Do any of these sound a little too familiar?
- You work hard toward something you’ve set your heart on, but no matter what you do, you just can’t achieve it.
- You start a project with high hopes, everything goes wrong, and it takes five times as long as you thought it would.
- You set a goal for yourself, achieve it, and find out that you’re still not happy.
- You finally manage to get into a relationship with someone you’ve desired for a long time, only to discover that it is a complete mistake.
- You try to get something done at your job or in an organization you belong to, but you can’t seem to get anywhere. Later you find out that someone was working behind the scenes to block it.
Now tell me you haven’t had this thought:
“If only I’d known then what I know now . . . .”
Now let’s just say that after you’ve spent months, years, or decades working toward something that turns out to be a big disappointment or a big disaster, you happen to meet God on the street.
Would you have some questions for God?
Questions such as, “Hey God, you’re all-knowing, right? Why didn’t you tell me?!? It would have saved me an awful lot of work, and I could have avoided a big pile of heartbreak.”
So why does God keep it a secret until it’s too late?
Why does God let us stumble along down here? Why does God let us waste half a lifetime running after stuff that turns out to be a big bust?
It sure would be a big help if God gave us just a little peek into our future, wouldn’t it?
Apparently, God doesn’t think so.
Seeing God after the fact
In Exodus 33:21–23, after Moses has asked God to show him God’s glory, God says to Moses:
There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.
We are allowed to see divine providence from behind, but not face to face.
Another way of saying this is that we can see what God has been doing when we look back on the events of our lives, but not so much when they are actually happening. To use the language of Genesis, God covers us with a hand while passing by, and takes it off only in time for us to see God’s back—to see that God has, in fact, been working in our lives, even though we were not aware of it at the time.
This is a common experience for many of us. When we’re a little older and a little bit wiser, we look back at the difficult and painful passages in our lives and realize that the struggles we faced then made us the person we are today. As much as we may have hated it at the time, we come to realize that without those experiences, we would not have grown intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually in the way that we have.
But the question still remains:
Why doesn’t God show us while we’re in the middle of those struggles what God is doing, and what it’s all leading to? Wouldn’t it work out a whole lot better if God let us in on the secret beforehand, so that we could cooperate and help God along, instead of being in the dark until it’s already over?
In a word: Nope!
Let’s look at some of the reasons why, based what Swedenborg writes in Divine Providence #175–190. This is the chapter titled, “It Is a Law of Divine Providence That We Should Not Sense or Feel Anything of the Working of Divine Providence, but That We Should Still Know about It and Acknowledge It.” (How’s that for a long chapter title!)
1. Knowing ahead of time would rob us of our humanity
What makes us human, and not just highly evolved animals?
Isn’t it our ability to make free and rational choices, and to act according to them? Isn’t it our ability to determine who and what we will be, what we will believe, and how we will live our lives?
Without our freedom and rationality, we would be no different from any other animal, living by instinct and driven by biological urges to eat, sleep, and reproduce.
This freedom and rationality of ours is in direct tension with the omniscience and omnipotence of God.
If God truly knows everything, then God knows our future just as well as God knows our past.
If God is truly all-powerful, then God has the capability of determining our future, regardless of what we believe or want.
But God doesn’t want to do that. God wants us to be human, so that we can make our own free choices about our beliefs, our actions, and our future, and not be mere deterministic beings, preordained from eternity to go through the motions of this life according to a pre-set pattern until we die.
The amazing thing is that God managed to negotiate this paradox. God has carved out a region of reality in which we humans can be free, and choose our own fate, even while God is omniscient and omnipotent.
But to achieve this, God has to do a couple of things:
- God must step back, and let us do things as if we were doing them by ourselves.
- God must not let us know that God knows our future, and is working in our lives with that in mind.
Knowing is not the same as causing
Is your mind rebelling right now?
If God knows our future, isn’t our future determined? Do we really have free choice at all?
First, it’s important to understand that to God, it is not the future. God is outside of time. So God sees everything in the present. It’s not a case of God knowing a thousand years ago what we would eat for breakfast tomorrow. God sees everything all at once—past, present, and future—from a place beyond time. Time exists only in the created universe.
Second, knowing something is not the same as causing it.
For example, if I hold a book up in the air, and then let go, I know that the book will go crashing to the floor. But I did not cause the book to crash to the floor. Gravity did that.
In the same way, just because God knows our future, that doesn’t mean God causes our future.
Yes, in many things we humans are directed and determined by forces beyond our control. But in the things that really count—spiritual things—our own choices do cause our future. And even here on earth, our life can and does go one way or another based on the choices we make every day.
God knows what choices we will make, but the choices are still ours.
God knows what our eternal future will be, but we are still the ones who decide what it will be.
God acts only to accomplish God’s goals
And another thing: Just because God is omnipotent, that doesn’t mean God actually does everything. God is not only omnipotent, but also has goals and the ability to carry them out. So although God could decide and determine our future, and cause it to happen a particular way regardless of what we want, God will not do that, because it would go against what God wants to accomplish.
God wants to be in a freely chosen, mutual relationship with us. And that can’t happen unless God gives us space to make our own choices in life. That especially includes the fundamental choice of whether we want to believe in God, love God, and have a relationship with God.
So like a good parent, even though God could do everything for us, God steps back and lets us do things on our own, in our own way.
At least, that’s how it looks to us. And God wants it to look that way to us.
In fact, if God weren’t giving us life and the power to act, we could do nothing at all. Everything we do is powered by God. In reality, we cannot do anything all by ourselves.
What we can do is direct that power from God toward either good or evil goals and actions. When we direct it toward good goals and actions, we move into a mutual relationship with God. When we direct it toward evil goals and actions, God still loves us, but we don’t love God back, so the relationship is not mutual.
In either case, God still continues to sustain and support us, because without the freedom and rationality that makes us human, it would not even be possible for us to have a genuine, mutual, freely chosen relationship with God.
That type of relationship with God, and with one another, is God’s goal in creating and governing the universe. That’s why even though God could determine our future, God leaves space to let us determine our future.
God is continually working in our lives from within
However, this does not mean that God just winds up the universe and lets it run on its own, as Deists commonly believe. Nor, on a smaller scale, does it mean that God sends us scurrying into this world and steps back, letting us fend for ourselves.
No, God is working in our lives continually, with definite goals in mind.
In general, God’s goal is to bring us to heaven. For this to happen, we must grow to love and care for our fellow human beings at least as much as we love and care for ourselves. And we must think and act based on a belief in God, or at least a belief in the good of humanity, and not based only on what benefits ourselves.
In order to achieve that goal, God is continually guiding and directing the events of our lives.
God is always working to cause good things to happen for us, and also allowing bad things to happen to us if it is necessary for our long-term good, or simply can’t be prevented without violating our freedom.
Especially, God is continually working on our hearts from within, moving us toward care and concern for our fellow human beings, toward compassion for those who are suffering, toward a desire to use our lives to accomplish good things for our fellow human beings.
God will never force us into of these things. But at every least opening or opportunity, God will flow into our hearts, seeking to inspire us to move—even if ever so slightly—away from our focus on money, power, comfort, and pleasure, and toward a focus on love, understanding, compassion, and service.
God does this from the moment we are born to the moment we die, and then continues to do it to eternity. And for the most part, we have no idea at all of this tremendous, constant care and guidance that God provides for us throughout or lives.
Once again, why not?
If we knew the future, our life would not feel like it is our own
In this life, we humans make goals for ourselves, we strive for them, we put hours, days, months, and years into accomplishing them. Through it all, we are powered by the hope that we will be able to achieve what we set out to do. The uncertainty about whether we will achieve it causes us to put our back into it. It impels us to make every effort to accomplish what we envision in our minds and long for in our hearts.
What if we knew ahead of time if and when we would be successful?
For example, what if we knew that we would be a billionaire by the time we were thirty? Would there still be the excitement, the drive to accomplish it, when it was already a certainty in our mind? Wouldn’t we just sit back and let events take their course, knowing that it doesn’t matter what we do? After all, our future is set. We’re going to be a billionaire. Why bother working toward it? Nothing we do will make any difference anyway.
Paradoxically, if we knew our future, it would make that future impossible. We would no longer do what it takes for that future to happen. Instead, God would have to do everything for us. We would be reduced to mere robots, with no will, no drive, no freedom, and no rationality of our own. We would just sit back and let things happen to us.
In short, we would no longer be human. We would be mere puppets in the hand of God.
That, in a nutshell, is why God will not show us our future. If we are to be human, and to have a future as human beings, we must work and strive toward building our future from the inside out.
Yes, God does provide the power. But we are the ones who make the choices and take this action rather than that one in order to make things unfold as we wish them to unfold.
2. If we knew what God was doing, we’d make a huge mess of it
We humans tend to think we’re very smart and capable. Especially when we’re young, we think that if we were running this world, the world would be a much better place.
Oh, how little we know!
Consider this: Everyone who is running the world, and everyone who ever has run the world, thought the same thing when he or she was young. Thousands of years and hundreds of generations later, the world is still a huge mess! It’s still being run by a lot of overgrown kids who think we know better than God how things should be run.
The world—meaning human society—is immensely complex. It is more complex than even the highest IQs among us can grasp. If we think we are capable of running it through our own intelligence, we are deceiving ourselves.
The example of the physical body
As an analogy, think of the complexity of your own body.
God does let you run some parts of your body. You can decide what to say, what to do with your hands and feet, what to eat, when to go to sleep. You can even determine how fast or slow you will breathe—though as soon as you stop paying attention, your breath will go back to its own natural rhythm.
In a nutshell, God lets us run the parts of our body that engage in large-scale physical interaction with the outside world.
But that’s probably the least complicated part of our body.
Consider, for example, the digestion of the food you put into your mouth. It is a highly complex process that starts in your mouth with various enzymes in the saliva, and continues through the stomach, large and small intestines, and right through to the rectum. At every step of the way, there are hundreds of mechanical and chemical processes taking place that are intricately tailored and attuned to precisely what type and quantity of food and beverage you happened to throw down your gullet.
Now consider what would happen if you had to control and direct all of this. First of all, you wouldn’t have time for anything else! Your mind would be maxed out just keeping the process on track. And even if you were to put out your best effort, you still wouldn’t do it as well as the body does it. Your conscious, thinking mind just isn’t designed for that.
More to the point, even if your conscious mind were designed to control your digestion, it’s likely that you’d make many decisions about how to digest your food based on your own schedule and convenience rather than on what’s best for the functioning of your body.
To give just one example, if you foolishly ate a big meal just before playing in a major sporting event, you’d force the process along, speeding it up past your body’s ability to properly digest and assimilate the food, and pushing half-digested food into your bloodstream—which would poison your cells instead of feeding them.
Now consider the chaos that would result if you had conscious control over all of your internal body organs!
I hate to say it, but if we were running even our own bodies, we would all soon be dead.
Our goals are different from God’s goals
It’s not that we don’t have sufficient brain capacity to control our internal organs. Our nervous system actually does run all of the systems of our body.
The problem isn’t capacity. Rather, the problem is human perversity.
What sort of things do the vast bulk of humans set out to do with their lives? I’ll wager that these would cover most of us as we enter adult life:
- Make money and get rich
- Be famous
- Become powerful and influential
- Have a nice house, car, boat, and so on
- Have everybody like us
- Be successful and universally admired
- Be looked to as a wise leader
- Have lots of great sex
Yes, there are some young idealists who have higher goals. But if you peeled off a few layers, you’d find that even most of them have a rather inflated sense of their own crucial contribution to the fate of the universe.
Meanwhile, God’s goals for us are very different from ours. Here are a few examples:
- Make us humble
- Make us innocent
- Make us loving
- Make us compassionate
- Make us feel joy in serving others
- Make us come to love and appreciate our enemies
- Make us generous in giving what we have to others
- Make us put God first in our life
Let’s be honest: How many of us really start out with goals like these?
We want to achieve great things!
We want to make our mark on the world!
We want to suck the marrow out of life and experience its thrills and its greatness!
We don’t have time for humility, gentleness, innocence, and all those other impractical things.
God’s goals are opposed to our goals
Consider the example of setting your heart on someone that you desperately want to form a romantic relationship with—even though God knows it is the wrong person for you.
If you’ve done that, you probably had friends and relatives tell you that it was a mistake.
Did you listen to them?
Of course not!
Most likely you got annoyed with them. If they were persistent and in your face about it, you may have gotten into arguments with them, or cut them off. “They just don’t understand me!” you said.
But they did understand you—and the person you wanted to get together with—better than you did yourself. And they were right. It turned out to be a disaster.
In this scenario, substitute God for the friends and relatives who only wanted to save you from certain pain and heartbreak.
God knows what will truly make you happy far better than you do yourself. And God knows that what will make you happy is not what you think will make you happy.
But when you have your heart set and your mind determined on achieving some goal, will you listen to God?
Not on your life!
If we were aware of God’s goals, we would work hard against them
The annoying fact is, God is continually pulling us away from our own goals, because God knows that our own goals will not bring us real happiness, let alone eternal joy. As we start out in life, God’s goals for us are often diametrically opposed to our goals for ourselves.
As we strive to achieve our goals, would we really welcome the knowledge that God is working tirelessly to get us to do something else?
If we knew all of the things God is doing every nanosecond to move us in a direction different from the one we want to go in, we would do everything we could to block, oppose, and destroy everything God wants to do for us. That’s because our own will is contrary to God’s will.
Later on in life, if we have grown spiritually and begun to align ourselves with God’s will, we may be able to cooperate more with God. Then we may be able to see a little more of what God is doing in our lives. When our goals are good and spiritual ones, rather than materialistic and self-centered ones, our goals for ourselves begin to align with God’s goals for us.
But for much of our lives that simply isn’t the case. God must work behind the scenes, and keep God’s goals secret from us. If we knew about them, we would do everything we could to derail and destroy the work that God is doing in our lives.
To give just one example, if we set a goal for ourselves of making a billion dollars so that we can feel safe and secure in our own wealth, how kindly would we take to God telling us that this is not a good goal? How kindly would we take to God telling us that no matter how much money we have, it will never make us secure? That we could lose it all overnight—as has happened to many wealthy people? How willing would we be to listen to God telling us that there are greater and more worthwhile goals for us to strive for?
As long as we have a fire in our belly to make our first billion, we will never listen to God or anyone else who tries to tell us that it will give us neither happiness nor security—and that it certainly won’t contribute to our eternal happiness.
The only way we can find that out is if:
- We achieve it and discover that the satisfaction is fleeting, and the happiness does not come, or
- We wear ourselves out trying unsuccessfully to achieve it, and finally realize that there are better goals in life.
God understands this about us. So God allows us to follow our own goals, even if they will not lead to real happiness. It is the only way we can learn for ourselves what God could have told us all along.
God is subtly telling us that along. God is quietly working to bring us to that conclusion. After it is all over, we may be able to look back and see the messages God was giving us, all along.
3. If we saw how God works in us, we would either deny God or think that we are God
It is common for atheists to demand proof or evidence of God before they will believe in God.
In the same way, we might think that if God would only show us clearly what God is doing in our lives, then we would really believe that God is caring for us even when our life totally sucks.
Most likely it would be just the opposite.
Let’s look at the example of an atheist demanding evidence for the existence of God.
Most atheists are materialists—meaning that they do not believe that anything other than material reality exists.
The problem is, God is a non-material being. So the basic assumptions from which an atheist looks at the world denies even the possibility of God’s existence. God simply can’t exist, because everything that exists is material, and God is defined as a non-material being.
Now let’s say the atheist has an encounter with God. Will this convince the atheist that God exists? In some cases it might. For example, there are atheists who have become believers after having a near-death experience.
But what’s more likely to happen is that after the initial powerful experience of encountering a divine being, there will be a reaction against it. That’s especially so if the atheist had invested a great deal of time, thought, and personal reputation in arguments against the existence of God. Soon the atheist will find various material-world explanations for the experience. Most likely, the atheist will come to think of it as a dream or a hallucination.
Have you heard the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me?” The atheist will come to feel just a bit foolish for having briefly entertained the idea that there actually is a God. And then he or she will be even more resistant in the future to any experience that might suggest that there is a God.
That’s why atheists who demand proof for God will never get it. Yes, God could come and sit in the atheist’s living room to show that there really is a God. But after initially accepting it, the atheist would just reject it even harder. The same would go for any evidence for God and an afterlife.
That’s why as a rule, God will not give atheists the slightest hint of what God is doing in their lives, or even that God exists at all.
The same goes for people who believe in God, but whose goals are opposed to God’s goals. God is like that person who was secretly blocking you from getting something done at your workplace. If you found out about it, wouldn’t you want to kick that S.O.B. out of your life in your anger and frustration?
Just so, if we knew that God is continually working against the things we want for ourselves, we would kick God out of our life by denying God’s existence altogether.
The alternative, of course, would be to take credit for everything God did as if we had done it ourselves, effectively making ourselves God. And that would be even worse than denying God.
No, as long as our will is opposed to God’s will, God must hide from us, and work in secret.
As we become more spiritual, we can see God’s hand more and more
By now I hope you can begin to understand why God works in secret until it is too late for us to do anything about it.
However, it doesn’t always have to be that way.
Yes, it’s true that we will never fully see, understand, and accept what God is doing in our lives. After all, the mind of God is vast and infinite, while ours is small and finite.
However, if we gradually, grudgingly begin to follow the subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—guidance and direction that God has been giving us all along, our minds will open up to see more and more of what God is doing in our lives.
You see, it’s only when our will is opposed to God’s will that God must hide from us and work in secret.
As we align our will with God’s will, God can reveal more and more of what God is doing and where God is leading us. The closer we grow to God, the more we will be able to see of God working in the wide world around us, and in our own hearts and minds. Then we will be able to understand Jesus’ words in John 15:4–5:
Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
If we think of Jesus as speaking for God, here is the message of his words:
As we grow in spiritual life, we become willing instruments in God’s hands. Then everything we do is really God working through us.
For further reading: