The Paradox of a Hidden Emmanuel

In the novel Silence, Shusaku Endo narrates the journey of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who travel to a country hostile to their

Christian faith. There, they find faithful believers forced to renounce their faith. It is a story that calls us to wrestle with

several themes we often miss—or simply choose to avoid—in our so-called thriving American Christianity. 

One of these themes is the uncomfortable reality that God often appears to be hidden during certain seasons of our lives. Theologically, and even experientially, we know that God is Omnipresent, Jesus is Emmanuel (God with us), and the Holy Spirit abides in every believer. However, there are times when our prayers appear to hit the ceiling. There are seasons in which doubt and uncertainty increase, and our faith is shaken. There are seasons in which God seems to be hidden.

But why?

We know Jesus as Emmanuel—God with us. But how do we reconcile Jesus' last words in Matthew 28:20, "And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age", with the seasons in which we are desperately looking for answers, and yet he is not to be found? Millions of Christian have navigated these waters throughout the arc of history. I've been there too. I've wrestled with this reality and I've discovered what I now call the paradox of a hidden Emmanuel.

Allow me to briefly elaborate and tie the knots to our discipleship journey (Yes, I'm going somewhere. So, bear with me here!).

In his book Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen describes this aspect of a hidden Emmanuel as difficult to accept. It leaves us with the uncomfortable tension of a God who is hidden, and yet willing to be found; absent, while simultaneously present. His argument states that God's presence is so majestic and glorious, so divine and supernatural, that our finite senses would fall short if we experienced it at every moment. In his own words,

In prayer and meditation, God's presence is never separated from God's absence, and God's absence is never separated from God's presence in the heart.The presence of God is much beyond the human experience of being near to another that is quite easily misperceived as absence. The absence of God, on the other hand, is often so deeply felt that it leads to a new sense of God's presence (Nouwen 2006, 93).

During this long journey of faith, in which we are formed into the image of Jesus, spiritual disciplines are crucial to the growth and healthy development of the inner being, and prayer is one of the central disciplines to practice. It is through prayer that we come to realize God's presence is above and beyond anything we could experience or expect as humans.

But in those moments where we experience God as hidden, a second discipline must come into play—the discipline of journeying together and abiding in community.

Allow me to share a few examples from Scripture.

Job finally experienced the presence of the Living God through the painful journey of illness and the sweet-and-sour company of his friends. Naomi, after a season of loss and despair and at the brim of giving up found the hidden God through the company of an immigrant Moabite named Ruth. In Naomi's story, despair pulled her toward isolation and it was community that brought about her redemption. Finally, Jesus himself, feeling overwhelmed by the heaviness of his upcoming darkest hours, decided to call Peter, John, and James to journey with him deeper into Gethsemane. Yes, the disciples fell asleep at some point during the long vigil, but their presence was evidently comforting and much needed by Jesus when his prayers were seemingly unanswered.

This is what Shusaku Endo is trying to tell us in his novel. At the end of the story, the reader comes to realize that the literate, spiritually-thriving Christian leaders broaden their experiential understanding of who God is by journeying life-draining circumstances—where God was hidden yet present—alongside an unexpected community of believers.

This is the paradox of the hidden Emmanuel.

It is the formative, lifelong experience of discipleship meant to be journeyed in humble vulnerability before God and others. Embracing such paradox frees us from the temptation of trying to operationalize God's presence in isolation and propels us into a deeper relationship with him through others. The ministry of our Christian brothers and sisters is described by C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory as "holiest object presented to our senses".

Perhaps there is no better time than this Lenten season to come together as a community of faith to humbly meditate on the paradox of the hidden Emmanuel. Acknowledging the somber realities the COVID-19 pandemic has heavily imprinted in our lives and relationships, and also expecting with anticipation and celebration the imminent manifested presence of God at the breaking of dawn on Easter Sunday. Processing together, as beloved children of God, the experiences resembling Job’s losses, Naomi’s despair, and even Jesus’ Gethsemane, but at the same time resolutely embracing the glorious restoration, redemption, and resurrection found in these stories.

May this Lenten season become a turning point for us all to live in the paradox of the hidden Emmanuel and bow before the immensity of the Omnipresent and Omniscient God of the universe.

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