monumental as everything in existence. This universe, even under some scrutiny, looks like either the consequence of chance or a work of unspeakable and literally unbelievable craftsmanship. Its exquisite balance generates two reasonable, yet diametrically opposed, interpretations: it could be as artless as an open window and needless of an author or it could be a masterfully crafted work of art dependent on its author for every sub-atomic particle of meticulous detail. It can be one or the other extreme. But there’s really no in-between.
Could God have been such a brilliant and impeccable designer, with such a modest commitment to his own anonymity, that he left barely an artifact of artifice behind that couldn’t be carried away with enough of that dirty bathwater—the right kind of wrong reasoning? On our best days, we wish for an indisputable brush-stroke to prove there was an artist. On our worst days, we’re looking for a fingerprint so we can catch the cosmic criminal who’s to blame for this whole mess.
But no one can really argue: there are plenty of indicators that God exists and plenty of indicators that He doesn’t. The problem is the signs are nearly all misreadable.
What has become apparent to me in all this is that God included enough regularity in the natural patterns to make them seem not just self-sustaining but almost self-generating. Yet he inserted and still inserts just enough disruptions into those patterns to guarantee universal culpability if any of us refuse to see Him in it all. Almost as if He is allowing us, some might say encouraging us up to a point, to misread the signs.
Even the Bible is Misreadable
And even the Bible, God’s other “special” self-revelation, is equally or more so misreadable, despite the contrary attestations to its peculiar perspicuity. Don’t get me wrong: the Bible is clear to the clear. But few of us are ever clear. So even for those who believe, the Bible has always been eminently susceptible to misinterpretation.
I’m sure, for example, that David didn’t interpret “Your son will sit on the throne forever” to mean: “Your grandson is going to blow your kingdom to bits with the disappointingly Freudian torpedo of literal penis envy.”
Misrepresenting God’s word started perhaps with Adam telling Eve not even to touch the tree when God said only not to eat of it. Eve probably misread the promise of God for the Serpent Crusher, and was sorely mistaken about and disappointed in Cain. The first-century Jews misread Eve’s same promise, even with additional details from Abraham and Moses and others, and (for a different reason) were sorely mistaken about and disappointed in Jesus. But one must admit that the promises are misreadable.
If the idea that God obscures or hides the truth makes you uncomfortable, just note that Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explained that the whole purpose of preaching in parables was to hide the truth from those who could not see or hear it (Matt. 13:10–17), and God has always revealed a little more of the truth over time, which is another way of saying he has hidden the truth all the way up until He didn’t anymore. God and His truth have always been hiding in plain sight. After all, “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter…”
So, as you would expect, there are numerous other misreadable problem texts which the most faithful scribes—unlike some of their well-meaning brethren—will not attempt to correct or even gloss, but will preserve in faith for the faithfulness of another time. Verily, there are at least just enough problem texts to almost justify any vast number of heresies.
Metaphors on Misinterpretation
One already double-jointed text, once skillfully sprained, might be able to shadow puppet the message that “you must find God only within yourself.” While another text (properly sedated and restrained) might slur somewhat unintelligibly, but convincingly as a case in point, that “you won’t find anything within yourself but the animal you evolved from.”
One text, pruned of all its branches until only the most adept can climb it—and that without pleasure, will say that “Jesus was God perhaps, but not really man.” Another once fertile bay of divine truth, first overfished and then oil-spilled, can be made to squawk as pathetically as a slick-blackened seagull that “Jesus was a man perhaps, but not really God.”
One group of passages, strapped to the psychiatrist’s sofa and obliged to reckon with the full exceptional force of all your favorite anecdotes and urban legends, will repeat after you, just to please you and quite hollowly, that “God is a placebo,” that you can take him if you wish (i.e., far away), but that society prefers “real medicine”—which is the new name they’ve given “suicide,” which has the same objective as therapy or pharmaceuticals but of course is usually cheaper, quicker, and less painful (and is therefore less preferable somehow).
And even the so-called doctrinally orthodox—with systematic, credal micro-divisions like a butcher’s dotted marks on the fattened calf—will also demarcate which parts of the Bible constitute the chuck or even the compost (James, Job, or Ecclesiastes) and which the filet mignon (Romans, of course).
And the worst of these so-called orthodox misinterpreters, the ideological protectionists (e.g., WhiteWalshBlog-dot-RagePorn or DiscernmentBlogger-dot-SpiritualAbuse), appear bent on proving only one single false doctrine, no matter how many texts you introduce to them (seemingly for the first time), namely, the false doctrine that “God is most certainly and without any shadow of turning a very great and cosmic asshole.” The authors desperately want this doctrine to be true, by the way, because then they won’t have to change at all in order to be just like God.
A Single Miracle Changes Everything
Yet, after all of that potential for misreading, there remains to us one miraculous passage of Scripture, that is, the whole Bible taken together, which is yet quite difficult for skeptics, doubters, and well-meaning “handlers” to dismiss, though they all make a valiant effort.
And there are also many other miracles among us. And I’m not talking exclusively about I-knew-him-blind-from-birth-yet-now-he-sees kind of miracles. I’m talking about Saul-Saul-why-do-you-persecute-me-turning-into-Paul-called-by-the-will-of-God-to-be-an-apostle-of-Christ-Jesus kind of miracles.
I’m talking about repentance. Repentance—that little resurrection and the opposite of suicide—is I think the greatest miracle, and it is surprisingly common, all things considered. Every vicious child of wrath who learns to gently show compassion to those who hate him is an everlasting testament to the truth of the Gospel and the peculiarity of Jesus the Messiah, and no one can deny this without bankrupting himself and all of creation.
As a consequence of believing that we have seen even one solitary miracle, there are those of us who have stopped focusing only on the other 99.99% of reality that perhaps we had made some sense of without God and His Christ (albeit a dismal, purposeless, accidental sense), and we have started focusing instead on the tiny, fleeting flicker that we can only make sense of with God and His Christ.
And from that vision (which always leads to more visions) behind the opaquely modest humility of our God, which is easily misreadable, into his perfect wisdom, fueled by an assurance of unseen things, the 99.99% of the world that had been lifeless and purposeless and completely vain separated from God then becomes imbued with the truth, life, and way of Jesus.
All of a sudden, everything points to God and His Christ, and we don’t know why we ever thought this wasn’t obvious before. Faith in Jesus turns “All is vanity”—which remains the furthest merely human philosophy can progress in the truth—into the divinely energized “All is Amen”!
So Why Does God Seem to “Take Such Pains to Hide”?
But the question remains: why then does God allow nature and the Bible to be so misreadable? Why not make it so His truth and life are easier to see? In fact, why doesn’t God make it impossible not to see?
Someone once asked Bertrand Russell, the famous atheist, what he would say to God if, upon dying, God turned out to be true and atheism a lie. Russell said he would ask God, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?”
If Russell asked this question of God as he promised—though, to be honest, I doubt he had the stomach for it when the time came—I don’t know what, or even if, God replied. But perhaps He said something like, “How can we ever trust each other’s love, Bertrand, if you, for your part, aren’t willing to take time to find me and I, for my part, am not willing to wait on you to take your time?”
I think perhaps the beginning of an answer to why God has chosen to be misreadable is so that we and He would know together that our mutual love is real. Not forced upon us. Not manipulated out of us. Our love for Him and His love for us is voluntary and even cheerfully given. A ham-fisted display of divine incontrovertibility would not allow for such voluntary love from us.
We don’t love God, if indeed we truly do, because we are forced to, either through brute force, spiritual duress, or intellectual necessity. We love Him not because we were forced to him, but because we were drawn to him by His love. We heard God’s voice, though still and small and rejected by all the “reasonable” and “wise” people, and we followed it to its source until we found that voice only ever growing more lively and great in our ears as we walked toward it.
Perhaps you might say, “But if God is who you say He is, He planned all of this before he made the world! That wasn’t you walking toward Him, but merely Him fulfilling His eternal plan.” Could it not be both? Recognize at least the wisdom and gentleness of His plan if you can’t see anything else. His plan has a means and a method for its fulfillment, doesn’t it? And part of that method was that He chose to be modest and patient toward us—which is more than any of us do for each other when we believe our praise is due.
But I think we can say more than that. I think we can say that unbelievers do not have to reject him. Otherwise, how could He judge them? And we do not have to love him. Otherwise, how could He credit our love to us? If we are robots and automatons, then God is as ultimately responsible for sin as everything else because no other actual persons really exist but He, no matter what hermeneutic contortions you go through to try to extricate Him.
No, we truly chose to love God or to reject Him, and He allowed that freedom and even demanded it within His plan. Given the fact that God is easily powerful enough to force all of humanity to believe, one must really wonder at the extraordinary grace and sublime condescension involved in God hiding “the matter” from all of us. It will be our glory, as of kings, if we search it out by His grace.
If you’re looking for something else to read on this topic: I wrote a piece a while back called “Ars Est Celare Artem,” and it explores (quite obliquely) the topic of God’s intentional concealment. If you didn’t really “get” that post before, you might now.