I first began to understand this the summer between my ninth- and tenth-grade years.
My next-door neighbor was two years ahead of me in school and a bright and argumentative nonbeliever. Many warm evenings we would argue about the existence of God until late at night. To a stalemate. It was so clear to me that God did exist, it was obvious to him that he didn’t, or so he argued.
One evening the insight came to me from the parable Jesus told about the rich man and the beggar, Lazarus. In the parable, Jesus told of how the rich man, after a life of callous selfishness, ended up burning in hell and watching from afar the bliss of Lazarus in heaven at Abraham’s side. The rich man begged for help. Would Abraham please dip his finger in water to cool his tongue? No, he couldn’t. Would he then send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers who awaited the same fate if they did not change their ways? No, he wouldn’t. Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
The formerly rich man didn’t think that was enough. But if someone actually came back from the grave to warn them—perhaps like Marley to Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—then they would believe and repent, wouldn’t they? Abraham’s answer is instructive: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:19–31). Even seeing won’t be believing if they aren’t willing to obey.
So I put the question to my friend: “If God appeared before us, right here, on the front porch of this house, and you knew beyond any doubt that it was actually God standing there, would you commit your life to him to obey all his laws?”
In a moment of unguarded candor, he said, “Well, I’d have to think about that.” His answer explained his inability to believe, to know. I’ve come to believe that I won’t hear from God unless I am first willing to act on what I’ve heard. God hides himself from those who refuse to obey, so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!” (Mark 4:12).