That God hides is no secret to most people. The discontinuities and hardships of life itself signal the sense in all of us that God is apparently absent at the times he is most needed. A terrible accident, a natural disaster, the tragic loss of a child, the gradual descent of a loved one into the madness of dementia, or the catastrophic termination of meaningful work – these examples show the lurking specter of a hidden and unavailable God. Even worse, sometimes it seems that God is the one inflicting terror and punishment on us. This mysterious hiddenness in the events of life tempts us to believe either that God doesn’t much care what happens to us, or that he is far more involved in life’s tragedies than we want to imagine. God’s own justice and goodness are called into serious question.
The prophet Isaiah knew this all too well, especially in light of Israel’s exile: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior” (Isa 45:15). Isaiah’s admission clues us in to the fact that when God does hide, he hides twice, and not only once.
God’s Fearsome Hiddenness in the World
First, God hides outside of his word. His sovereign activity in the world raises all sorts of questions as to what God is like, what his intentions might be, or why he created us at all. This first hiding of God in the world and the mysterious events of life might even make us wonder if God himself is trying to remove faith itself from us. Moses had precisely this experience on his journey back to Egypt from Midian.
As Moses traveled with Zipporah and their sons, the text says rather bluntly that, “At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death” (Exod 4:24). Surely this is a shocking thing to happen after God has just revealed himself to Moses (Exod 3:1-6), told him to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh (Exod 3:10), and promised to go with him (Exod 3:12) – even telling Moses the divine name (Exod 3:14).
Nothing in the text indicates that Moses has done something to deserve this. It simply says that God tries to kill him. No reason is offered. Even the best attempts to fault Moses for something don’t come up with much. Rather grotesquely, Zipporah quickly circumcises their son and touches Moses’ feet with the excised skin (Exod 3:25). For this, God leaves Moses alone, but Moses acquires a nickname: “A bridegroom of blood” (Exod 3:26). Only the bloody foreskin can still God’s seemingly senseless anger at Moses. The most reasonable response to this hiding of God outside his word is absolute fear. It is this fear that drives one to the promises of God in his word. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” the psalmist says (Ps 46:1). Taking such refuge means that we “will not fear though the earth gives way” (Ps 46:2). Such refuge is to be found in the preaching of the gospel, the study of the Scriptures, the promise of Holy Baptism, and the words of forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper. These are the tangible, practical ways we take our refuge in God when we are overcome by fear, even fear of God himself.
Sinners endeavor to vindicate God in himself (in se) by accessing the overall logic that unifies his various acts. Such a schematic – designed to render God’s furtive work in the world somehow intelligible – always seeks a rationale for why God does or permits something. The irony here is that sinners often do want to show that God is righteous and good, but they want to do so on their own sinful terms. The easiest available way to vindicate God’s acts is to show that they are somehow justifiable according to the law God has given. If God permits evil, then he must have had a good and sensible reason for doing so, we are often tempted to think.
But God’s acts are not vindicated, justified, or intelligible in and of themselves. God, in his naked majesty, is far above us, and any attempt to access him in his majesty ends in terrible results. In his debate with Erasmus in The Bondage of the Will, Luther meditates on the reversal that occurs when God is sought out in majesty in this way. Luther notices that when it comes to Scripture, Erasmus is utterly cautious, warning people that the Scriptures are unclear, confusing, and dissonant. But when it comes to God in his majesty, Erasmus is more than willing to take up the speculative task and peak beyond the masks behind which God hides (see LW 33:60).
God’s Hated Hiddenness in Christ
Rather than being vindicated to us in himself, God is justified in his words (Ps 51:4). This is a second kind of hiddenness. God also hides in his words because his naked majesty can provide no comfort to us. It is where God locates his saving and merciful will that we are to grasp him. His word teaches us that Christ has been given over for our sins and that his resurrection has secured us from the condemnation of the law, the threats of the devil, and even the power of death.
Yet when this word in which God is justified actually comes to us, we respond not with fear, but with hatred. When Jesus preaches a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth, the news that he had come to fulfill the word of the prophets was not met with joy, but with an attempt to kill him (Luke 4:27-28). After Jesus announces that he is the bread of life, given for the world, his very life is in danger (John 7:1). Christ is hated because sinners do not want to be forgiven. We are much more stubborn than that. We would be far more comfortable with managing our sins on our own, devising self-improvement plans and systems of piety by which we remove our own transgressions. Sinners are often willing to take God’s help and assistance in the form of grace. But what the sinner resents the most is that God forgives freely and without reference to whatever contributions we might want to throw into the arrangement. It is plausible to no one that God hides himself in a word of promise, which justifies the ungodly without works (Rom 3:28; Gal 2:16). The point of God’s hiding outside the word is to drive us to his promises. One pushes us to the other.
God also hides in his words because his naked majesty can provide no comfort to us.
Jesus had exactly this problem throughout his ministry. He went about teaching the kingdom of God, bestowing the forgiveness of sins, healing the sick, and casting out demons. All of this portended the victory of his death and resurrection over all the evil forces that oppress the world in sin and death. Yet Jesus was met with opposition, especially from his own people. This is hardly surprising since Israel’s own scriptures testify to their sustained resistance to God through the course of their own history. Yet God loves Israel anyway. Nor was Jesus to be stopped by the opposition with which he was met by the religious authorities, the public, and even his own disciples.
Indeed, Christ goes all the way to the cross with forgiveness on his lips. Even when the apostles themselves flee the cross, leaving him only with two crucified thieves, Jesus still has more forgiveness to bestow. After the resurrection, the disciples are frightened by the news that Christ is alive. When he appears to them, he offers not judgment, but peace and forgiveness (John 20:19). God hides in the word, and even though we often don’t like what he has to say, he hands over his abundant mercy anyway.
God Overcomes Both Fear and Hatred
God, therefore, overcomes our fear of his hiding in the world and our hatred of Christ in the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor 1:22–25). God is in no way deterred by our discomfort and dislike of the way that he comes to save us. We might not appreciate that God chooses to save us by his word alone, but our discomfort doesn’t make the promise any less effective. Because we are saved by faith alone without works, even our posture of fear or hatred is not enough to deter the grace of God. Perhaps you fear what God has planned for your life. Maybe you are wounded by tragedy and left wondering where God is, how to discern his goodness or find his favor. The cross of Christ might seem implausible or foolish. Even so, God’s word will secure and sustain you against all things, especially your fear and your hatred.
We might not appreciate that God chooses to save us by his word alone, but our discomfort doesn’t make the promise any less effective.