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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Undiscernible God

J. L. Burrows, D.D.

From the book, What Baptists Believe and Other Discourses, 1887

Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.—Isa. 45:15

Many and profound have been the studyings and speculations of learned and wise men to find out something about God. What is his nature, his character? What is he doing in this universe? Upon what sort of plan, by what kind of methods is Jehovah working? Is he working at all? After all, is there any God? These are questions upon which the philosophers of earth have been working from India to Germany, from Egypt to England; from Confucius to Spinoza, from Buddha to Stuart Mill, from Plato to Herbert Spencer. And from every such starting-point logic seems to force the conclusion,—there is no God. We have searched for him everywhere, and he cannot be found. Every series of philosophical systems since men began to construct world-building theories has begun in Materialism and ended in Atheism. So effectually has God seemed to hide himself from scientific theorists.

When Christianity came as a disturbing element into contact with the ancient philosophies, these gave shape to the conceptions of many early Christian thinkers. Various sects arose whose basis principle was some wild, metaphysical notion of the nature of God and of creation. The Gnostics, the schoolmen, even the recognized orthodox Fathers of the Church puzzled themselves and perplexed their followers by strangest speculations and most incomprehensible expositions concerning the character and essence of the Supreme Power and of creative processes. God was removed, in their conceptions, to an infinite distance from his creation, and revealed himself only in emanations or incarnations of himself, in Secondary Beings to whom was delegated the work of creation and government.

Sometimes this secondary Divinity was called the Demiurge, sometimes the Archon and later the Logos, in a very different than the Christian sense. In all these theories this Secondary Being was the world-builder and Ruler, the only God whom men could comprehend. This intermediate Divinity was con­ceived of as sometimes good, sometimes evil, sometimes as a mixture of both. In the concepts of some he imagined himself to be truly the only God, not knowing he was himself influenced by a supreme power above him, like Jupiter limited and controlled by Fate. There are libraries of volumes filled with theories of this sort, showing how bewildering to human reason, even when partially illumined by revelation, but defective in simple faith, is the idea of the Supreme God. This is a theme upon which those who study most, laboring to understand, are most perplexed and become most conscious of their own ignorance. It was not peculiar to Isaiah to exclaim, "Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself; O God of Israel, the Saviour."


I do not suppose it is intended to be asserted that Jehovah of purpose conceals himself from his creatures, but rather that, owing to his inherent greatness and glory in contrast with the narrowness and imperfections of our finite capabilities, a clear conception of what God is, is for us impossible. As by his spiritual nature he is invisible to mortal eyes, so, by the infinite grandeur and majesty of his Being, he is beyond the possibilities of comprehension by such limited, shallow minds as ours.

Our eyes cannot pierce ocean depths, nor scan the interior of the sun. Hence in his revealed word he is represented as "dwelling in thick darkness," making "darkness his dwelling-place," "His pavilion is darkness and thick clouds of the sky," " Clouds and darkness are round about him." But all this darkness to us is as the effect of blinding light. For in the same word God is spoken of as "light," "everlasting light," "in whom is no darkness at all," himself the source and centre of all light.

If you stand under the clear midday beams of the sun and lift your eyes to examine its splendors, you are dazzled and blinded, you cannot see the sun, but only a vague glare. Its ineffable lustre renders itself obscure. Blackness settles upon your eyeballs, and you cannot trace its form nor examine its rays in their source. So St. Paul speaks of God as " dwelling in light which no man can approach unto, which no man bath seen nor can see." As there is more light in the sun than we can take into our eye, so there is infinitely more light in God than we can take into our mind. And hence he is to us as though surrounded by darkness. Under the bewildering effulgence of his light we are blinded.


What is God? In what consists the essence of his being? We say he is immaterial, pure Spirit. But what idea does this convey? What is spirit? How from pure spirit can flow out the solid material of creation? If Jehovah existed—a pure Spirit—in the past solitudes of Eternity, then how came substance matter into being? We are asking more than we can answer.


That is, we conceive of certain characteristics of our own nature and we enlarge them into what we call the unlimited, the infinite. We find in ourselves power and we say God has all power—he is Omnipotent. We gain a limited degree of knowledge and we say God has all knowledge—he is Omniscient. We can see and observe. We enlarge the faculty and say God sees every­thing—he is Omnipresent. And so through the whole catalogue of attributes. But when we have collated and catalogued all, do we now know what God is—in himself? We are as far from it as when we started.

And then within these attributes "he hideth himself." WHAT IS OMNIPOTENCE? Are the methods, the workings of Almightiness observable? We see the results of might. We say the Universe must have been produced by Infinite Power. But who ever saw Omnipotence in direct action? What Archangel ever saw God making a world? Or giving it the first cast, spinning through the spaces to continue its three-fold whirlings with unvarying regularity during the ages.

Can you imagine that any Angel understood how God did it, when "he spake and it was done, when he commanded and it stood fast?" Who can answer God's challenge, "Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare if thou hast understanding!" He hideth his Omnipotence and reveals it not at all in its operations, but only in its results. We see what he produces. But where he found or how he formed the materials, in what secret laboratory he wrought, what implements he used, what methods he pursued, where he began, how he progressed, when he finished—if he has yet finished—his creative work, all this is hidden. All processes, all methods are concealed. He works in impenetrable secrecy, hiding himself from all creatures' gaze.


His all-seeing eye is everywhere, and yet no creature ever saw it. He watches every motion, yet none can ever watch him. He observes every thought, yet in no thought is there consciousness of being noticed. Observing every creature, every thing, every thought, he is never himself the object of observation.


In his own personality he is in every place in the whole broad universe at the same instant and in every instant; yet his presence displaces nothing, disturbs nothing, is noticed by no eye, perceived by no mind. Shrouded in invisibility, he takes distinct cognizance of every movement and every thought, yet keeps his Omnipresence so concealed that men are not at all conscious of it, and think of the fact as only a doctrine, an abstraction, not as a reality.


We think we can trace evidences of marvelous wisdom in the order, harmonies and adaptations of all the parts of creation in their isolations and in their combinations. In all organic structures, in the relations of part to part and of each part to the whole; in the movements of masses and of molecules, in the organization of worlds and worms, we discover indications of profoundest wisdom. But by what methods, for what reasons, to what ends he displayeth this wonderful wisdom he often concealeth.

So hidden is his wisdom that men often question whether the Maker was wise, and ask such questions as why were thorns and briars and weeds created with such marvelous designing skill and in such prolific spontaneous abundance? Why are storms, hurricanes, earthquakes disturbing forces among the harmonies of earth? Why are snakes and gnats and poisonous insects and reptiles; why wolves and tigers, vultures and hawks and sharks a part of the living creation? Why such vast deserts and rugged ranges of sterile hills and broad salt seas, deforming the beauty and detracting from the productive fertility of earth? In relation to these and a thousand like questions we are forced to confess that his wisdom is hidden.


"He openeth his hand and supplieth the wants of every living creature." "From him proceedeth every good and perfect gift."

Yet men discover no direct connection between his active beneficence and their supplies and comforts. Their food they themselves sow and plant, and cultivate and gather, and prepare. Their clothing they shear from the beasts, pluck from the plants, and spin and weave and sew. And behind and within all these operations, concealing himself, moves the Lord, giving life to the beast, growth to the plant and cunning and skill to the laborer, keeping in ceaseless activity all these operations, and men discern him not. "They bless themselves and forget the Lord," because he hideth his goodness.


That Jehovah must be inflexibly just is a clear doctrine of revelation and a deduction of sound reason. Sometimes we do see retribution visited upon the guilty, a sudden and terrible blow smiting a transgressor. But it seems to us like an accident, or like a natural consequence of some violated law. We see no direct evidence of God's interference. And yet behind all these second causes God, unseen, is operating, shaping the laws and pushing forward the penalties. And we say these are casualties, chances, not at all seeing that he is controlling and governing all. So effectually does he hide himself in the administration of justice. In the seeming immunity with which crime is often perpetrated, men adding sin to sin, undiscovered, blackening their own souls with daily accumulating guilt, and yet all the while God hides himself as to his justice, so that we sometimes almost doubt whether he notices.

In the sufferings of the upright and pious, in the seeming long delay of vindicating their integrity and compensat­ing their wrongs and oppressions, the Lord hideth himself, while even his own saints cry out, " How long, O Lord, how long !"

Yet we are assured and convinced that behind this impervious veil that conceals the invisible, there is an eye that traces down into its sources, in the inner heart of man, every transgression; that keeps an accurate account of all sins, with all their varying degrees of guilt; himself unobserved, yet observing all; of whose notice we are not conscious, and yet whose notice is for no instant abstracted or confused. Oh, it is a startling, solemn thought that a hidden God, who has determined that the wicked shall not go unpunished, in secret sees and in secret "whets his glittering sword" that is yet to smite.


When he sent his Son into our world, to reveal and make efficacious his purposes and authority, he concealed him in garments of humanity, hid him in a human form so "that his own received him not." The world did not know that God himself, incarnated in the person of his own Son, was moving and working among men, originating and perfecting the grandest scheme for the good, purity, happiness of mankind, which a heart of infinite benevolence could devise or the hand of infinite power execute.

The kingdom of the incarnate God "cometh without observation." He is moulding the entire history of the world for the triumph of this kingdom. But he is, himself, behind the veil, and his plans and purposes are revealed only in their results. We cannot discover how unfolding events are all gradually and consecutively bearing upon the grand anal end, the redemption of the world.

In the application of these remedial measures to individuals, under the ministration of the Holy Spirit, the Lord hideth himself. An influence, unseen, untraceable as " the wind that bloweth where it listeth," moves the hearts of men, breaking up in their souls the ice of selfish indifference, thawing out the frozen sensibilities, awaking the wicked to a sense of guilt, the careless to a consciousness of danger, inciting yearnings after deliverance and holiness, awaking and directing right purposes, renewing, regenerating the whole man, working within the soul to will and to do according to his good pleasure, while all the while the man seems to be working out his own salvation. In all God works and in all he hideth himself. While it is true that he reveals enough for all practical direction and guidance, it is at the same time true that in all departments of his administration he conceals more than he reveals.


That Jehovah has established uniform laws for the government of the Physical Universe is obvious enough, even to a superficial observer. Worlds move in their several spheres in beautiful harmony and regularity. Their relations to each other are never disturbed. Day and night, summer and winter succeed each other in regular order. Even comets in their eccentric orbits we are sure are following settled laws. The most reasonable logic is that uniform laws indicate an Intelligent Law-Maker. Laws cannot originate themselves and work themselves into regular operation. They must be indications and proofs of intelligence, purpose, mind. They are only methods by which foreseeing and controlling intelligence works.

And yet so entirely does God hide himself behind and within these laws, that some studious scientists, absorbed in their chosen specialties, can discover nothing but the laws and cannot find God within or among them. And because they cannot see his hand working or managing the laws some deny that there is any God.

I see a brilliant electric lamp five miles distant. I never saw one before and I do not know how it is lighted or kept blazing; but a man would think me a fool if I argued that it was a chance concentration of electricity, without any interference of purpose or intelligence; that it was not intended at all, but only happened. It is an hour before day when I first discover it, and I watch till the day dawns and the glorious sun, upspringing from the Eastern horizon, shines down the new light into obscurity. And a philosopher standing at my elbow says:

"You were right in concluding that that bright light thirty feet above the ground was designed and made by some intelligent-minded man, but that magnificent orb blazing millions of miles higher, a thousand million times brighter, itself the source of the electricity that mind and hand concentrated into that lamp, that Sun itself was never designed or made at all, was never intended to shine as it does, but just happened through the blind operation of blind laws to form itself into that shape and splendor. There is mind in constructing the electric lamps, but mind had nothing to do with the construction of the Sun."

My reason and common sense revolt at the preposterous proposition that intelligence was necessary to the construction of the little light, and not at all necessary to the construction of the infinitely greater light.

Some men seem to be unable to get down beneath the facts—the phenomena—that are developed, into the prime causes, the intelligent working power out of which they all spring. We discourse learnedly about gravitation and how it binds systems of worlds together and keeps all in place. And what is gravitation, but a big word to conceal ignorance? To say a body falls by gravitation is only saying that it falls because it is heavy, or that it falls because it does fall.

There is no such fluid or ether or mechanical force as gravitation. The word itself is nothing but a name to describe the fact that bodies have a tendency to approach one another in proportion to bulk and distance. But the underlying question is, why have they this tendency? The only answer, nescience, often nick-named science, can give is, because they do. The answer that a truer philosophy gives is, because an intelligent mind ordained that these relations should subsist between bodies. That mind we prefer to call God. There we have a cause. Gravitation is not a cause; it is only a fact for which there must be some cause outside itself. Science coins a good many terms that only describe facts or phenomena and calls them causes.

In all departments of physical nature we can trace operations and relations to a limited distance and there we become lost. We are sure that there must be something further on, but what it is and how it works no science can find out. We can trace up links in the chain of causes a certain distance, but the end of the chain eludes our most eager and patient researches and loses itself within the sphere of the invisible and indiscernible. And there is God within that sphere, sending out influences along those links that are controlling all that is visible, creating causes, himself the perpetually operating first cause of all, yet keeping himself and the activities of his agency concealed from the apprehension of finite minds. We see, examine, admire the workmanship, but we cannot see the worker. We can only very dimly comprehend his methods or his reasons. He dwells within the darkness of the dazzling light, and we are blinded when we attempt to gaze into its interior insufferable splendors. Within all his works God hideth himself.

Now is it any more wonderful or inexplicable that the Lord should hide himself AS TO THE ADMINISTRATION OF HIS PROVIDENTIAL GOVERNMENT?

Men do not lose faith in God nor complain of injustice or partiality, when he conceals himself as to his nature, his attributes or his works; but when they fail to discover his hand, his benevolence, his righteousness in his providential management of human affairs, they doubt and murmur and complain. Through the operation of what they call natural laws men see storms, earthquakes and sweeping cyclones, and yet they are convinced that after all there are good ends subserved by these seeming evils and outbreaks, and that upon the whole the ordering of nature is wise and benevolent. We cannot always immediately trace the beneficence under the hurtling ruins of a city and amid the festering corpses of the dead, when the earth has heaved up its foundations; but still we believe that the system of laws which govern the physical universe are as a whole good and wise.

Why should we not carry the like conclusions into our views of God's Providence? But when we see virtue humble and vice proud, the pious depressed and suffering, and the wicked prosperous and exultant, the right cause languishing and the wrong cause flourishing; God seemingly rejecting the prayers of the righteous and favoring the curses of the wicked; when we see many who have faithfully tried to obey him prostrated by poverty and affliction, while many who have openly denied and defied him walk along the serener heights of enjoyment and peace; when we observe the great inequalities in the lives of men, conditioned upon no noticeable distinctions of moral character, we sometimes become amazed and dazed and impatiently ask: Is there a God after all, who ruleth righteously and wisely among men? When we see victories of injustice, fraud and violence, over meekness, honesty and piety, we wring our hands in perplexity and agony and cry out,—"Doth God know? Is there knowledge with the most High?" "Surely, thou art a God that hidest thyself."

We have heard men groaning under the pressure of adversities, the reason or the justice of which they could not discover, call in question the reign or the righteousness of Jehovah and suggest skeptical doubts of his benevolence or of his Being, and conclude that there is no profit in praying to him or in serving him.

Poor, weak, short-sighted mortal! What are you going to do about it? Whither do you propose turning when you give up faith in Jehovah? Is there any other God for you to worship? Is there any other Being to whom you can commit the control of your happiness or destinies? Will you dictate to the All-Wise, and threaten him with the withdrawal of your confidence and obedience, if he does not meet your views of what is right and best? Do you dare nurse displeasure toward God because he thwarts your plans and disappoints your hopes? Will you patronize Jehovah by your approval, or revenge yourself upon him by your disapproval? "He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh, the Lord shall hold you in derision!"

What can you do better for yourself than submit to his will, whether you comprehend the reasons of his dealings with you or not? Can you secure your own interests, insure your own happiness, save your own soul, make your eternal life a blessing, without God? Oh, repent of these rebellious complainings and let faith strengthen itself against all these infidel misgivings! It is true that the Lord does hide himself in the administration of his Providence, as he does as to his Nature, his Attributes and his Works. We cannot understand from what we see what he purposes to accomplish. But faith believes that he overrules all for good. He leadeth nations as he does individuals, "by a way they know not."

Thus, though God hideth himself in his providential management, we may be sure that he never swerves from the line of highest wisdom and purest goodness, and that he will develop in kindness and love his purposes so that "What we know not now we shall know hereafter."

From what we have said concerning the obscurity in which Jehovah veils himself, it may be presumptuous to say anything about the reasons which may govern him in thus concealing his plans and workings. But though we may not discover all he means, and in many cases nothing at all of his purposes, yet there are certain revealed principles—general truths—which may furnish a clue to what otherwise would be utterly inexplicable, and so furnish a foundation for faith, when sight fails.

Jehovah is in himself absolutely independent and self-sufficient. He has no need of consulting or informing any of his creatures concerning his plans and purposes. Kings may need counselors. The Lord needs none; for he is himself the fountain of all wisdom, and all the wisdom man possesses conies into him only as tide ripplets from the great ocean. Sages may need instruction, sometimes from even the humblest sources, but "who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counselor bath taught him" or can teach him?

Why, then, should the Lord make known to men or to angels his purposes? They cannot help him. Nor can they change or modify them. He knows his own ends and all the means for securing them, and all possible contingencies that may arise.

It is true that there are men who seem to fancy that they could instruct God if he would only consult them; who do not hesitate to criticize and find fault with his plans and methods. He has not created the world, nor does he govern it, so as precisely to suit them. They imagine that they could show him a better way. But the great Creator evidently does not so think, and in the calmness and majesty of his own self-sufficiency carries forward his own designs in absolute independence of creaturely interference.

Were the Lord to make known his plans and purposes, the depraved hostility of devils and devil-governed men might prompt them to oppose his designs and interfere with his methods of accomplishing them. Indeed we see this, when the Lord does make known in a general way his will. They array themselves against it. They will not permit him to rule his world, or to bring themselves and others into submission and harmony with his plans if they can hinder. They throw themselves, all their influence and example, against his gracious purposes and the means of their fulfillment so far as he has revealed them for the regeneration of the world. True, they can effect nothing beyond what he permits and overrules, and their opposition is only so much the worse for themselves. But many of his plans he does not choose to bring at all into conflict with human or infernal hostility and therefore he so hideth himself that ungodly hate cannot discover the ends which he intends to secure nor the means by which be purposes to accomplish them. He spares them the guilt and punishment of such a weak and wicked attempt.

Again: The Lord would have men act freely, in view of motives and of right, and not compulsorily, in view of what they know to be inevitable. He has mysteriously connected human freedom of action with his fixed purposes. But if he clearly made known just what and how he determined to do, men would conclude that they had no freedom, choice or responsibility. They would sink into the lethargy or despair of fatalism. God does not mean that his foreknowledge or decrees shall interfere with the free agency of man.

Indeed, be carries out his decrees through the foreseen actings of this free agency and thus connects and harmonizes as none but a God of infinite wisdom could do His own predeterminations with man's agencies. There is here room left for the disciplinary development of all human activities and energies. Men are encouraged to vigilance, consecration and prayer. They do not know what is before them, therefore they must watch and labor and pray. They cannot tell how far the Lord may interweave their own agency into his plans, therefore they may keep themselves in constant readiness for him to use. His purposes are fixed indeed, but they are not fixed in matters pertaining to their personal interests, without reference to their own faculties, relations and obligations. God would not have his revealings induce in men's souls indifference, despondency or despair, and therefore it may well be that he conceals the ends he determines, that they may act freely in view of right prin­ciples and motives.

Again: In hiding himself the Lord tests our faith in him and our submission to him. He reveals to us enough to assure us of the perfect wisdom and goodness of his government. He conceals himself enough to educate and test our confidence and faith in that government. What he does, we know not now? What then? Shall we indulge doubts and suspicions that matters are going wrong, or shall we not rather summon our faith to assure our souls that, beyond the clouds, all things are moving rightly so as to secure the most beneficent ends? The foundation' grace of the soul is faith, and God often hides himself that we may exercise faith where we cannot see nor understand, that we may cherish unwavering confidence in him.

There would be no room or place for such faith and trust if we could understand all. It is when he covers himself with clouds and directs our pathway amid storms and through deep waters, that we feel that we have nothing to sustain us or comfort us but undoubting faith in his perfect wisdom, righteousness and love.

Within the folds of the veil, which Jehovah gathers around his throne, we find the place for believing confidence and submission, certain in our faith that he is controlling all things wisely and well. He has given sufficient assurances of his love and power by his general favoring providences and especially by the gift of Jesus, his only and well-beloved Son, to warrant perfect faith and confiding submission to his orderings; even when he withdraws his light and leaves us for a season in darkness, we are still assured that even amid the gloom "all things are working together for good."

Still another reason, which covers all the rest and which perhaps more than all the rest is fitted to inspire and strengthen our faith and humility and submission, is this: That God is infinite and cannot bring the infinite within the compass and grasp of finite capabilities. Robert Hall beautifully says:

"A child cannot be made to comprehend the reasons of his father in imposing those restraints and privations which are a necessary part of parental discipline. It is only by degrees that its feeble capacity can be made to penetrate the secret of its education. If this be the case with respect to two finite minds, one of which has only arrived at greater maturity than the other, how much more disproportionate must be the plans of infinite wisdom to our narrow faculties, and what force does such a consideration give to that appeal of the Apostle, 'We have had fathers of our flesh who corrected us, and we gave them reverence; shall we not much rather be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?' Surely we owe as much deference to the wisdom and as much reliance upon the kindness of the Eternal Father as we give to our earthly father."

We may be the more believing and confiding when we call to mind that the PURPOSE AND END OF GOD'S CONCEALMENTS, AS WELL AS OF HIS REVEALINGS, IS THE SALVATION OF MAN. Notice particularly the closing sentence of this text, showing the connection of thought,—"The Saviour." Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. He hideth himself that he may be "THE SAVIOUR."

They are not black storm-clouds which he gathers about his throne, within which to concentrate lightnings of wrath and thunderbolts of vengeance to hurl on the heads of the guilty. But he withdraws into his pavilion of resplendent darkness, that he may there work out the plans and thence project the forces for saving men. Is he ever hid from your vision, my brother? Do you, like Job, search for him on every side, without discovering his presence? Oh, comfort your soul with the assurance that within the veil, like the High Priest within the Holy of Holies, he is still employed in what pertains to your salvation—"Behind a frowning providence be hides a smiling face." In the obscurity, as well as in the light, he is still Saviour.

Finally, let us gratefully remember that all that it is needful for us to know, our Father has very clearly revealed. When we earnestly inquire, “How can my sins be pardoned? How can my soul be justified? How can my condemnation be canceled? How can I gain God's favor in life, his support in death, his smile in heaven?”—all this is made plain enough for the understanding, even of the illiterate man and of the inquiring child. Along the path of practical duty and piety instructions plain enough are given for even "babes and sucklings,"and "the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err therein."