From my experience and the conversations I have had so far, I have found that there are two major categories of people who come to doubt the existence of God.

The first category are people who have suffered for either physical or emotional reasons, sometimes for short periods of time, but often for longer periods of time. The second category are people who feel in control—financially, emotionally, rationally, whether in one, several or all of these areas.

I have met people in both categories who, although they started out in a relationship with God, have gradually found that nothing happens when they distance themselves from God—on the contrary, they begin to free their consciences from burdens they used to carry, and their hearts from emotions that were damaging them. In this way, some of those in the first category end up in the second.

What I think needs to be taken into account by people who are attracted by the idea of “liberation” from religious faith as a necessary emancipation is that the suffering of believers associated with the silence of God is not incompatible with the existence of God, just as the self-determination and balance of some non-believers is not incompatible with the existence of God. In other words, the fact that some believers suffer while God seems to do nothing does not mean that God does not exist; similarly, the fact that some unbelievers are well off and have good emotional health does not mean that God does not exist.

An individual’s decision about what to believe about God is extremely delicate. The distance between believing and finding arguments for belief, on the one hand, and not believing and finding arguments for doubt, on the other, is frighteningly small for many who are thinking about it for the first time.

The very way in which some see God in the midst of suffering, while others find evidence for His non-existence in the same situation, shows how personally and subjectively a matter of such great importance is decided.

Why, then, does God not manifest Himself in the midst of human beings in a way that is more evident and more difficult to interpret in contradictory ways?

Before formulating an answer to this question, notorious episodes in the Bible require us not to jump to the conclusion that an obviously manifested God would decisively influence the fine balance of an individual’s spiritual equilibrium. The reactions of the Egyptian Pharaoh to the plagues of the Exodus, the spiritual meltdown of the nomadic Israelites in the pre-Canaan wilderness despite the miracles they had witnessed, or the paradoxical reactions of the crowds who acclaimed Jesus and then demanded His death, are convincing indications that the obvious manifestations of the Godhead do not eliminate reactions and interpretations characterised by a subjectivism that is difficult to justify with clarity.

Therefore, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, we should assess the veracity of the following statement: It is not the obvious miraculous character of God’s manifestation that determines how God is interpreted by an individual, but the individual’s personal, subjective relationship to God’s revelation. If this statement is true, then we must turn our attention from God to human beings. And from this perspective, I think many who expect great, overwhelming, and irrefutable interventions from God to convince them of His existence might surprise themselves with the tendency to label those very interventions as coincidences or find natural explanations for them.

Often those who suffer because God does not reveal Himself to them in such a way that they can no longer doubt His existence may consider themselves sincere and willing to accept God, but they may not understand that in reality they are waiting for God on a path He is not likely to take.

In the wilderness into which Elijah fled, God surprisingly revealed Himself to the prophet in the simplest and most unexpected way—His presence was evidenced by “a gentle whisper” (1 Kings 19:12)—very unspecific, very unspectacular, and very open to interpretation.

Many times, however, God manifested Himself miraculously after the issue of trust had been resolved. He divided the waters of the Red Sea or the Jordan, for example, after people had already put their feet in them. Similarly, Jesus did not want to prove or validate Himself, and that is why His miracles were often performed in small circles. Even after His resurrection, He did not perform a miracle in the most crowded place, but where only His disciples could see Him.

In fact, Jesus’s great question, which reveals the nature of His ultimate concern, was: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). And when He speaks to Thomas, He addresses us all: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed!” (John 20:29). This is not some glorification of spiritual achievement, but rather some important clues that it is here where we find the key to understanding how sinful and sin-prone people can be changed, transformed, and saved for eternity. This whole process, it seems, has a great deal to do with faith, with a humble yet courageous and honourable willingness to give God credit, to wait for God to work, to wait quietly and patiently for His revelation, to long to understand Him rather than to demand that He prove Himself. Perhaps this is an important distinction between those who, out of suffering or sufficiency, consider it reasonable to ask God for a sign, a miracle, a favour, a demonstration, or a confirmation, and those who approach Him with due respect and a willingness to discover and acknowledge Him on His terms.

After all, if God exists and is as He has described Himself to us, it is unreasonable to approach Him with demands and conceit. These are manifestations of the suspicion that He does not exist. It is far more natural to look for signs of His presence with caution and a willingness to accept them when we find them.

It is true that suffering, with its myriad faces, or sufficiency, can make a person feel that they have nothing left to lose and can challenge God to interact on their terms, but the reality is that suffering or sufficiency can at best alter one’s perception of God, but cannot affect the reality of His existence.

So those who feel they have nothing to lose actually have a problem of perception. If God exists and you relate to Him wrongly, you can lose everything. If God doesn’t exist, there is no point in challenging Him to respond on your terms. If you are interested in the truth, having it revealed to you on your terms is not the most important thing, because anyone who wants the truth is willing to do anything to find it, not so? It is the truth that is the focus, not its seeker.

Having said that, one more fact should be brought into the discussion: there have been and there are situations where God accedes to manifesting Himself on human terms. The reasons for doing so always have to do with a series of circumstances that are related to both the individual and God’s plans, but such situations should not be interpreted as precedents that set rules, but rather as exceptions that need to be studied and understood. These exceptions are often unrepeatable, but always congruent with what God is doing in another context.

Norel Iacob is editor-in-chief of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.

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