God’s Restraint / Spiritual Meditations

I often hear people ask why God doesn’t intervene to rectify various earthly dilemmas. Philip Yancey presents a thought-provoking image of God’s perspective as a partial answer to that question.

In the Old Testament, God may speak in a voice like thunder, and when He shows up in person, humans fall terrified to the ground. Yet God is cautious to intervene. Considering the many things that must displease Him on this planet, God exercises incredible—at times maddening— self-restraint.

The Bible presents the goal of creation as a time of Sabbath rest when God and all his creatures can enjoy peace and harmony. History keeps disturbing that rest, however, with loud interruptions. In the Old Testament, especially, God overcomes his shyness when evil or suffering escalates to a point of crisis. Sometimes God intervenes with a direct personal appearance, sometimes through natural phenomena, most often by tapping an individual to convey words on God’s behalf.

The Seen and Unseen Worlds

Compared to the sacred writings of other religions, though, the Bible offers few scenes of linkage between the seen and unseen worlds. We tend to focus on the miracles and the dramatic appearances such as to Moses in a burning bush and to the prophets in dreams and visions. Yet these are tucked in between periods from which we have no record of the unseen world making an appearance. Usually, the intervention comes only after many cries and prayers, delayed by decades or even centuries. God is not impetuous, but reticent to act.

The All-Knowing God Relating to Humanity

Why this quality? It is impossible to speak for God, of course, but the answer must in part reflect the “problem” of an invisible Being relating to people in a material world. If indeed an unseen world exists parallel to this one, as the Bible insists, we lack the sensors to detect it. I have never met a Christian with Elisha’s ability to see chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:17). Even when we develop correspondence with the unseen world, we initially do so by faith that the book of Hebrews defines as being “certain of what we do not see.”

God faces almost the opposite situation. Unlike us, God has an all-encompassing point of view that takes in the world we see as well as other realms hidden to us. Moreover, God sees all our history at once, as a ball of yarn compared to the scraps of thread we experience. Unconstrained by a body, God exists in every place at once.

The same barrier that keeps us from God keeps God from us, though, in an entirely different way. Every time God chooses to manifest himself in our world, He must accept limitations. He “con-descends” (literally, descends to be with) to our point of view.

Moses saw a burning bush that bedazzled him, changing the course of his life and of history. Out of flames of fire he heard the voice of God speaking. Yet God experienced the same burning bush as an accommodation, a limitation. The bush appeared before Moses in the Sinai wilderness, but not in China and not in Latin America. Why would God choose Israel out of all the available tribes? Why would God Incarnate himself in the person of Jesus and settle in a backwater province of Palestine? God had little choice, to put it crudely, if He wished to communicate in a way humans could understand. To impinge on our world, God must subject himself to the rules of time and space. Any correspondence between the invisible and visible worlds, between God and human beings, works two ways, affecting both parties.

How Can Unequal Minds Meet?

An analogy: Conceivably we humans may one day master whale language, so that we can lower an underwater transmitter and communicate through squeaks and clicks in a way that whales understand. In doing so, we will interpret ourselves downwards, in a self-limiting way comprehensible to whales. They will not receive the full essence of what it means to be a human being; we can only “talk” about fish, plankton, and oceans, not about laptop computers and skyscrapers and baseball. That analogy gives a small picture of what it must be like for an all-powerful, all-knowing God to communicate with human beings.

In short, God must set the pace of communication, so that we can only know God as He chooses to make Himself known. The unequal partnership between the invisible God and the material human beings guarantees that much will remain shrouded in mystery. God can know all of us; we can never know all of God. As God himself told Jeremiah, “Am I only a God nearby and not a God far away?”

Why Doesn’t God Intervene?

The Bible does contain clear hints about one reason God restrains Himself from interfering more directly, more often: God holds back out of mercy, for our benefit. The apostle Peter answers scoffers who doubt God’s control over history with these words, “with the Lord a day is like 1000 years, and 1000 years are like a day. The Lord is not slow to keep his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9)

In the words of John Updike, “the sensation of silence cannot be helped: a loud and evident God would be a bully, an insecure tyrant, an all-crushing datum instead of, as He is, a bottomless encouragement to our faltering and frightened being.”

For a real-life example and more thoughts on God’s earthly activities, you may be interested in

Why Doesn’t God Perform More Miracles?

Further guidance on how to communicate with God can be found in

Are You Listening in God’s Presence?

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Relevant Scripture

There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. (Gen 3:2-6)

Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When the two of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words:

“When there is a prophet among you,
    I, the Lord, reveal myself to them in visions,
    I speak to them in dreams.
But this is not true of my servant Moses;
    he is faithful in all my house.  (Numbers 12:5-7)

“Even today my complaint is bitter;
    his hand[a] is heavy in spite of[b] my groaning.
 If only I knew where to find him;
    if only I could go to his dwelling!…..

“But if I go to the east, he is not there;
    if I go to the west, I do not find him.
When he is at work in the north, I do not see him;
    when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
 But he knows the way that I take;
    when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.
My feet have closely followed his steps;
    I have kept to his way without turning aside.
I have not departed from the commands of his lips;
    I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. (Job 23)


Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

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