The Hiddenness of God, Part 2
The hiddenness of God is a perennial question, particularly in apologetics circles. Though the issue is frequently explored in philosophical terms, Scripture has a great deal to say on the matter but it frames it in surprising ways. In this series, we’ll explore God’s hiddenness under three headings: mystery, foolishness, and expectation. This episode focuses on the category of mystery and argues for a more holistic understanding of the word.
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Cameron McAllister: Hello, and welcome to the Vital Signs podcast. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister. Thank you so much for tuning in today. This is part two in a series titled the “Hiddenness of God.” We're exploring the hiddenness of God under three headings, mystery, foolishness, and expectation. If you haven't listened to the mystery episode yet, you can do so. Go back and to take a listen. This week, we're going to focus on foolishness. What on Earth does foolishness have to do with the hiddenness of God? Let me begin with the reformer Martin Luther.
Luther talks about what he calls theologians of glory and theologians of the cross. He contrasts these two. He says, "A theologian of glory calls the bad, good, and the good, bad. But the theologian of the cross tells us the way things actually are."
Now, this is a really, really interesting little setup, so let's unpack it a little bit.
What is Luther talking about? If we look at the world around us and if we look at it in purely human terms, glory actually is a very, very important concept. It has a lot to do and it's a word that I think has a little bit of an ancient sort of pedigree. We don't use the word glory quite as often these days. But when we think about human aspirations and human endeavors, so many of them turn on glory. I was getting my hair cut the other day and of course you, over so many conversations, was overhearing the person next to me and his hairdresser talking about some people they knew and it was just some sort of banter and gossip. They were talking about this one person who had 20,000 followers and was thinking of herself as some sort of a huge celebrity and that she was going to get further and further and get more and more followers.
But what was taken for granted in this conversation and actually it wasn't even hinted at, it was said several times, was that celebrity was sort of the ultimate benchmark of success. Fame and celebrity. Well, that again has to do with glory. I mean, that's a big setup in art I think on our culture right now. Because in the past, I think in many ways fame has felt elusive. Andy Warhol, famous for his pop art, but Andy Warhol was never more prophetic than when he said in the future everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.
That kind of 15 minute fame does seem to be within reach much more within reach than it did in the past. There are ways to get your voice out there. There are ways to reach so many people, and it's just easier. It requires a lot less money, it requires a lot less time, and let's face it, often requires a lot less talent. But this idea that that fame will somehow grant you that ultimate fulfillment.
I mean, again, this is the idea of glory. Glory rests often, in Luther's terms here, what Luther is thinking of, glory in terms of human achievement, and power, and might, and wealth. And so what does foolishness have to do with this? Well, if in essence you don't disparage fame as inherently always bad, but if it's not your central aspiration, if your central aspiration is not to see yourself glorified and you turn your back on that very, very decisively, that's going to look like foolishness.
Now in the world of Christianity, many people do that. If you look at the Bible, for instance, the apostle Paul, Paul before he is Paul is Saul of Tarsus. Saul of Tarsus, yes, he was a religious figure, but he was a figure. He was a figure of glory in Luther's figuring here. He would be a theologian of glory initially because he was tremendously influential. He was tremendously powerful. He had amazing influence and he commanded tremendous respect, trained up in the law. Absolutely zealous Pharisee persecuting the church.
When he becomes a Christian, when he has that road to Damascus experience where the living God violently, disruptively, dangerously reveals himself to him and in blinds him, absolutely knocks him off his horse, so to speak. When that happens, he walks away from all of that. Can you imagine how he looked to his colleagues, his former colleagues? Like an idiot. Walked away from all this prestige, all this power, all this influence. Now what happens to him? Now he's villainized. When he becomes a Christian, he's flogged constantly, and he's imprisoned, and eventually executed. This is why this makes a lot more sense now. When we think about Paul and we think about Luther's little contrast between theology of glory versus theology of the cross, theologians of the cross, this is the guy who boasts in his weakness.
Remember that? These odd phrases from Paul. Think about 2 Corinthians chapter 12 where Paul goes on and on boasts. It's a very complex chapter by the way, where he goes on boasting about his weakness. That is a really, really interesting feature. But it makes perfect sense. When you turn to Christ, you turn away from self-glorification. It's a process. All of our sinful tendencies are selfish tendencies and we want to see ourselves magnified.
There's a wonderful passage about John the Baptist and I come back to this time and time again. I think it's really powerful and beautiful, especially in our moment where celebrity, of course in the church here in North America, we're experiencing our own serious, serious problems, and we're experiencing the real pitfalls of celebrity culture, are we not? We're seeing firsthand the dangers of elevating somebody on a pedestal and shielding them from all criticism, and all accountability, and allowing them to believe their own press. We're seeing what that does to a person, what it does to any of us.
Well, John the Baptist, his disciples. John the Baptist had disciples. He was a pretty weird guy, but he was really charismatic and he was an amazing, amazingly compelling presence out there in the wilderness. Well, some of his disciples start deserting him and following Jesus, and so other of his disciples are really concerned. what do you think about this, John? You're losing followers, John. That's when we get that famous phrase from John where basically says over and over, he says, "I've been telling you that one is coming who is greater than me. The Messiah, the lamb of God." Remember, John is the one Jesus's baptism, he says, "Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. I'm not even worthy to undo his sandals. I've been telling you that and he is here, and he must increase and I must decrease."
Okay, from a biblical standpoint, if Christianity is true, that makes beautiful sense. From a worldly standpoint, that's lunacy. That's lunacy. Why? Because okay. That means you're giving up your platform. That means you're throwing it all away. You've built this following. You've built this tremendous following. And now you're going to throw away your career like that? But that is the way of the cross. And boy, does the cross ever look incomprehensible in the eyes of the world. I come back to this time and time again on this podcast, but who could ever have conceived of divine victory arriving through an instrument of torture and execution? But that is the Christian story, the broken beauty of the cross and of the living God taking on flesh, and going to that cross, and being crucified on that cross, dying that death of absolute Roman execution.
This was one of the most humiliating, grueling deaths. All of Jesus's followers seeing this. Can you imagine how appalling this would've been? The abject despair, and yet rising? This cross, this instrument of humiliation would be the vehicle of ultimate redemption and victory. That victory comes through a cross in worldly terms, that is foolishness. But that's the way it is. If Christianity is true, that's the way it is. Victory really did come through the cross.
In that sense, when you see the world from the standpoint of Jesus's victory on the cross, suddenly everything's turned upside down. You've probably heard the phrase, the upside down kingdom to describe the kingdom of God, but this is part of what it means. Because now you can see that all the worldly schemes of power that just glorify human beings, that they are actually in effect doomed to dust.
They won't last. There's not a lasting victory there because after all, we're all mortal and we're all going to die, and all human aspirations will eventually die. All legacies will die. Everything will eventually. All of that's consigned to the dust. But the living God who conquered death through the cross and who gives us good news, not for those who have it together, not for those who are powerful, but for the downtrodden. This is where you hear Jesus saying, "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek." Why? Because this is good news for them. If you are a person who has it all together, if you're a person who you think your life is under control, you feel that you feel that you're happy, that you've got so much in life, then there's really not too much that's going to convince you that you need help.
I think that's one of the great maladies of our modern age. I think one of the great sense, the illusion that we have of control. I talked about this a little bit in the first episode, but it's this idea that we somehow have it all together. It really is wool over our eyes. It misleads us into thinking that somehow we've got it all under control, we'll be happy forever, and everything in this world will give us all we need and we're going to live forever. It's complete lunacy. Because if we actually take a hard look at life and you look at all the crises that happen, you look get the relationships that crumble, the deaths that happen, the wealth that is often lost, we're worried about a recession again. It's so interesting. You know, those who are mature in Christ will be concerned, but they won't be deeply, existentially worried about a recession.
You know why? Because in the end, they understand that all things, including their lives, including their wellbeing and their livelihood, all of those things are in the hands of the living God. Does that mean that their wealth is safe? No. It means that they understand that earthly treasures are not the last word. Again, does that sound foolish to you? Does that sound irresponsible to you? Then you're starting to gain some insight into what Luther is getting at and what Paul is getting at to boast in weakness. We are all of us weak. Some of us are in positions of tremendous power that mislead us and help us to forget that, but we are all weak. All of us need help. You know why? You had to really test a man? My boss and colleague, Abdu Murray often says this, "You know, if you really want to test a person's character, give them a platform." Another way of saying that would be if you really want to test the person's character, give him a lot of power.
In other words, give them success and see what happens. Because so often it goes to their head. We understand the power corrupts, right? We're seeing so much of that right now. Because it goes to our head and we think that we are inviolable, that our wills are sacrosanct, and we become like these grown petulant children. This is how tyranny starts often. But you see that's because we're weak. All of us need help. So to boast in your weakness is to take hold of the great wisdom that the Lord's strength has made perfect in our weakness. Because those who are weak, those who recognize their weakness, are leaning on the living God and resting in him. They're not resting in their own strength.
You rest in your own strength, that is a recipe for failure every time. You might not be experiencing that failure yet, but it's coming. All earthly endeavors have expiration dates. All of them. Everything. The whole world is passing away. To see it in other terms is to be misled. To see the world in any kind of permanent terms, it's a total illusion. There's no wonder, it's no wonder that people, some of the best minds, some of the best secular minds are putting their heads together at Oxford University and Silicon Valley in particular and trying to think about a way to forge ahead and move beyond humanity to a post human stage where we have total and complete control over everything, and where we can completely shape our destiny. You know what, in earthly terms, that sounds like a noble aspiration, but if you, you're a person who is thinking in terms of the cross, it's folly, it's absolute foolishness, and it can't work. It can't. It's impossible.
We can't solve the riddle of our own natures. C.S. Lewis's probably most prophetic and powerful, and concise little book is called the Abolition of Man. That's what he says. He talks about in the end if we tried to take control and harness everything, if we want to try to control all nature, and let's say by some really powerful technological feat, scientific feat, we actually achieve it and we gain all this mastery over nature. The only thing left for us to conquer will be human nature itself. That's really the aspiration of many of these people, to rewrite human nature and to fix it. But the problem is, I come back to this time and time again, we can't fix ourselves. We've never been able to fix ourselves. Never in history do we have any indication that we are able to improve human nature.
There's genuine moral progress. We can root out grave evils, but those evils are still replaced by other ones. The world remains fallen. There's a really powerful, and I think quite despairing passage in Albert Camus's great novel The Plague where we meet his hero, Dr. Rieux. And Dr. Rieux, what I love about Camus, and I've talked about him before, is that I think he's a very honest atheist and he wrestles with one of the great questions that I wish more people who deny the existence of God would wrestle with. That is what does it mean to be a good person in the absence of God? Camus came to the conviction that the meaning of life was to be a saint, to live for others, to prioritize the needs of others, to live selflessly. But how do you do that without God? Dr. Rieux is Camus's picture of that.
And so, Dr. Rieux, there's this outbreak of this plague, and so Dr. Rieux lends his expertise and risks contamination himself. Manages to survive, but it's a huge risk. He's willing to lay down his life for these people. At the very end, when they finally are able to bring this plague under control, they want to celebrate their victory, they take a victory lap. There's this really haunting sense in which, and he says, "Yes, but there'll be another plague. There's always another plague." That's that sense, when we just turn our eyes to life under the sun alone, when we just see this world alone. Yes, we may wait one day come to a place where we have a tremendous breakthrough and we solve cancer. There'll be something else. We may stamp out chattel slavery, but we've got the sex trafficking industry over here.
We may root out racism in its overt forms over here, but it remains dormant or it remains covertly cloaked in all of these sort of clandestine policies, and just it just keeps cropping up in different manifestations. There's another plague. There's always another plague. As we look at, and sometimes I think this is reflected in a lot of, we're really interested in the criminal justice system and taking it apart these days, and looking at all the deficiencies and trials. If you're a fan of all of the many. I know I do this podcast, but the podcasts that I listened are, hey, true crime podcasts and investigative journalism podcasts. I love those. But you know what? A huge part of the engine driving there is to show the deficiencies in our justice system. It's really disconcerting, because we see, oh my goodness, these are after all human institutions, and the notion of an impartial jury or an impartial judge is a fantasy.
Look to the world with honest eyes and you will see that we can't solve riddle of our own weakness. We can't solve our own nature. We actually have to be saved. A huge aspect of the mystery, the hiddenness of God, is this foolishness, because it does look like foolishness in the eyes of the world when you see the world in these terms. It is a sort of up is down and down is up mentality, because everything, all human aspirations, all those attempts at glory, all of those attempts to elevate human beings. To see those all as completely misguided is to be translated as a fool in many ways. And yet to gain a true, this is why Luther so right to say that the theologian of the cross calls things as they actually are. This is where, I've said this a lot, Christians often come across looking like hardened, cynical almost, realists with regard to human abilities.
But because we believe that we have been rescued by Jesus Christ, we have hope. But our hope is not in this world and it's not in human abilities. It's in a savior. We actually need a savior. When you recognize that you actually need a savior, when you recognize what's in your own heart, you cannot fix. Have you tried this? I'm seeing this time and time again. I'm seeing this every day now. As a new parent, I'm learning all sorts of new horrible things about myself, but in a way it's a huge blessing to me, because those revelations of my wretchedness are also revelations of my total dependency on a savior. They remind me that I need to be saved and they also fill me with just joy, because I can praise the Lord who is delivering me from myself.
I don't need to look at the news to know that there's something wrong with human beings. All I have to do is look at myself. That's all I have to do time. Time again, that's confirmed for me on a daily basis. When you see that, you're actually seeing the way things are. And so, a great deal of the hiddenness of God as we see it in scripture revolves around this foolishness aspect. You are now following the living God and you want to see him increase and yourself decrease, and that means that you look in comprehensible to the world. You are following the risen Christ who conquered death through an instrument of torture and humiliation. His victory came through what looks like, in earthly terms, a defeat. You see, this is what it means. This is the foolishness aspect of the hiddenness of God. You know, if God were to reveal himself completely in the ways in which we would want, you see that by the way, in scripture,
The disciples have all the expectations that we would have. They certainly have the expectations I would have. When Jesus, before he is crucified, and risen, and appears to them after his resurrection, before that, they're expecting a political leader. They want him to deliver the nation of Israel. They want him to crush Rome under his heel. They're expecting this conquering powerful king. And he is that, but he's not doing it in any way that they expect. Never in their wildest dreams would they imagine that he would be executed on the cross, and that he would rise again, and that his coming kingdom, his return in glory, that that is the final consummation. But it's not a validation of any one individual culture or political party on this planet. Oh no, it's the ushering in of a new heavens and a new Earth, a new world.
And that's what we are awaiting. That's a beautiful little, well, that's a helpful little, I think, ending point there because our final installment in the series will explore expectation. That is that Christians are characterized by great expectations, and that they are anticipating the coming of this king, King Jesus, to make all things new. That's what I want to talk about in that final installment.
So, we've considered the hiddenness of God under the heading of mystery and now foolishness, that the way of the cross, that now you're following Jesus Christ, and now you have taken up your own cross and you are following him rather than your own needs and your own wishes, or following any other earthly people, whether they're millionaires or celebrities. He is your God and you follow him, and you want to see him increase and yourself decrease. That that is the best and most beautiful fulfillment of who you are and that it actually brings you into align with reality. But in the eyes of the world, you will look to be a fool.
But I think if we just open our eyes to our own human condition, we see very quickly how frail and hollow all human aspirations are devoid of the knowledge of our total dependency on the living God. This foolishness aspect is simply to talk about the incomprehensibility to others of acknowledging our weakness and resting in the Lord rather than our own strength and boasting and our weakness, in that sense that we can boast in our weakness, and we can recognize that the Lord can work through us. I'll tell you time and time again in times of weakness, I've seen this in my own ministry and many of my colleagues have as well when we're on the road, if we're physically sick, when we're at our most frail, emotionally fragile, and pushed to our absolute visceral limits, when we're at our most tired, when we think we're at our least elegant, least powerful, least polished.
When there's so many, "Ums," and we're staggering and stumbling through a message, those are often the occasions where we're Christ works so powerfully. Where the Holy spirit hold in a way that we just can't imagine. Why? That is the Lord working through our weakness. That's the Lord's strength being made manifest through our weakness. Time and time again, you see this in scripture by the way, how many passages in the Old Testament, all those famous passages where the Lord has leaders limit the army. Nope. Take it down. Take it down. Less men. Lose another 1000 men so that it's unmistakable that this is the Lord working and not your own strength. Time and time again, you see this dynamic in the life of many of the church's great servants. I think that we need to bear that in mind as we think about the hiddenness of God. This foolishness aspect is so important.
I hope this has been helpful to you. I hope this has been comprehensible to you. I hope it gives you real food for thought. You've been listening to Vital Signs, a podcast exploring signs of life in today's culture. I'm your host, Cameron McAllister, and I'm a speaker and a writer here at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
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