Have you ever thought to yourself, “I wish God would show up”? Or perhaps, you phrased it like this, “It would be a whole lot easier to believe in God, if He just made Himself visible.” Or, “I’d do what God said, if He just made it clear what He wanted me to do.” Those last words are ones I have asked myself over the years.
Recently I listened to a dialogue between Christian podcaster Justin Brierley and atheist David Smalley, both who have many followers. During their discussion, Smalley stated that it would be a whole lot easier to believe in God if every time you did something He wanted, you got a big reward, and every time you did something bad you were punished in some clear way. I can understand what he is asking: If God is really there, why doesn’t He make himself more easily identifiable?
Not long after hearing the podcast, the thought went through my head, “Would we really be more likely to follow God if He showed up in some visible form before us, or if He rewarded us or punished us on the spot for following Him or not?”
Your quick response to a question like this might be, “Of course, we would.” Whether you are already a believer in God or not, if God showed up or made Himself very visible in some form or fashion, you probably tend to think it would be a game changer. But I am not so sure that would be the case. At least, that’s not what we see played out for us in the Bible.
There are a few periods in biblical history when we could say God really showed up. One period is the time surrounding the Exodus, when God moved the nation of Israel out of Egyptian captivity and into a new land. During that period, God made His presence super evident through plagues and parting water, pillars of fire, food from the sky, and words sent through Moses. Some of those words, set up the very scenario David Smalley asked for in his podcast.
They went like this: "If you fully obey the LORD your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the LORD your God: You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. The fruit of your womb will be blessed, and the crops of your land and the young of your livestock—the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks…The LORD will grant that the enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven. The LORD will send a blessing on your barns and on everything you put your hand to."
Just following those words, God added this: "However, if you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country...The fruit of your womb will be cursed, and the crops of your land, and the calves of your herds and the lambs of your flocks. You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out. The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin because of the evil you have done in forsaking him…The LORD will cause you to be defeated before your enemies. You will come at them from one direction but flee from them in seven, and you will become a thing of horror to all the kingdoms on earth."
These words are pretty straight forward, and you can find God saying even more in this vein throughout Deuteronomy 28-30. Simply put, God says to the nation of Israel, “Obey me and you will see visible rewards. Disobey me and you will see bad things happen.” Was God just spouting off when He said this? I don’t think so. If we study the history of the Israelites, this stuff played out just as God said. When the people obeyed, things went really well for them. But when they disobeyed it went poorly for them to say the least. Now, you would hope that the Israelites would have been reasonable and that after a few instances of experiencing the consequences of obeying and disobeying, they would line up to get on team God and start singing His praises. But that’s not what happened. As time went on, they flat out ignored God and His instructions. They even started worshiping man-made gods until final destruction came on them just as God had predicted.
But this is hardly the only time God showed up in biblical history. If we want to talk about God showing up, we certainly can’t skip past Jesus. Jesus declared that he was God in the flesh, and angels from heaven confirmed it. To help people understand he was God, Jesus did all kinds of miracles, fulfilled all kinds of impossible prophecies, and even told people he would rise from the dead, which is exactly what he did.
So here was God on Earth, for some 33 years, doing all kinds of incredible things before countless people. You would think that as a result there would have been thousands, even millions who would be falling in line, especially after Jesus came back to life. But that’s not what happened at all. The Bible tells us that in the days following Jesus’ resurrection there were only 120 who banded together as believers (Acts 1:15). A lifetime of God showing up and only 120 believers!
So, what’s my point? It’s this: maybe the problem for us is not that God has not shown up enough, or hasn’t revealed Himself enough to us, or hasn’t given us enough evidence of His existence. Maybe the problem is that despite all this we just want to chart our own course. We would rather close our eyes to His work in our midst. We’d rather play the skeptic and keep demanding that He prove Himself one more time. We would rather ignore His instruction, even if we know He’s saying something that’s for our own good.
I know, I know, we want to think that God showing up would be the definitive factor in getting on board with God. But history doesn’t bear that out. Like it or not, in many regards the issue is not about God and what He has done to make Himself known to us. That’s already a done deal. The issue is about us, and whether we are willing to receive what He has made known about Himself, about us, and about His way. You might even say the real issue today is not whether God will show, but whether you and I will.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions.