Keeping Faith When God Hides from Us: Help from John Owen

Faith in the Dark 

There’s been a few times when I’ve experienced complete darkness. Each have been when I’ve been underground deep down in a cave. The only light is from your head torch. But when that goes you see nothing but black.

In a sense that is the metaphor of faith. We keep going, seeing dimly, and by faith we see by the light he has given us. But what happens when that light goes out and we cannot see God by faith? We have no experience of Him. No feeling his presence. He is hidden.

The Psalmist might echo some of your own experiences when he prays:

LORD, why do you stand so far away?

Why do you hide in times of trouble?’ (Psalm 10:1)

It’s as if God is not there for us. That we are not his children. Though we try we are left in the dark as God hides.

Weak & Imperfect Faith

John Owen, writing in the seventeenth century, reflects on this in the penultimate chapter of his book The Glory of Christ. The chapter called ‘Obstacles to Seeing the Glory of Christ’ starts with Owen writing:

‘Faith is the light wherein we behold the glory of Christ in this world. And in its own nature with regard to this great end, it is weak and imperfect, like weak eyes that cannot behold the sun in its beauty’.[1]

He continues: ‘But this is not all; our faith is frequently hindered and interrupted in its efforts, or it loses the view of its object by one means or other… with our faith, we can sometimes see the glory of Christ a little and sometimes none at all’.[2]

Why Does this Happen?

As the Psalmist in Psalm 10 indicates the ‘one means or other’ can be times of trouble and hardship. Perhaps depression or heartbreak. Losing a loved one, or losing your job.

Another, reason could be sin whether our own or someone else’s. David in Psalm 27:9 writes:

Do not hide your face from me;

do not turn your servant away in anger.

You have been my helper;

do not leave me or abandon me,

God of my salvation.’

David is grappling with enemies seeking to harm him (v11-12) but he pleads with God not to hide his face from him in anger. Anger at the sins of the people, yes. But anger at David’s own personal sin too.

But what kind of sins? Since we struggle not to sin it seems that at times God hides his face at big unrepentant sins, such as rank idolatry. He tells the people of Israel this in Deuteronomy 32:15-21. God hides his face (v20) because of idolatry and the worship of other gods.

The sobering reality is that sometimes (and I must stress sometimes) in his sovereignty God hides his face from us – we do not experience his grace and glory – because of our own sin.

But this is not always the case.

John Owen puts it like this:

‘While we are in this life, the Lord Christ decides in His sovereign wisdom sometimes to withdraw and, in a sense, to hide Himself from us. Then our minds fall into clouds and darkness; faith is at a loss, and we cannot behold His glory. Although we seek Him, we cannot find Him’.[3]

He then lists the example of Job – in all his troubles and pain Job utters this in his darkness: ‘If I go east, he is not there, and if I go west, I cannot perceive him. When he is at work to the north, I cannot see him; when he turns south, I cannot find him’. (Job 23:8-9).  And of course, God wasn’t hiding from Job because of Job’s sin.[4]

Owen says, ‘In this state, whatever way you turn yourself, whatever your efforts, in any way or work of your own, you seek Him and cannot find Him’.[5]

Does this sound familiar to you? Or a loved one you know?

Stirring Our Awareness

Owen goes on to say that these people have good doctrinal knowledge, might even perform the various Christian duties at church, ‘But in regard to the special, gracious communications of Himself to our souls and as for a cheerful, refreshing view of His glory, He may withdraw and hide Himself from us’.[6]

We don’t experience his amazing grace or taste the light of his glory. We are in the dark.

Owen then goes on to ask two questions, and it is his first question we will focus on, ‘Why does the Lord Christ hide Himself in His glory at any time from the faith of believers so that they cannot behold Him?’[7]

Of course, in one sense we’ve answered the ‘why’ above – God hides his presence to us in times of trouble and sin. However, Owen’s answer is both encouraging and surprising:

‘As for the first of these questions, although what He does is known to be an act of sovereign, unknowable wisdom, yet there are many holy purposes of it and, consequently, many reasons for it. I will mention only one. Christ does this to stir up a heightened awareness of our need to diligently search and inquire after Him’.[8]

Yes, it might be in his sovereignty and unknowable wisdom we just don’t know, but Owen strikes a match that can light the flame of God’s glory within us. Instead of giving up when we do not feel or experience God, we ‘diligently search and inquire after Him’.

It might be difficult, as we grasp around in the darkness and feel the numbness of our own spirituality. But ‘in these inquiries filled with sighs and groans, there is such an exercise of faith and love that is acceptable and well-pleasing to Him’.[9]

Though we do not feel or see God in our lives, the very act of seeking is a pleasing act of faith.

Seek Christ

So what do these inquiries look like? Well, we search or as Owen would put it, behold, the glory of Christ in the Scriptures and meditate on Christ and his gospel. ‘By faith we meditate on the glory of Christ as revealed in the gospel’.[10] The main thrust of his book is to get us to behold the glory of Christ by faith now, since that is what we will be doing by sight later in eternity.

So if we do not experience God’s grace in our lives and we feel like God is hidden from us, we do not withdraw. We push into the darkness to find any ray of light.

We push into the glory of Christ revealed in the gospel. We meditate on Christ’s incarnation, his life, his death for us, his resurrection, his reign as King, and the hope of his future return. Let those thoughts pierce through the darkness to help you see by faith the light of his glory. Keep doing it. A day. A week. A year. Ten years. In your sighs and groans keep seeking by faith.

And keep beholding by faith the person of Christ – our prophet, priest and king. The author of life. Our redeemer. Our saviour. Our comforter. The prince of peace. The light of the world.

And remember his grace and faithfulness holds you even when he is hidden from you.

As the hymn writer says:

When darkness veils his lovely face

I rest on His unchanging grace

In every high and stormy gale

My anchor holds within the veil.[11]

[1] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 186). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 187). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[4] Job’s is a similar cry of Isaiah 45:15 ‘Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour’(ESV); or Psalm 89:46 as God seemingly hides his face from the nation of Israel, ‘How long, Lord? Will you hide forever? Will your anger keep burning like fire?’

[5] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 187). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 188). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 189). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[10] Owen, John; Roth, Jason. The Glory of Christ: In Modern English (p. 190). Christian Classics for the Modern Reader. Kindle Edition.

[11] ‘My Hope is Built on Nothing Less’ by Edward Mote. The hymn is famous for it’s beautiful refrain, ‘On Christ the solid Rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.’

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