After a number of decades as a Christian pastor, I am convinced that most of what God does in our lives and in our world remains hidden. I have many thoughts as to why this is so – but that it is so, I have no doubt. There are things in my life, which at the time they took place, seemed confusing and contradictory – but after careful, slow, reflection, seem to have been the hand of God. There are things that I have suffered through the years, that I now see as beneficial and even salvific, that I would never have considered to be so at the time. As a pastor, I am always hesitant (with others people’s lives) to offer that insight. In the middle of pain, such “insights” can be very difficult to receive.
I have been a pastor (both Protestant and later Orthodox) for over 30 years. I have buried over 400 people, many of those deaths I was present for. I have seen the death of young children, the accidental deaths of children and spouses, suicides, and many forms of disease and suffering. Any one of these things can be overwhelming.
I can never begin to describe the difficult situations in which I have pondered and even doubted the goodness of God. I am sure that my experience would be echoed by the experience of many others. And yet, despite everything, I remain convinced of His goodness and kindness towards us in all things. I cannot say this in the manner of an argument. Someone else could see what I have seen and draw the dark conclusions.
The witness of Scripture draws a witness to the work of God: with a secret hand the Lord wars with Amalek. The secrecy of God’s work is perhaps what we find most scandalous. We would prefer that His work be open, undeniable and the content of our proclamation to the world. But believers often find themselves in the position of apologists, defending God, making effort in the face of human events to assure others that He loves us and cares for us. The most difficult attacks on the faith are those made against the goodness of God.
I believe the witness of Scripture holds the key: with a secret hand. What God is doing in our lives and in our world frequently remains opaque – we cannot see it clearly. I believe that this opacity has a double aspect – things are unclear because of the hardness of our hearts. We do not see the secret hand of God because our own lives are part of the darkness. But I also believe that the opacity is for our own benefit. The mode of life in which God’s hand appears hidden and opaque, is itself part of the problem. Were God’s hand seen as one thing among the many, an object among objects, an action among actions, we would remain unchanged. We fantasize and say that were we to see indisputable miracles that our lives would be different, we would believe. But this is not so. The manner of such belief is not salvific, it changes nothing.
The relationship between ourselves and the world around us, when we live in a mode of unbelief (opacity), is a mode of alienation. We live as an object among objects. We see, we measure, we compare, we judge, and everything remains distinct and removed from our inner life. The inner life is a mass of emotions, thoughts and desires, driven by the objects around us and our own inner fantasies. There is no communion. Relationships with other human beings become objectified. Others exist as part of our own narrative. “My wife,” “my child,” “my job.” The world revolves around the ego.
God cannot be known as an object. He is not one among many. Neither is the secret hand of God an object. I have often thought of God’s actions as occurring somewhere in our “peripheral vision.” We “see” them, turn to look, and they’re gone.
Most of popular Christian thought dwells in the world of objects. It is the reason that religious conversations are so filled with argument and disagreement. People speak of God with the certainty they bring to the sunrise. Mystical dogmas are presented with the assurance of mathematical formulae. There is a certainty within faith, and there is an assurance within dogma. But such certainty and assurance do not belong to the world of objects: they are also part of God’s secret hand.
God is good and all of His work is good. I can affirm this, believe this, and share this. But I cannot argue this nor make it transparent to a heart that is opaque. The very effort will darken my own heart.
The faith that sees the secret hand of God begins as a gift. There is no technique that can make it appear nor event of reason that gives rise to it. It is gift, pure and simple. But the gift does not come in a manner that removes utterly the darkness of our heart. The gift itself can be refused and dismissed. My own life seems to rest at this very point. The doubts and scepticism of the secular world of objects rail against the suggestions of faith. They demand that they themselves remain supreme. I imagine myself to be secure and safe within the confines of my own doubts. My skepticism protects me from the dangers of delusion and fraud, even though the skepticism may be the author of the greater fraud.
I was asked by a friend recently, “What makes a good confession?” I could only offer an answer from my own experience as a sinner. A good confession (for me) is one in which I bring the darkness of my own heart into the light of God. My darkness is generally surrounded in secrets – and not of the healthy kind. The light of God destroys the darkness of hidden sin and makes all things new. God’s “secret hand” is only for my healing. My secret hand is usually for my destruction.
The goodness of God is true and trustworthy. I bear witness to this as the truth – even with the flaws that my witness contains. But I have never heard it contradicted by the saints.
God give us grace to behold His secret hand and to give thanks always, for all things.