The Olympic Mountains in Washington State form the "backbone" of the Olympic peninsula. Jagged peaks blanketed with snow for much of the year, they are a delight to behold. Living within walking distance of an overlook that affords a panoramic view of these majestic peaks often sounds a siren call beckoning me to come and to gaze at their beauty. I am not the only one who hears this call. On sunny days, the overlook is filled with individuals coming to gaze at, or to photograph those mountains as the sun cascades down their spiny backs.
There are other times, however, when the Olympics are shrouded in a thick blanket of cloud. Grey and foreboding, this blanketing cloud-blockade obscures any hope of viewing their grandeur. Hidden from view, one can only see an impenetrable wall of cloud.
Our human experience of God can appear very much like the Olympic Mountains. There are many days when God's grandeur and glory are on full display. And we are assured, like the ancient Hebrew poet that as we "lift up our eyes to the mountains" our "help comes from the Lord" (Psalm 121:1-2). At other times, God seems obscured by clouds—clouds of doubt, suffering, disappointment, or pervasive evil. Sometimes it seems that there are far more cloudy days, than clear ones. The experience of God can seem like that of the biblical Job going "forward but he is not there, and backward, but I cannot perceive him" (Job 23:8-9).
Deus absconditus is the Latin phrase that describes this phenomenon—the hidden God. The hiddenness of God is a particularly painful experience for those who affirm faith in God. It is equally difficult for people who do not affirm any faith: Where is this hidden God believers want us to follow? Why doesn't God show up? It is an apologetic conundrum experienced by many throughout history. Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest Christian apologists, described his own experience with deus absconditus as a pitiable mystery: "This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion, if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied."(1) Pascal speaks poignantly of the pitiable state when the clouds of our human experience hide God away and leave us with an utterly obstructed view.
Surely this was the same experience of Jesus as he wept in the Garden of Gethsemane. Under so much duress, his sweat mingled with drops of blood, the likely result of broken capillaries under his skin. And from the cross, his recitation of Psalm 22 became his cry of abandonment: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Here, the cry of deus absconditus from his only, beloved son. These are the last words uttered by Jesus in Matthew and Mark's Gospels. John doesn't include them at all. Of the three synoptic gospels, only Luke ends his crucifixion narrative with Jesus quoting from another of Israel's songs: "Into Thy hands, I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:5). Jesus affirms in a whisper of trust that seen or unseen, his life is in God's hands.
Perhaps, like Jesus, there are times when the best we can do is to yield ourselves to the God who seems hidden behind the clouds—and perhaps to acknowledge that the journey of faith is not always the warm assurance of perpetually clear skies that we thought it might be. For those outside of faith, such admissions may well be a needed authenticity.
In this sense, as author Flannery O'Connor wrote, faith is not the guarantee for security or comfort. "I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened... What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is a cross... You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don't expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty."(2)
In the experience of deus absconditus, God seems hidden from view just like my majestic Olympic Mountains. Yet even here, faith, not securing or comforting, but seeking and searching, still points towards the God who is there behind the clouds.
Margaret Manning Shull is an adjunct speaker with RZIM based in Washington.
(1)Blaise Pascal, Pensees, as cited in Kelly James Clark, When Faith is Not Enough (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 38.
(2)Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979), 354.