Divine Hiddenness

Most, if not all, persons experience some form of suffering. Perhaps suffering takes the form of physical pain or some sort of mentally plagued ailment such as depression. Such cases are internal to the self, although surely there are cases which suffering is caused by external forces, i.e., the death of a loved one, which causally has influential impact on those who mourn. For theists, suffering exhibits a seemingly paradoxical experience, namely how the experiential suffering correlates to a God which the church asserts is absolutely loving. While some may coherently posit theodicies which stipulate and explicate how God uses suffering for good, others posit what is known as divine hiddenness – a theory which I myself adapt and will thus attempt to explain here.

Divine hiddenness can be interpreted in many fashions. Those that deny the influence of natural theology assert that God’s very existence is hidden from humanity. I will not concern myself with such interpretations. The definition of divine hiddenness which I will here examine is specific to situations which include the following conditions: (1) one ascents to the belief that God is real, (2) the belief in God involves a personal identification shift towards God’s goodness, and (3) the Christian experiences periods which God nor his goodness can be identified in specific instances of suffering.  From the definitional conditions stipulated here, divine hiddenness is an undetermined period of time which a Christian does not experience God nor see his goodness. Bluntly, it is God not revealing himself to his people under his own volition.

Those not familiar with the theory of divine hiddenness may cringe at the very notion that God hides himself from people. It seems antithetical to the Sunday School teachings that Jesus is our friend. To avoid any misperception over the nature of divine hiddenness, it is best to describe what divine hiddenness is not. First, this particular strand of hiddenness does not posit nor promote that God never reveals himself to creation. Instead, hiddenness, as already defined, is a temporary, albeit undetermined, period of time. Second, and more importantly, hiddenness does not mean that God is not working or active. Rather, God’s function continues yet remains hidden (or, at the very least, not yet revealed) to a specific person.

Inasmuch as it is critical to understand relation to God’s action, divine hiddenness likewise involves specific actions of the Christian agent who is subjected to hiddenness. Those who do not experience God at specific times are not unfaithful. That is, a lack of faith is not a necessary condition for divine hiddenness, although it may be a contributing factor. Many could accuse one who claims not to be experiencing God to be lacking faith, refusing to submit, or under the penalty of some sin. While all these may be true in some instances, situations such as this rest outside of divine hiddenness. The person who experiences hiddenness attempts to suffer righteously and thus seeks to find God amidst the darkness of a specific situation. Yet, they do not find God. They find nothingness where Being ought be.

Divine hiddenness is not merely a philosophical inkling. It is both supported and evidenced in scripture. When one examines the book of Job, one finds a faithful man in the midst of suffering and acute loss. He seeks earnestly to understand God’s faithful nature amongst such calamities, yet finds no answer. Eventually, once God reveals himself, Job’s health is restored and is granted great fortune.

While one could easily enter into a deeper and most extensive commentary on Job, the gist is all that is needed here. Job suffered greatly. He sought after God during this period. God did not respond and the suffering only intensified for Job. Job asked for revelation, sought understanding, and requested answers. All attempts seemed in vain. Yet, while God did not immediately respond, he remained intrinsically involved in Job’s situation both being attentive to his petitions and aware of the ignorance of those close to him. When God ultimately revealed himself and restored Job, the restoration manifested in a capacity which was greater than anything Job could have desired while God was hidden from him.

Such is often the case with divine hiddenness. There is a telos behind the method. When divine hiddenness manifests, God often has a specific, albeit unknown, plan. When God finally reveals himself, the revelation is often more than the sufferer could have otherwise imagined. For when in suffering, one clings to find hope, even if it is minuscule. One will essentially do anything to remove oneself from suffering and pain. While such escape is understandable, it would diminish the outcome that God would have for the person.

How, then, ought one live and (properly) function during these periods of hiddenness? Nicholas Wolterstorff advances several practical guidelines which he himself is said to have undergone after the death of his son. First, one should endure through suffering with devotion – a continual seeking of God.[1] I wish to posit a second piece of advice that is not discussed by Wolterstorff. When one is forced to function under the situations of divine hiddenness, it is best to remember the known facts about who God is and how he operates. That is, grasp hold of how you have experienced God in the past and continually remind yourself of the goodness of God. This aids in the virtuous pursuit of suffering righteously and arms one against disillusionment and bitterness.

As hard as it may be, suffering is a necessary component within a Christian lifestyle. It should be expected. While suffering may vary in quantity and degree, it may nevertheless involve situations of divine hiddenness. If this is indeed experienced, persevere through the uncertainty, pray mindfully, and await whatever understanding from God which will ultimately manifest. While complete answers may not be granted or understood under the sun, may we take hold of the promise of better understanding on the other side of paradise.

[1] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Silence of the God Who Speaks,” in Divine Hiddenness. Edited by Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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