Richard Dawkins, renowned biologist and “new atheist,” was once asked how he would respond if it turned out that he were wrong – if, immediately after death, he found himself standing in the presence of God. Dawkins replied by slightly misquoting Bertrand Russell, equally renowned twentieth-century mathematician and “old atheist,” as saying, “Sir, why have you taken such pains to hide yourself?”
Unsurprisingly, Dawkins finds himself at odds with Scripture, which teaches that the existence of God is perceived in nature. At the same time, however, his reply is weirdly close to a quotation of the Bible, namely Isaiah 45:15: “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” While the prophet obviously does not question the reality of God, he frankly admits that God’s activity in human history (in this case, using the pagan king Cyrus to save his people) is very difficult to account for. Why could God not have raised up a faithful Jew to do the job instead of a politically motivated polytheist? There is no clear answer.
Of all the biblical documents, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church comes the closest to answering the question of why God works in the way he does. By way of rebuking the Corinthians for their factionalism, the apostle explains that God has decided to remain inaccessible to human wisdom, revealing himself only to those fools who believe that an executed criminal has saved the world. In general, God enjoys making a mockery of all the typical standards of strength, beauty, and power by selecting a bunch of losers as his people. If the God of Israel has chosen you, that can only mean there is something seriously wrong with you.
His goal is that “no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:29). God has arranged things precisely so that self-congratulation will be absent from heaven. This is only right and fair: glory belongs to the Lord alone. But there is a further reason why God finds human boasting so repugnant. To “boast,” after all, is to put forward some accomplishment or attribute as the evidence of one’s sufficiency. It is to say, “This proves that I have earned my spot in the world (or in heaven). This entitles me to the respect of others and of myself.”
Some of Paul’s opponents in Galatia argued for their legitimacy by “boasting” of the number of (circumcised) Gentile converts they were racking up (Gal. 6:13). Paul refused to play this game. The only item on his own apostolic résumé was his association with the crucified Jesus. Paul later expanded on this theme in his letter to the Philippian church. His opponents were again urging the observance of at least some portions of the Mosaic law as a prerequisite to salvation. They deemed Paul inexcusably lax in his attitude towards the law. Paul retorted that he had obeyed the law in a way they could only dream of: “as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless” (Phil. 3:6). For a Jewish man, keeping the law of God was the grounds for boasting, for feeling sufficient and secure. This was a life Paul could hang his hat on.
“Knowing Christ Jesus” (3:8) was just better than all the other stuff with which he had been constructing his life.
But God wouldn’t let him. When Paul was at his most righteous (he was busy confronting a sect of dangerous heretics), he was met by the crucified and risen Jesus. That encounter left Paul indelibly impressed with the cheapness of his own personal righteousness and the splendor of friendship with the Nazarene. “Knowing Christ Jesus” (3:8) was just better than all the other stuff with which he had been constructing his life.
Cobbling together résumés to prove one’s worth makes knowing Jesus impossible. Even in the realm of purely human relationships, we know full well what self-focus can do to our friendships and marriages. Conversely, knowing Jesus makes all of our résumé-building, our “boasting,” appear laughably silly, which it is.
God thus excludes our boasting out of his abundant mercy. He hides himself so that we can never take credit for having figured him out; he reveals himself only in ways that destroy our pride. He chooses pagan kings and a crucified Messiah. He conceals himself from the wise and learned and shows himself to children. He kills so that he can make alive. And this is no cruel joke. We might do our best to miss out on the eternal joy of knowing Jesus, but God refuses to let us succeed.