The Elusiveness of God
(Elusive: hard to isolate or identify; not allowing for a clear perception)
When I was a kid, way back in the last century, our neighborhood children would often play a game called “hide and seek.” The task of finding those who had diligently hidden themselves was often quite arduous and could result in some lapse of time. However, the joy of discovery once you located the hiders was immense. It was real elation and a true sense of accomplishment.
It is fascinating how many of the Psalms convey something somewhat similar in our relationship with the Lord. It is often expressed in terms of the “face” of the Lord. For example, in Ps 13 David bemoans, “How long will You hide Your face from me?” David is herein lamenting the sense of God’s absence from his life. In Psalms 27 and 69 David is pleading with the Lord to not hide his face from him, to not remove the manifest sense of his glorious presence.
Following Jesus’ resurrection, we see several examples of divine elusiveness. Jesus showed himself first to Mary Magdalene, a previously demon-possessed woman whom Jesus delivered. As Mary engaged angels at the sepulcher, Jesus addressed her calling her by name. She didn’t recognize Jesus and took him to be the gardener. Later Jesus joined two disciples traveling to Emmaus and talked with them regarding the crucifixion. These two disciples did not realize they were talking with Jesus himself until the breaking of bread at supper. When these two disciples returned to Jerusalem and joined the eleven apostles and other believers, Jesus once again appeared in their midst. Again, they didn’t recognize him but rather responded in fear believing Jesus to be a ghost.
The idea that God would intentionally “hide” himself from us tends to contradict or offend our sense of who he should be for our sakes. We tend to think God should be available at our beck and calling. After all, isn’t the Lord the one who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble? If we are to properly get our minds around this idea of the elusiveness of God, we must ascertain what our orientation to the Lord really is. Our relationship with the Lord will either be anthropocentric or Christocentric in nature. We are either putting ourselves at the center of our world or we are seeing Christ as the center of God’s eternal purpose.
An anthropocentric worldview is why so many believers do not have an intimate relationship with God. In this view, we tend to see God as one who is there for our benefit. We treat God as if he were supposed to be our body guard or the one who ensures nothing “bad” happens to us. Too often we only turn to God as one who bails us out of trouble or sets things right in our lives. We put God on the shelf until we feel we need him to make things better for us. We tend to make God over in our image, to think of him as we particularly want him to be for our sakes, for our purposes.
We tend to want to define the terms on which we meet with God. We attempt to create the “sacred” context in which we believe God will be most manifest. We can often be guilty of practicing a kind of sacramentalism wherein we seek to establish specific places, activities and conditions wherein we believe the presence of God is more guaranteed or absolute. The biblical reality of the omnipresence of God somehow seems to elude us at times like this. We have basically been religiously conditioned to believe God can be more found, will be more manifest, in a church building, in the liturgical practices of our particular persuasion, and in the offerings of “professionals” presenting the word and worship.
Part of the reason we assign sacredness to certain places and practices is our failure to completely relinquish the Old Covenant while fully adopting the new. Fundamentally, God was known as more of an outward reality in the Old Testament while everything became in inward reality in the New. Therefore, the Israelites participated in special feasts and celebrations held in designated places considered sacred and rife with the presence of God. The tabernacle and the temple were such places and sacrifice was particularly important in meeting with the Lord. However, when the New Covenant replaced the Old, with the giving of the Holy Spirit, with the writing of it on the heart, man no longer needed the religious interface of another person or of “sacred’ things to reach and commune with God.
Even this truth was pointed to and illustrated in the Old Testament when Jacob wrestled with the angel. In great fear of losing his life and the lives of his family as well as his considerable wealth in the impending meeting with his brother Esau, Jacob did everything humanly possible to change the outcome of the expected disaster. After sending his family and belongings across the river, he still struggled with how he could preserve his own life. This struggle was graphically portrayed in his wrestling with the angel through the night. When it was over and he knew that he had been in the presence of the Lord, Jacob named the place Peniel (face of God), because he said, “I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared.”
Previously Jacob encountered the Lord through a dream (Jacob’s ladder), and as a result had this to say, “Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.”
These encounters with God were foretelling the coming reality of how God’s omnipresence would become more manifest in the New Covenant through Christ and his atoning death at Calvary. It has been God’s heart from eternity past to commune and dwell with his created ones.
And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (Ex 25:8 NKJV)
I will dwell among the children of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them up out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them. I am the LORD their God. (Ex 29:45,46 NKJV)
Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel, which is translated, “God with us.” (Matt 1:23 NKJV)
If in fact it has always been God’s desire to dwell with his people, why would he be elusive? It appears that making himself difficult to find would be incompatible with his desire to dwell among us. The Bible is loaded with encouragements to seek the Lord. In fact, there are at least 390 references enjoining us to seek the Lord. That would average 6 references on seeking the Lord per book of the Bible. This all suggests that intimacy with God is far from a given; it is not axiomatic or formulaic in nature. Our relationship with God is only realized through our intentional, persistent, and unrelenting pursuit of him. Scripture tells us that God is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him. David, who deeply desired to build a house for the Lord, had to relinquish that glorious task to his son, Solomon. In doing so, he gave him this awesome guidance and encouragement:
Now seek the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. Build the sanctuary of the LORD God so that you can bring the Ark of the LORD’s Covenant and the holy vessels of God into the Temple built to honor the LORD’s name. (1 Ch 22:19 NLT)
We are talking here about the pearl of great price, the treasure found in the field that makes the field worth purchasing; we speak here of lavishing a pound of expensive ointment on the only one who is worthy of such a gesture. In David’s counsel to his son, we are the temple that is being built. The ark, the most significant and precious piece of furniture in the temple is Christ. The holy vessels represent the eternal truths that usher us into the fullness of his likeness. All that we are seeing chronicled in this passage foreshadows the inner spiritual reality of the New Covenant in Christ.
If there is indeed anything “hidden” of God, it is solely for the purpose of being wonderfully revealed within the context of God’s eternal purpose. The very definition of the word “revelation” in Scripture helps us understand this concept. The words reveal, revelation, etc. come from the Greek word “apokalypto.” In the world this word is usually seen as apocalypse and most often refers to some kind of cataclysmic activity. However, in Scripture, it is the very wonderful concept of revelation, of revealing of things from God. The word literally means to uncover or lay open that which has been veiled or covered up. It carries the sense of that which has been intentionally obscured for the purpose of discovery. It makes one think about the wrapping of Christmas gifts; they are intentionally covered precisely that they might be opened, revealed, at the appropriate time. My wife often refers to seeing new insights in the Word as receiving a present from the Lord.
Revelation isn’t principally about biblical knowledge; it is primarily about knowing God. When Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?”, Peter’s response confirmed he knew Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus then stressed the point that Peter could not have known this through natural means; it was a revelation from the Father. The elusiveness of God is all about bringing us continually and more progressively into knowing him.
The Apostle Paul wonderfully expresses this concept in Philippians 3. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was so intense and dramatic that it instantly changed his entire orientation to God and life itself. This is what Paul is expressing in Philippians 3 when he acknowledges the giving up of everything related to the Old Covenant for the incredible, surpassing worth of knowing Christ. Paul’s heart is very much summed up in verse 10 when he simply says, “I just want to know Christ.”
Possibly the greatest rationale contributing to the elusiveness of God is his desire to move man from a narrow, religious and iconic perception and relationship to truly discovering him in all things. This would be tantamount to living out the reality of the omnipresence of God. He is not only ever present but also ever involved in all matters of our lives. Because we seem to have a propensity for categorizing matters as either good thing or bad thing, we summarily rule out discovering God in the so-called “bad” things of life. This habit of good/bad divide tends to prevail when our worldview is mostly temporally oriented. The more we can train ourselves to see all things from an eternal perspective, the more inclination we will have to discover God in all things.
This is not to say that God is the initiator of bad things in our lives. Surely nothing evil can emanate from the only one whose very nature is good. However, God can use any and all circumstances in some manner to further his eternal work in our lives. This only happens with our permission, never violating our personal will. In essence, we give the Lord permission when we seek to discover him in the midst of whatever circumstances we are experiencing. We seek to discover what it is he wants to accomplish in our lives that is going to bring us more into the fullness of Christ. Seeking the Lord primarily to escape untoward circumstances is merely attempting to make him our magic wand. Absolutely everything God is doing or wants to do in our lives is to bring us into the full stature of Christ, to be completely conformed to his image. This is in fact a major factor in the fullness of Christ in all things being realized. This is God’s eternal purpose.
God’s elusiveness is always benevolent, always about calling us more into Christ and always of an eternal orientation. We are more apt to discover him in the midst of a trial or tribulation than in the finest orchestrated worship experience man could arrange. In terms of discovering God in a spiritually edifying manner is more likely to happen in the trying moments of life than in the most ornate edifices or grandest liturgies. The only “X” factor in this equation is our willingness to seek and discover God in the sacrament of the present moment.