Ultimate Hide-and-Seek

Why is God so elusive sometimes? /

My children are long past the age of taking delight in childhood games, but I remember hours in years past playing hide-and-seek together, even though it was a game they never quite learned to play according to the rules. In fact, I used to worry about my son. For years I couldn’t get him to understand that he shouldn’t yell “ready” when he’d found a good hiding place; that only gave it away. He was missing the whole point of the game, I explained. One wants to hide well! Only later did I come to realize that from his perspective, I had missed the whole point of the game. The most fun comes, of course, in being found! Meister Eckhart expressed this mystery well when he said that “God is like a person who clears his throat while hiding and so gives himself away.” Even God—perhaps especially God—discovers the highest joy in hiding only so as to be found.

This simple truth reveals a fault that cuts through much of our mistaken thinking about God as Deus absconditus. Too often we associate the “hiddenness of God” with a fearful sense of obscurity, inaccessibility, or remoteness—as if the divine inscrutability were an end in itself. We lose the playfulness involved in this truth. Looking upon God’s act of masking or veiling as a means of protecting the divine majesty from prying human eyes, or as way of protecting us from a grandeur too terrifying to perceive, we forget that God’s hiding is rooted first of all in divine compassion. God hides not only to protect, but also to draw us in love.

God’s elusiveness serves a longing for relationship. Hiding, therefore, can become an act of playful teasing—a blithe form of seduction, God’s way of inviting us to the place of surprised encounter. God as Deus absconditus is never far removed from God as Deus ludens, a God revealed in playfulness. God disguises himself, hiding in a manger, his majesty veiled upon a cross, so that we might irresistibly be drawn to a grace far closer than we ever imagined.

The Jewish tradition tells a story about the first Lubavitcher rebbe, Schneur Zalman, the founder of one of the most vital of today’s Hasidic communities. His young son once came running to him, crying inconsolably. Between huge sobs, he managed to say, “Father, I’ve been playing hide-and-seek with the other children. It came my turn to hide, but after I found a good place, I sat there in the woods for hours waiting for the others to find me. No one ever yelled into the woods to tell me to come out. They just left me there alone.” His father put his arms around the child and held him close, rocking him back and forth. “Ah, my son,” he said, “that’s how it is with God, too. God is always hiding, hoping that people will come to look for him. But no one wants to play. He’s always left alone, wanting to be found, hoping someone will come. But crying because no one seeks him out.

What is this mystery of God’s great compassion, wanting so much to draw us to God? Like others, I too often shrink back in fear. I’m reluctant to embrace a God of hidden majesty. Yet I’m surprised again and again to find myself sought out more lovingly than I ever dared to hope by what I first had feared. Francis Thompson discovered the playful, grand conclusion to his own lifelong flight from God in being found by that from which he’d fled. At the end of his great poem on being sought by a love too fierce to withstand for long, he speaks with incredulous joy:

Halts by me that footfall;
Is my gloom, after all
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
“Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

For him, it was as if Christ, the Hound of Heaven, had finally shouted out in reckless abandon, “Olly, olly, oxen free!” and the hiders had come from behind every bush and nearby tree, running safely home to outstretched arms. This, at last, is the meaning of God as Deus absconditus, the truth which Luther found so important in his own theology of a gracious God.

When my daughter was very young, one of her favorite tricks in playing hide-and-seek was to pretend that she had run away to hide, and then come sneaking back beside me while I was still counting—my eyes shut tight. She breathed as silently as she could, standing inches away, hoping I couldn’t hear. Then she’d take the greatest delight in reaching out to touch home base as soon as I opened my eyes and began to search for someone who’d never even left. She was cheating, of course, and though I don’t know why, I always let her get away with it. Was it because I longed so much for those few moments when we stood close together, pretending not to hear or be heard, caught up in a game that for an instant dissolved the distance between parent and child, that set us free to touch and seek and find each other? It was a simple, almost negligible act of grace, my not letting on that I knew she was there. Yet I suspect that in that one act my child may have mirrored God for me better than in any other way I’ve known.

Still to this day, it seems, God is for me a seven-year-old daughter, slipping back across the grass, holding her breath in check, wanting once again to surprise me with a presence closer than I ever expected.

“Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself,” the prophet once declared (Isa. 45:15, RSV). A playfulness as well as a dark mystery lie richly intertwined in that grand and complex truth.

Belden C. Lane is professor emeritus of American Christianity at St. Louis University. He is the author of The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring the Desert and Mountain Spirituality (Oxford, 1998), from which this article is excerpted and condensed with permission.

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Issue 5 / September 18, 2014
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