Why Does God Hide Himself from Christians?

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Audio Transcript

Why does God hide himself from believers? It’s a question we have touched on, on the podcast, but we need to address it head-on. We do so today through a question sent to us from James, a listener in Toledo, Ohio.

“Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. Way back in APJ 338, you said God sometimes chooses to withdraw from us his ‘manifest, experienced, known, tasted’ sweetness of his presence. But you also said that God never leaves or forsakes his people either. So God never forsakes his people, but he sometimes withdraws from them the sweetness of communion with him. He hides his face, as the psalmist says in about a dozen places.

“In that episode, you demonstrated conclusively why this dynamic is equally at work in the old covenant and new covenant. At the end of it, you said God has ‘his reasons for doing this,’ but that ‘maybe there would be another time for us to talk about that.’ That was eight years ago. I don’t know that you have addressed it since. Can you explain some reasons why God would intentionally hide his face from us?”

So important. Let me repeat the very, very crucial central statement that he made. He said this: “So God never forsakes his people, but he sometimes withdraws from them the sweetness of communion with him. He hides his face, as the psalmist says in about a dozen places.” His question is, Why would God do that to his own children?

God Hides His Face

First, let me make the case that he already accepts. He doesn’t need me to make the case. But my guess is some of our listeners are saying, “Really?” There is evidence in our very songs that we sing these days that there’s disagreement about this. For example, Edward Mote wrote this great hymn, which most of us would recognize, 150 years ago:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus Christ, my righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’s name.

On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils his lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

That’s what he wrote: “When darkness veils his lovely face.” Then about a decade ago, a group (I won’t name them) adapted this hymn, and we sing it now, I think, under the title “Cornerstone.” And it goes like this:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’s blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’s name.

On Christ the solid Rock I stand,
All other ground is sinking sand;
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness seems to hide his face,
I rest on his unchanging grace.
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.

So Edward Mote, who wrote the hymn, wrote, “When darkness veils his lovely face.” And the group thought they could improve on that and do better, and they say, “No, actually we are going to sing, ‘When darkness seems to hide his face,’” as if it doesn’t really happen. Well, there’s disagreement. That’s the least you can say: there’s disagreement about that.

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Why would that be? My guess is that those who think darkness really doesn’t hide his face but only seems to hide his face would probably also reject William Cowper’s verse in his great hymn “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” — one of my favorite hymns. Here’s what he wrote:

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Now, Cowper not only says that darkness hides God’s face, but that God hides God’s face. Behind a frowning providence, he — God — hides a smiling face, which is what the question is: Why would God do that?

He Disciplines the One He Loves

I think Cowper’s understanding is right in the way God relates to his people. God is never wrathful toward his forgiven, justified, redeemed, loved, secure children. Christ has absorbed all of God’s wrath, and we have passed out of death into life. We have moved beyond judgment because the death of Christ is our condemnation. We don’t bear it anymore. We have been transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Therefore, God delights in us as his justified, forgiven children. But that delight does not exclude disapproval of behaviors and attitudes that don’t reflect the glory of the Father in his children, and it doesn’t exclude discipline of his children.

So Proverbs 3:12 says, “The Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” That’s amazing! We reprove the very son in whom we delight. In the New Testament, the book of Hebrews quotes that very proverb in reference to the suffering of Christians and says,

Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
     nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
     and chastises every son whom he receives.” (Hebrews 12:5–6)

“God delights in us as his justified, forgiven children. But that delight doesn’t exclude discipline.”

And that discipline sometimes includes seasons of spiritual darkness when God turns his face away — for example, when he turns his face away from answering our prayer, as in James 4:3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”

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In other words, “I’m looking away from that prayer. Your attitude and your motives are so corrupt that I’m looking away from that sinful request.” That may feel like darkness. That may feel like a season of darkness, because it is — when his face turns away, there’s a cloud.

Why He Turns Away

So let me give three reasons why God may turn his face away from time to time and give us over to seasons of perplexity, confusion, and darkness.

1. To teach us the value of his presence.

He does it to teach us the value of his precious presence by withdrawing it for a season. In Ephesians 1:18, Paul prays for the Ephesians that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened to know God. He’s praying for Christians. He’s praying for Christians because the brightness and the light of God’s preciousness is not always as clear as it should be or as we want it to be.

So he asks that we would know God as we ought to know God — know the sight of his face as we ought to know the sight, with the eyes of the heart. He asks that fresh glimpses of the worth and beauty and greatness of God would be given to us and that we would cherish him more because of having lost sight for a season.

2. To show us our own weakness.

He does it to teach us our own weakness in holding fast to Christ and keeping a clear view of his face — our weakness to keep a clear view of his face — so that we are humbled and made to realize how utterly dependent we are on God to keep his face before our heart’s eyes. That’s why Paul’s praying. It’s God doing.

“God allows us to taste that former darkness so that we will come trembling back to the word, and prayer, and the cross.”

At the end of the book of Jude, Jude 24–25, Jude soars with the most beautiful doxology in the Bible, and all of it is because of how amazed he is that God and God alone can keep us from stumbling and present us before God’s face — God’s glorious face. So, I think from time to time he allows us to slip into darkness so that we realize how desperately dependent we are on his grace for seeing him, which Jude so powerfully celebrates.

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3. To remind us of our great salvation.

Finally, I think he does this to remind us what it was like to be lost without Christ. In Ephesians 2:12, Paul commands us, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ.” He never wants us to forget what a wonder it is that God has revealed his beautiful face to us, removed separation, stepped in, lifted the veil, and made his face bright to us in the gospel.

So, from time to time he allows us to taste that former darkness so that we will come trembling back to the word, and prayer, and the cross, and lay hold on God in a fresh way and love our salvation more than ever.

So my prayer for all of you, all our friends who listen to these programs, is that when you walk through such a season, you would do what Isaiah 50:10 says: “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” Because as Hosea 6:3 says, “His going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.

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