A brief followup to a previous entry on the invisibility of spiritual things.
Q. Why is God invisible? Wouldn’t it be way easier to believe in him if we could see him?
A. Let me frame my answer to this question with a disclaimer: I honestly have no idea. God’s ways are so far above my own, and his knowledge so much greater than mine, that any reasons I might give are sure to be incomplete, flat-out wrong, or only shadowy imitations of the real truth. That being said, I think the best way to answer is to look at Scripture, and then consider what God’s invisibility communicates to us as believers in him.
The first, most obvious answer I can think of is that God is spirit. (John 4) That is his essential nature, just like being human is our essential nature. We can only use our five senses to interact with the universe; we can’t see God’s spirit, any more than we can see our own. That’s just the way God made us. This answer is helpful in understanding in a practical sense WHY he is invisible to us, but it doesn’t explain why he CHOSE to make himself invisible.
One good reason I see in Scripture numerous times is that God is holy. We are simply not programmed to handle the sight of God. He is way too intense to be seen with our unholy human eyes. Because of our fallen nature, any close contact with Almighty God would destroy us completely. Now Moses was one of the most righteous men in history. But not even Moses was permitted to see God’s face (Exodus 33:19-23). If Moses can’t get away with it, why should you or me? We are two people that are clearly not as good as Moses. Remember the ark of the covenant? It was traveling from one city to the next, like a victory parade after the Super Bowl. One of its carriers noticed it was wobbling a little, put his hand out to hold it steady, and DIED INSTANTLY. The ark was full of the Presence of the Lord, and the Israelites were commanded not to touch the ark. This man’s very act of touching it brought his sin into close proximity with God himself, whose holiness utterly obliterated the sin on contact. So if sinners are not able to see God, or come into contact with God’s holiness, without that kind of thing happening — to be honest, I’m pretty glad we can’t.
Another reason God might choose to be invisible is that it helps us understand that God is separate from his creation. When we come to God, we come to him from within creation, and yet we’re speaking with a Being that is both outside and above all creation. He is distinct from the physical universe and yet fills it completely. “In him we live and move and have our being.” In Romans 1, Paul says that God’s invisible power is evident from what has been made (i.e. the creation surrounding us.) God is the one who invented quantum mechanics, icy dwarf planets, Dalmatians, orange groves, evolution, and hydrogen. He is also the one that invented the human heart and soul, with all its complexities and neuroses. He did all of this from a very high vantage point, taking care of his creation, expending insane amounts of creative energy and divine inspiration, yet in no way dependent upon it for his own existence.
Fourth, it continually reminds us that God is in charge. Since we can’t see God, we are forced to look for him. We are placed in the humbling position of needing to seek God and find him every day. We draw all of our life from God, both physically and spiritually; he is the source of all good things. But he is under no obligation to us. We are beggars, but he is abundantly rich. He can interact with us as much as he chooses, or abandon us at his own discretion. Amazingly, the blessed reality is that God loves us freely and reveals himself to us. Yet part of that revelation is the knowledge that he is in full command. We must answer to him, and he answers to no man on Earth.
So far we have seen what God’s invisibility communicates about his character. Now we turn to the effects it has on our character, starting with arguably the most important goal: developing faith in God. For reasons that I still don’t fully understand, God has determined that faith is one of the three most essential parts of our spiritual life, alongside hope and love. Our faith in God is so important to him that he made it the instrument of our salvation. Faith implies an intimate trust in the intentions of another, despite whatever evidence there might be to the contrary. It produces a humble kind of love that bears all things and believes all things in devotion to the other. Throughout Scripture (and our own lives) we see many examples of wrong relationships humans can have with God, but we also see several examples of a right relationship with him: faith. We ought to trust God, because he is so much bigger and better than us. Simple as that. Lack of faith in God is what happens when I get the equation twisted, and I set myself above God in order to judge him, doubt that he knows what he’s doing, or refuse to believe his word. A child has faith in her parents to do her good, to take care of her, to discipline her bad behavior fairly, to make the right decisions and keep her safe. This is a beautiful picture of what God wants our relationship with him to look like. Jesus said “Unless you turn and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Job said “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” The fact that we must believe in God, rather than see him, helps to produce that kind of faith in us.
The sixth reason I can give is closely related to the last: developing hope in God. This is one of the hardest commands in the Bible for me to follow, by far. In Romans 8:24-25, Paul says this: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” The process of building hope can be a maddening one: prayers may not be answered for months, even years, as suffering continues with little end in sight. Think of Abraham waiting twenty-five agonizing years for the birth of Isaac. Or the four hundred years of slavery Israelites endured in Egypt, followed by forty years of aimless wandering in the desert, before they crossed over into the Promised Land. Think of Hannah going faithfully to the temple each year to pray for a son, only to be answered with silence, bitter disappointment and taunts from her enemies. Think of the old woman bleeding for twelve years, going to every doctor she could afford, trying every remedy and faith-healing huckster in town, but never healed until Jesus finally came. Think of Lazarus’s family, having sent for Jesus during Lazarus’s sickness, then watching him die and burying him four days before the Messiah arrived. The Scriptures are full of instances where God made his children wait for him. Yet in hope against hope, they believed. Their character was severely tested, and they came out the other side purified and refined. But even more than that, they all got what they waited for, without exception — and it was better than they had ever hoped. Hope is the belief that God will keep his promises, even as we wait for them to be fulfilled. It is an essential component of our spiritual life with God. Without hope in him, we would be utterly lost. So God has hidden himself, not to punish us, but to give us the gift of hope.
Finally, the fact that God is now invisible to us helps build our anticipation for the day that we will finally see him. If you’ve ever gone away from home for a long period of time, you know what that word “anticipation” means. My cousin spent two years on tour with a Navy nuclear sub; he never saw his family or newlywed wife during all that time, and I know it was really tough on him. But I also know that he gets anticipation. That restless excitement that starts growing in your heart, as the final weeks of the trip tick by. It feels even more interminable than the entire length of the trip so far. Suddenly home is only days away, and you’re thinking about sleeping in your own bed, holding your wife and kids, laying out on the couch, wolfing down a big family dinner, going out to bars with old friends, spending the holidays with the ones you love. For those last few days you literally can’t think of anything else. When the day finally arrives, you walk into the airport, or you pull up to the dock, and there they are — right there in front of you, smiling, teary eyed — and you rush over to them and wrap them up in a giant hug, and within minutes you’ve picked up right where you left off, as if you were never gone at all.
Now imagine the God who carried you throughout your life, the one who created you and died for you, who listened to your every prayer and answered you and was never unfaithful, who suffered with you and gave you strength and purpose on days when you didn’t feel like you could go on, who blessed you with so much good, who healed your afflictions, freed you from bondage, erased your sin and loved you at every moment — imagine entering heaven after all is said and done, after you’ve fought the good fight and finished the race, and there he is. Right there in front of you.
I don’t know all of why God chooses to remain invisible to us now. But neither can I imagine how sweet it will be when that day finally arrives.
“Even after my skin is destroyed, yet from my flesh I shall see God; whom I myself shall behold, and whom my eyes will see and not another.” Job 19:26