Have you ever seen a "Where's Waldo?"? It is a intricate drawing filled with many, sometimes hundreds, of tiny characters. Hidden among the scenery and the many images is Waldo, a dark-haired, bespeckled character wearing a red striped shirt and a stocking cap. The challenge is to find Waldo in the picture. It can be quite difficult, and tax your pattern-recognition skills to their limits. Frankly, I am not much interested in Waldo, but he serves as a decent analogy to what really fascinates me, Deus Absconditus.
What is Deus Absconditus? It is a Latin phrase (and don't you just love Latin?) that means "The Hidden God". It is a two-word description of how God is not obvious in the world. Many Christians, of course, disagree. They see God everywhere, in every good thing. They are not wrong to see that, but they don't seem to understand that what they are seeing is a product of their faith, not objective reality.
Objective reality is something like your car (which is actually a part of objective reality, to be clear about it). When your car drives down the road, people can see it. They can see where it is and which direction it is going. It doesn't really matter if you "believe" in cars or not. Your car is still visible. If you stand in the middle of the lane, watching it approach at high speed, and you don't move, and it doesn't swerve or slow down, you will surely have an "encounter" with reality of a very painful - and likely, fatal - sort. It is objective reality at work.
Objective reality doesn't depend on you, or your opinions, values, beliefs, or perspectives. It is just there. People can ignore it, and some people interpret it in remarkable ways. But as you encounter it, you have to deal with it, or with the encounter. If, for example, you are seated in your car, and you have somehow convinced yourself that there is no car, and you are in a very large room (and, yes, some people have skewed their perceptions of reality far enough to do that!), you will still be required by reality to deal with it. You will not be able to stand up erect. You will not be able to pace the floor without obstructions, and should your car travel to another city while you are in it, you will discover that you are no longer at home or wherever your starting point was. Those realities will have to be dealt with.
God isn't like that. He is a reality, some might say, The Reality. But while He is real, He has chosen not to be visible, tangible (touchable), or directly observable in this world. You might say that He has 'hidden' behind the reality you perceive. He is the Creator, so when you see a flower, you are observing the work of God - but you are not seeing God Himself, anymore than you are seeing me by reading the words on this page. Less, perhaps. The results of God's creative activities are visible, but He is not. Our daily bread reflects the providence of God, His care for us, and His provision for all our needs, but they don't really show us God. They tell us something about Him, but they don't really disclose Him.
That is one problem with so many religions. Often religions imagine that they see God in things and places where He is simply not visible. In every beautiful sunrise, they see God declaring something good to us. Of course, they see God declaring something else when sickness, sorrow, or pain strikes home. The truth is, however, that someone who does not believe in God will not see any sign of Him in either the delightful things of life or the troublesome ones. A rose, to them, is just a pretty flower. The sunrise is the natural consequence of observation from the planet surface. One might find it pleasing, but it is not mystical or divine. It is just what happens as the earth rotates on it axis, viewed from a particular spot on the globe.
God is not visible there. Nor can we perceive His will toward us by observing the world around us. I can tell you what God had in mind for yesterday (to a small degree) because yesterday has already happened. Even then, I would have a great deal of difficulty saying what it means, or what the over-all purpose of the day was. The fact that something wonderful happened somewhere does not mean that God is particularly fond of that place or the people there. The fact that something horrible occurs does not mean that God has forsaken those affected by it, or that He is unhappy with them. We can see what happens, but we cannot see why, nor can we perceive the will or heart of God by looking at those things. Deus Absconditus.
No life is perfectly wonderful. When we look at the blessings of another, we can only see part of the story. We do not see their troubles and challenges. We cannot observe how they receive their blessings. Some people receive them with guilt and shame. They form a burden for many people. As soon as some have abundant blessings, they wonder, "why me?". Others begin to worry immediately that they might lose them. You know the old adage, "Easy come, easy go". Even among those with great abundance, life is still life. A headache hurts pretty much the same whether you have ten cents in your pocket or ten thousand dollars. Which sign do you interpret as being meaningful about God, the headache or the cash?
Church people throw around careless words in this regard, too. I remember when the Missouri Synod held a capital fund drive called "Forward in Remembrance". It was the first time the church had succeeded in raising the amount of money they had targeted. They raised significantly more, in fact. Then all sorts of people began to crow about how abundantly God had blessed us. Suddenly, no one was paying attention to the Public Relations firm the Synod had hired to run a very clever and smooth fund-raising campaign, or the four million dollars we paid them to raise that twenty million! Nope. This was a clear sign of blessing from God, and abundance that He had poured out.
Now, I believe that every dollar raised was a blessing, and that God turned the hearts of many to give abundantly. But the campaign was markedly more successful than those previous to it because the Synod stopped trusting God to move the hearts of the people, and hired the best minds available to manipulate the people of the Synod into opening their pockets and giving like never before.
The real question is, was it really a blessing to the Synod? Did it help us, or lead our leaders astray, convincing them of the need and availability of larger amounts of cash? Has the Synod grown since the early 1980's? Has it become more united? Has it become more faithful to the Word of God? Was Forward in Remembrance the result of blessing, or a judgment laid upon a church body that was already wandering and not heeding the Word? I cannot say with any certainty, but it does give one pause to think. Where was God in all of this, and what was His intent?
God surely desired the faithful work of the Church to proceed, and souls be won, that is what our religious sensibilities tell us. Our theology tells us that God is in charge of those things anyhow. He doesn't need buckets of money. Those He has chosen to become joined to the body of Christ will. God makes it happen in every case. Our missionaries go to a new place and convert the unbelieving because God sends us there, and has chosen those unbelievers to become His children. He really doesn't wait for us. If we dawdle, He finds creative ways to push us out and forces us to confess Christ - or He sends someone else, and we lose the opportunity of serving in that situation.
On the other hand, just because we go and preach doesn't mean that God sent us. Just because we have no visible success doesn't meant that God hasn't sent us. Perhaps our task is to confess Christ boldly in the face of what appears to be a hopeless situation. Abundance is useful in the service of the Gospel, but it is by no means mandatory. Having abundance does not guarantee success, and lacking resources does not mean that our hands are tied or that we cannot accomplish great things. God does not bind Himself to conditions as we perceive them, or to our mood, talent, or ambition. He chooses who will accomplish great things (as we perceive them) and who will languish in obscurity and seeming ineffectiveness. He cause the Church to grow, and where He does not cause the growth, there is none, even if we draw crowds with our missional creativity.
The presence of apparent success and the lack of it says nothing about the value in the eyes of God of the person working, or the value of the results of the work. The parable of the Widow's Mites should teach us that, if it teaches us anything. The power for anything true to be accomplished in the Church is the Word of God, and the most precious quality of the worker is faithfulness, not creativity, not productivity, and certainly not elect-ability. Good press is good press, not a sign of divine favor. We enjoy public approval, but so have some of the world's most twisted monsters. God can use the energy and creativity of the unbelieving - even their sins - so performance based assessments are not conclusive. You just cannot read God from the world around you - or around others. Deus Absconditus.
God hides from observation in this world. He looks for faith among His people. We either walk by faith, or we walk away from Him. It is popular in today's world to look for signs or "lay fleece" before God. Both approaches are acts of unbelief. The child of God does what is right, according to the Word of God. He or she will do what the Lord sets before him or her to do. Sometimes those things are big and impressive and draw attention to us, but most often they are not and do not. We do what is right because it is right. We stand faithfully on the Word - and that "standard of sound words and the doctrine conforming to godliness" - because it what we have been given to do by our heavenly Father. We have not been given the order to be successful. We have been given the work of being faithful.
The only place God doesn't hide is in church. He speaks to you in His Word, and through faithful preaching. He speaks the absolution through the lips of the one He has called to be His voice in that place (your church). He baptizes, using the hands of His called servant, and He places the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on your tongue and in your mouth by His Word and by means of the man He chose to do it, using the pastor's hands as His own. You can see God at work and hear Him speak there, and be absolutely clear on His intentions by such speaking and working.
And when you want to know what the will of God for you is, or how His heart is intentioned toward you, you can look at the cross - preferably a crucifix. There you will see the only clear sign of the heart of God toward you. The weather today doesn't say how much God loves you. Your health or happiness at this moment or that doesn't indicate anything about God's feelings toward you. The day of your baptism, on the other hand, said that God chose you, and called you by name. And the cross tells you how much God loves you, how far He was willing to go to rescue you from sin and death and hell.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Your sins are forgiven, because Jesus came, and bore them to the cross in your stead. He exchanged your punishment for His eternal life and glory - so that you have nothing to look forward to but heaven. Death cannot touch you.
But that is not the way it looks. Deus Absconditus. God has hidden Himself and the truth behind reality that you can see. You can see people die. You cannot see them rise again - or go on living with Christ while they await the resurrection of their bodies. He hasn't hidden the truth entirely - it is preached loudly and clearly everywhere the Gospel is proclaimed. He has just hidden from view how real and true it is, so that you can walk by faith, and trust in Him, and take Him at His Word. Why is that important? He that believes and is baptized shall be saved.
Deus absconditus, the hidden God. He is hidden in plain sight, among all the evidences of His existence - Since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse - and the preaching that tells us of His great love and good will toward us. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
Where's Waldo, anyone?
Yours in the Lord,
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