OUT OF THE THOUSANDS OF LETTERS THAT I RECEIVE EACH YEAR, many from skeptics, a recent one stands out. The writer asks simply, “Why has God made it so difficult to believe in him? If I loved somebody and had infinite power, I would use that power to show myself more obviously. Why has God made it so difficult to see his presence and his plan?”
This is a fair and haunting question. Theologians refer to this as “the hiddenness of God.” The skeptic uses stronger terms, referring to him as the God who has absconded and left us with no visible sign of his existence.
How do we arrive at any sense in dealing with this struggle? Would anyone deny that they would really like to see some periodic “visitation” from God, some tangible evidence of his existence? And who among us would not like to know his plan?
As much as the question seems powerful, however, I contend that the answers we give must remind the questioner that maybe, just maybe, the question itself hasn’t been carefully thought through. For example, how often would we want God to reveal himself? Once a day? Every time there is an emergency? Would we like to hear a voice every now and then, saying, “Trust me”? The interesting thing about this demand is that some have seen God’s presence; some have heard his voice — yet it did not make it any easier for them to believe. It turns out that when you are all-powerful, someone will always demand that you demonstrate the fact.
John the Baptist, who introduced the Christ to the world, saw many miracles. Yet when John found himself in prison, he wondered if Jesus really was who he claimed to be. Apparently he thought, “If Jesus is indeed the Christ, then why would he allow me to rot in prison?” Peter had the most dramatic disclosure ever given to the human eye atop the mountain, when he saw the transfiguration of Jesus. He felt so overwhelmed that he did not want to come down again. Yet not long afterwards, when Jesus was arrested and on his way to the cross, Peter denied that he ever knew him.
We always like to know how a story ends, don’t we? Otherwise we feel cheated. Does a sudden disappointment or unexpected event shatter everything else we believed? Is this disappointment a marker before the turn, or is it the end of the road for us? Carrying the question further — is the end of life the most awesome thing we will ever encounter, or is it a long day’s journey into night? If we were to judge by much of what we see and hear, we would honestly find it difficult to keep ourselves from becoming cynical about life. More and more, when something terrible happens, we declare, “That’s life!” — as though disappointment and heartache declare the sum total of this existence.
We miss the roses and see only the thorns. We take for granted the warmth of the sun and get depressed by the frequency of the rain or the snow. We ignore the sounds of life in a nursery because we are preoccupied with the sounds of sirens responding to an emergency. We forget the marvel of a marriage that has endured the test of time because we feel discouraged by the heartaches of loved ones whose marriages didn’t make it to the end.
In his play “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” Eugene O’Neill has one of his characters utter a powerful statement toward the end of her life: “None of us can help the things life has done to us. They are done before you realize it and once they are done, they make you do other things, until at last everything comes between you and what you’d like to be, and you’ve lost your true self forever.”1 Which of us has not flirted with the despair reflected in these sobering lines? Are we really dealt a deck of cards, all predesigned like a magician’s pack toward a certain fixed end? Is it just an illusion that we play the game at will?
We must recognize that divine intervention is nowhere near as simple a thing as we might imagine. For it to sustain us and give us staying power — to help us remain firm and see God’s hand at every stage of our lives — it must look quite different from what we would usually prescribe for ourselves. It cannot be only a journey of unmistakable blessing and a path of ease. To allow God to be God we must follow him for who he is and what he intends, and not for what we want or what we prefer. That’s what this book is about: seeing the designing hand of God and his intervention in our lives in such a way that we know he has a specific purpose for each of us and that he will carry us through until we meet him face-to-face and know ourselves completely.
Some years ago I was speaking in South Africa. I felt fortunate to be there during a major cricket match between South Africa and the West Indies. The manager of the South African team came to one of my speaking engagements, and he was able to get me tickets close to the players’ viewing box. I had a marvelous time. As we spoke, he told me of his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.
“It happened in a very strange way,” he said. He explained that he had been a confirmed skeptic most of his life and felt quite hostile toward those with any belief in God. Then one Easter Sunday morning, as he sat by his swimming pool, he heard the strains of Easter hymns highlighting Jesus’ resurrection coming from a television inside the house. It irritated him. Then at one point, beer in hand, he muttered a whim. “If you really are who you say you are,” he demanded, “show yourself to me.” That’s all he said — really, a bit of a taunt.
No more than a half hour later, as he stared at the pool, he seemed to see the features of Jesus’ face as portrayed in famous paintings, sort of rippling on the surface of the water, appearing and then disappearing. At first it startled him. Then he just brushed it off, figuring he had consumed one too many beers.
By the time he woke up early the next morning, he had almost forgotten the experience. But as he walked toward his bathroom, wouldn’t you know it, there was that face again, somehow imbedded in the grain of the door. Now it really grabbed his attention. Within the next hour, as he got ready for the day, he saw the same features on three doors in different rooms, suddenly coming together to form the face of Christ — almost like the pieces of a puzzle interlocked in a time-lapsed sequence. He almost became afraid to look at any more doors. It turned out this was all he needed. His life took a turn, and he came to believe that God knew what it was going to take to win him over.
Near the end of our conversation, almost offhandedly, he said something that really piqued my curiosity. “Those images are still as visible on the doors today as they were then,” he declared.
“You can see them today?” I asked.
“Yes. Would you like to come over this week?”
I jumped at the chance. Talk cricket and see a miracle at the same time? To me, that would be as dramatic an evidence of God’s intervention as I could have wanted. I said as much to him with a twinkle in my eye and, of course, tongue in cheek. We set the date for my wife and me to have dinner in his home. I could hardly wait.
When the day finally arrived, after the initial pleasantries, I said, “Can I see those images on the doors now?” He delightedly ushered me to the bedroom and took me to the vantage point from where he had made his first sighting. I have to admit that as soon as he positioned me, one look at the grain of the wood and I knew exactly what he was pointing to. “Wow!” I said. “I can see that.” I stared and stared, and I could see why a man who wanted such a sign could not miss such a hint. Then we visited the next room. There I had to tilt my head this way and that before I could see any image. The second one seemed a bit blurred and not as convincing. Then the third — a little better than the second, but not as clear as the first. I argued with myself about its empirical power and then left, only half-convinced.
We had a wonderful afternoon, chatting as he spoke of his life and his loves. When I left, I asked myself the question, “Was that just the grain of the wood? Could it be that, somehow, if you stared long enough, it looked like a face?” Was it maybe something like seeing a numeric code in every word you read? Or was it really possible that God in his mercy deals with some of us in ways that connect with us individually, so that the means may vary but the ends remain the same — a direct divine encounter bringing conviction to our soul that God is near?
Across history, people have come to God through different experiences, but in the end they have seen a designing hand that shaped their lives and their circumstances. And that was enough for them. They trusted God implicitly, without needing a constant “miracle” to keep their faith vibrant.
For me, the last few years have been more an intellectual journey than a material display. The latter has followed, however, and I have seen enough of God’s intervention to make me quietly content with his plan and purpose in my life. Sometimes I thought he was silent; now I see he was not. At times I thought he was absent; today I know he was there. He has gently yet unmistakably demonstrated to me, both by argument and by experience, that he is very near and very active.
I believe God intervenes in the lives of every one of us. He speaks to us in different ways and at different times so that we may know he is the author of our very personality. And he wants us to know he has a calling for each of us, designed to fulfill each individual’s uniqueness. That is why John and Peter and a host of others, in the end, willingly paid the ultimate price, even as they sought God’s power and presence in those “dark nights of the soul.”2 In fact, I believe more matters to God in our lives than we normally pause to think about. We may not fully understand his design as it takes shape, but we should not conclude that his design lacks a directing plan.
In my mind’s eye I see a modest-looking building in the northern city of Varanasi, India. Those who read my autobiographical journey Walking from East to West will remember this illustration. In fact, I received so many letters about it that I decided to make it the starting point for this work.
Varanasi is perhaps most famous as the hub of Hinduism, since through it flows the sacred river Ganges. But it also has a deserved reputation for producing the spectacular and breathtaking saris that every bride in northern India wants to wear on her wedding day. Having attended numerous weddings while growing up in Delhi, I well recall admiring these magnificent works of art. The spectacular colors practically explode: reds that seem to be the source from which all other reds emerge; royal blues that look as though they reflect the oceans of the world; brilliant greens that appear to borrow from the finest emeralds and lend their softer side to all the well-manicured lawns of the world; and gold and silver threads that don’t just seem to be gold and silver because they are real gold and silver. All these colors get woven into patterns that one would think came from the perfect mind and the perfect pair of hands. I had always wanted to see how they were made. Who created them, and how did they do it?
I walk into a building and then into a little side room. In typical Indian fashion, the surroundings leave very much to be desired, but the final product is nothing short of a work of art. Essentially, a father and son team makes each sari. The father sits on a raised platform with huge spools of brilliantly colored threads within his reach. The son sits on the floor in the lotus position (with apparent ease and comfort I can only envy — the first challenge would be to get into that position and the second to stand up afterwards). The team wears basic and simple clothing. Their fingers move nimbly, their hands never touching any softening lotion. They hunch over their work, and their eyes focus on the pattern emerging with each move of the shuttle.
Before my eyes, though it did not appear so at first, a grand design appears. The father gathers some threads in his hand, then nods, and the son moves the shuttle from one side to the other. A few more threads, another nod, and again the son responds by moving the shuttle. The process seems almost Sisyphus-like in its repetition, the silence broken only occasionally with a comment or by some visitor who interrupts to ask a question about the end design. The father smiles and tries in broken English to explain the picture he has in his mind, but compared to the magnificence of the final product, it is a mere lisp. I know that if I were to come back a few weeks later — in some instances a few months later — I would see the spools of thread almost empty and a six-yard-long sari, breathtaking in all of its splendor.
Throughout the process, the son has had a much easier task. Most likely he has often felt bored. Perhaps his back has ached or his legs have gone to sleep. Perhaps he has wished for some other calling in life — something he might find more stimulating or fulfilling. He has but one task, namely, to move the shuttle as directed by the father’s nod, hoping to learn to think like the father so that he can carry on the business at the appropriate time.
Yet the whole time, the design has remained in the mind of the father as he held the threads. In a few days, this sari will make its way to a shop in Delhi or Bombay or Calcutta. A lovely young lady with her mother will note the saris on display. This one will catch her eye and she will exclaim, “Bohut badiya [how grand]! Khupsurat [what a beautiful face]!” A sari with a beautiful face, because a grand weaver has purposefully designed it. Before long, it will be draped around her, beautifying the lovely bride.
Now if an ordinary weaver can take a collection of colored threads and create a garment to beautify the face, is it not possible that the Grand Weaver has a design in mind for you, a design that will adorn you as he uses your life to fashion you for his purpose, using all the threads within his reach?
One little stanza of an Isaac Watts’ hymn illustrates God’s majesty, expressed in the unique way he has made each one of us:
Our life contains a thousand springs,
and dies if one be gone;
strange that a harp of a thousand strings
should keep in tune so long!3
Once you begin to see God’s hand in your life, you will know that his workmanship within you and through you was tailor-made, just for you. His design for your life pulls together every thread of your existence into a magnificent work of art. Every thread matters and has a specific purpose. I pray that as you read these pages, you will see those threads come together and know that God is indeed the Grand Weaver of your life.
RAVI K. ZACHARIAS