Why Religion Doesn’t Work and Why God Is So Hidden


Why Doesn’t Religion Work?

I was a seminary student when this young man came to my church in Grand Rapids. He was in my small group and my elder district. He told me that he was unhappy but when he drove by the church on Sunday as the people were coming out he could see that they were happy, so he decided to get baptized and join our church. Church would make him happy.

A few months later he stopped attending church. I followed up with him. He said, “It didn’t work. Church was supposed to make me happy but I’m still unhappy so I’m not going to come any more. I’m going to keep looking for something that will make me happy.” That was the last I knew of him.

As a pastor I’ve seen this play out dozens of times. Consumers come into church because they’ve seen the advertising. “Join our religion, buy our product, try our program and we will give you what you want!” It just cycles again and again and again.

Why doesn’t religion work? We want religion to:

  • Make me happy
  • End my suffering and the suffering in the world
  • fill the world with joy and meaning
  • fill the world with beauty
  • make all our dreams come true

Religions Work Well Enough To Survive

Religions certainly work well enough to survive. Ontology has its own justification. If enough religious customers are happy there will be enough money to keep the institutions going, to pay the religious service providers. I’m not sure this is as much a testimony to religious effectiveness as it is to the need and desperation in the world for a better world and a better life.

Two Defensive Religious Responses

Religions usually have two defensive responses to the challenge that they don’t produced what they promise:

  1. You (the religious consumer and religious practitioner) are not DOING it right, or not doing it enough or long enough
  2. Time of Promised Delivery: “Just wait, it will come in the future or after you die.”

Americans resist the second answer more than the first. Tim Keller notes these four assumptions of most contemporary Americans:

  1. No moral authority other or higher than the self. My personal happiness is the highest good.
  2. In the end the good of the individual always trumps the good of the community.
  3. If God does exist he does for our benefit to make this a good world to live in (MTD)
  4. Whatever meaning or happiness there is must be found within this material world

Secular Projects

The religious time of delivery response makes Americans skeptical about the religious project. Secular projects that promise happiness and well-being seem like a better bet, except they seem equally incomplete.

  1. Secular projects never fully pan out in terms of well being or happiness either. All measures produce limited goods and all outcomes decay in time, come at too high a price tag or have negative side effects.
  2. Secular projects likewise seem to share in the “Time of Promised Delivery” dilemma. Medicine will cure our ills, tomorrow. May help us to live forever, in the future, will bring peace to the world, if only everyone would subscribe to solution X, etc.

Till We Have Faces

Probably CS Lewis’ best piece of fiction is one of his least read and most difficult to understand, Till We Have Faces. (Peter Kreeft has an excellent treatment on the book that you can download here.) CS Lewis uses the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche as the raw material for his story. The story is told in a pagan setting and the main character is Princess Orual who will become queen of her land. She is the ugly step sister of beautiful Psyche who she loves with all her heart. Lewis’ story takes the shape of two books written by Orual.

The first book which is most of the story is a complaint, a complaint against the gods. She’s furious at the gods for how we suffer. If they are gods at all and if they have any mercy at all then they would do something about our suffering, instead, they either abandon us to it or they make our miseries worse.

Why Are Holy Places Dark Places?

Orual’s complaint has to do with the fact that her beautiful sister Psyche, which is the Greek word for self or soul has to be offered as sacrifice to the ugly god Ungit. There is a drought and the kingdom is failing so the priest demands that Psyche, the best in the kingdom be sacrificed to the Ungit by giving her to the mountain god. She will either be ravaged or devoured, if there is a difference, and that will bring the rains again.

Orual doesn’t believe much of this because she’s got a sharp Greek tutor named “the Fox” who doesn’t believe in the gods and thinks they are just projections of our fears and desires.

Orual will not find find Psyche’s bones but rather she finds Psyche in rags telling Orual of her infinite happiness because the mountain god has become her husband. She lives with him in a castle that Orual can’t see. He comes to sleep with her every night and she is perfectly happy with him.

Orual thinks Psyche is made or deceived by a malevolent farmer or both and so she blackmail’s Psyche into doing the one thing the god prohibits Psyche to do, bring light into their bed chamber and to see his face.

Orual waits across the river as Psyche fulfills her demand. In a flash Orual sees the castle and hears the angry cry of the god and the anguish of Psyche. Psyche has in a moment seen the beauty of the god and is now exiled from this beauty, curses to walk the land in despair having beheld divine beauty only to live apart from it.

Orual cannot save Psyche so she begins to wear a veil, to devote herself to being the best and busiest queen in the world and to forget her anger. She manages to live most of her life avoiding her complaint with the gods until she finds a shrine set up for the Psyche story which gets the details wrong, and so she writes her book.

Yet at last after infinite hindrances, I made my book and here it stands. Now, you who read, judge between the gods and me. They gave me nothing in the world to love but Psyche and then took her from me. But that was not enough. They then brought me to her at such a place and time that it hung on my word whether she should continue in bliss or be cast out into misery. They would not tell me whether she was the bride of a god, or mad , or a brute’s or villain’s spoil. They would give no clear sign, though I begged for it. I had to guess. And because I guessed wrong they punished me— what’s worse, punished me through her.

Lewis, C. S. (1980-07-09). Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Kindle Locations 2522-2526). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

The Self

Most religions and philosophies that have really worked at the problem of our misery have come to the same conclusion. Those who look for happiness as consumers are going about things the wrong way. The problem isn’t “out there”, the problem is “in here”. The problem is with “the self”. “The self” isn’t in crisis because “the self” has been poorly treated or not given enough things, even though that may be the case, the problem is with the self-itself.

We see this all the time of course. People with wonderful circumstances can be absolutely miserable and a source of misery to everyone around them while others in far worse circumstance.

A happiness study was released this week by a group of Harvard scholars. We would probably expect that the happiest places in America would correspond to the places that had the most money, the most power, the best access to health care. The absolute opposite was true. New York City was the most unhappy city in the country and the secular places of the country were the most miserable. So does religion work or doesn’t it?

Destroy it or Resolve it

The existence of the individual self, itself has long been a controversy.

The pantheism of eastern religions that find god to be coexistent with all of reality (“use the force Luke”) are skeptical about the self. “The enlightenment” the Buddha attains in meditation is realization that his self is the divine self. Hindus do yoga in order to disavow themselves of the illusion of the existence of their individual self.

Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths assert that the path to eliminating the suffering of the self is by eliminating the most “self”y aspect of itself, desire or attachment. Once the self no longer wants, the self will no longer experience pain in its own self. Love, however, is a form of desire and attachment.

The goal is for the self to lose its individual existence and therefore its suffering.

Christianity along with Judaism and Islam asserts that the self is everlasting and that as long as the problem of the self is left unresolved the self continues to suffer. Rather than eliminating its self in order to eliminate the problem, the problem is resolved by attachment, by stronger love. The goal is for the loves of the self to be rearranged and put right, and when they are right the self will find what it has always sought.

Yhwh, Israel and Moses

We’ve been tracing the relationship between the Creator God and humanity through Genesis and Exodus. Last week we saw the calamity of the Golden Calf. As the LORD drew near to Israel to be her husband, Israel drew back to and tried to recast God in an image that they could manipulate and control. Israel revealed herself to be a shallow, fearful self unable to maintain a relationship of trust and faithfulness with a God like Yhwh. What ought Yhwh to do?

Last week we saw the relationship of Robin and Dave. After Robin revealed her 59 year old body to Dave, and after he revealed that he’d prefer to have her in the dark so that he could imagine her not as she is but as he wished she would be, they flew apart. Robin as an “International Speaker and Writer” used her power to exact a bitter revenge. Dave thought she was ugly in the light, she would shine such a bright light on Dave that the world would see his ugliness and together relish the scorn she would heap upon him.

Robin as “an international speaker and writer” and by her own self-assessment of her naked body is “above average” has other options. She’ll get back out there, be a more careful consumer, a more choosy consumer, and find “the right guy”.

Should Yhwh do likewise? Israel’s turned out to be a dud. He’s already floated the idea of starting over with Moses. Yhwh just needs to get “back out there on the market”.

What happens, however, is something more nuanced. Yhwh doesn’t give up on Israel, but he creates some space. He makes some distance.

Exodus 33:7–11 (NET)

7 Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, at a good distance from the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting. Anyone seeking the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting that was outside the camp. 8 And when Moses went out to the tent, all the people would get up and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he entered the tent.9 And whenever Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses.10 When all the people would see the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people, each one at the entrance of his own tent, would rise and worship.11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, the way a person speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his servant, Joshua son of Nun, a young man, did not leave the tent.

Israel and Yhwh seem to enter into this kind of relational inbetween state where neither is quite ready to give up on the other, yet they are both cautious and suspicious. Can they work things out?

Moses as Intermediary

Moses’ case, however, is even more complex. Moses is part of Israel but Moses has also been to a degree a stand-in for the LORD. Moses intercedes for the people while Moses also speaks for the LORD. The LORD has been pleased with Moses and while His relationship with the whole nation of Israel is strained, He seems to be getting tighter and tighter with Moses.

We shouldn’t forget that Moses wasn’t always like this. Moses as an infant is threatened by genocide and only rescued by the grace of his mother and Pharaoh’s daughter.

When we see Moses again as an adult he, like how all of us start, is going to fix his self by fixing the world around him. He sees the suffering of his fellow Israelites and so he takes their side and kills an Egyptian, probably implicitly hoping to be a revolutionary savior of his people. He learns very quickly that the Israelites, although victims, are no saints and that they are as willing to turn on him as he was on the Egyptians.

Moses then spends a second career in the wilderness at the low status job of shepherd. God appears to him in a burning bush. He is commanded to take off his shoes because he’s on holy ground. The LORD then tries to talk Moses into being His agent of delivery for Israel but Moses is once bitten, twice shy. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with this god or his rescue mission. Been there, done that, don’t want to go back. God, however, won’t take “no” for an answer and so the drama begins.

Moses wants to go Deeper

Now after all that they have been through Moses now trust Yhwh to a degree that most of the people do not. It is now time for Moses’ moment in the Robin and Dave story.

Exodus 33:12–23 (NET)

12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have been saying to me, ‘Bring this people up,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. But you said, ‘I know you by name, and also you have found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your way, that I may know you, that I may continue to find favor in your sight. And see that this nation is your people.” 14 And the Lord said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And Moses said to him, “If your presence does not go with us, do not take us up from here.16 For how will it be known then that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not by your going with us, so that we will be distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” 17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have requested, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 And Moses said, “Show me your glory.” 19 And the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and I will proclaim the Lord by name before you; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.”20 But he added, “You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live.”21 The Lord said, “Here is a place by me; you will station yourself on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by.23 Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen.”

Is Yhwh too once bitten twice shy or is there something else involved.

The Face of God

Many puzzle over this text because we’ve had multiple references to Moses and God being “face to face”. Apparently, however, God has layers like we do. Moses is asking for total transparency, total intimacy, total nakedness with God.

God’s response is basically “You have asked for a good thing, and because I love you I will give it to you, but because I love you I will only give you as much of me as you can handle.”

Now you might wonder why I started out talking about the failure of religion and our complaints against God and this story of Orual and Psyche. What does this have to do with Moses and the face of God?

The reason we can’t see God is same reason God seems to be absent, or negligent, or impotent or hostile or malevolent.

Orual’s Book

I told you that Orual told her story with Psyche as a complaint against the gods. It seems like a damning complaint that many of us can agree with. God says he’s good but where is God when the bombs fall on the children or the illness takes away our loved one or the poor suffer for lack of basic common necessities? Where is this God that supposedly loves us?!

Orual notes, as do many skeptics who both declare there is no God and inconsistently show that they are furious about it, that maintaining even the imaginative presence of the gods in our world just makes matters worse. It is easier to stomach if the universe is simply empty and cruel rather than imagining someone capable of rescuing us from our miseries but is unable or unwilling to do so. It’s like someone watching the victims of the Titanic drown from an empty life boat. This is Orual’s complaint!

CS Lewis’ book, however, contains a second book where Orual is allowed to read her complaint to the gods. She has her day in court and she is ready to lower the boom on them. What she discovers, however, is that what she imagines was really a long, damning complaint in better light really goes more like this.

“Uncover her,” said the judge.

Hands came from behind me and tore off my veil— after it, every rag I had on. The old crone with her Ungit face stood naked before those countless gazers. No thread to cover me, no bowl in my hand to hold the water of death; only my book.

“Read your complaint,” said the judge.

You will say the real gods are not at all like Ungit, and that I was shown a real god and the house of a real god and ought to know it. Hypocrites! I do know it. As if that would heal my wounds! I could have endured it if you were things like Ungit and the Shadowbrute. You know well that I never really began to hate you until Psyche began talking of her palace and her lover and her husband. Why did you lie to me? You said a, brute would devour her. Well, why didn’t it? I’d have wept for her and buried what was left and built her a tomb and … and…. But to steal her love from me! Can it be that you really don’t understand? Do you think we mortals will find you gods easier to bear if you’re beautiful? I tell you that if that’s true we’ll find you a thousand times worse. For then (I know what beauty does) you’ll lure and entice. You’ll leave us nothing; nothing that’s worth our keeping or your taking. Those we love best— whoever’s most worth loving— those are the very ones you’ll pick out. Oh, I can see it happening, age after age, and growing worse and worse the more you reveal your beauty: the son turning his back on the mother and the bride on her groom , stolen away by this everlasting calling, calling, calling of the gods. Taken where we can’t follow. It would be far better for us if you were foul and ravening. We’d rather you drank their blood than stole their hearts. We’d rather they were ours and dead than yours and made immortal. But to steal her love from me, to make her see things I couldn’t see … oh , you’ll say (you’ve been whispering it to me these forty years) that I’d signs enough her palace was real, could have known the truth if I’d wanted. But how could I want to know it? Tell me that. The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You’ll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine. If you’d gone the other way to work— if it was my eyes you had opened— you’d soon have seen how I would have shown her and told her and taught her and led her up to my level. But to hear a chit of a girl who had (or ought to have had) no thought in her head that I’d not put there, setting up for a seer and a prophetess and next thing to a goddess … how could anyone endure it? That’s why I say it makes no difference whether you’re fair or foul. That there should be gods at all, there’s our misery and bitter wrong. There’s no room for you and us in the same world. You’re a tree in whose shadow we can’t thrive. We want to be our own. I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her. Oh, you’ll say you took her away into bliss and joy such as I could never have given her, and I ought to have been glad of it for her sake. Why? What should I care for some horrible, new happiness which I hadn’t given her and which separated her from me? Do you think I wanted her to be happy, that way? It would have been better if I’d seen the Brute tear her in pieces before my eyes. You stole her to make her happy, did you? Why, every wheedling, smiling, cat-foot rogue who lures away another man’s wife or slave or dog might say the same. Dog, now. That’s very much to the purpose. I’ll thank you to let me feed my own; it needed no titbits from your table. Did you ever remember whose the girl was? She was mine. Mine. Do you not know what the word means? Mine! You’re thieves, seducers . That’s my wrong. I’ll not complain (not now) that you’re blood-drinkers and man-eaters. I’m past that….”

“Enough,” said the judge.

There was utter silence all round me. And now for the first time I knew what I had been doing. While I was reading, it had, once and again, seemed strange to me that the reading took so long; for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over— perhaps a dozen times. I would have read it forever, quick as I could, starting the first word again almost before the last was out of my mouth, if the judge had not stopped me. And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice. There was silence in the dark assembly long enough for me to have read my book out yet again.

At last the judge spoke. “Are you answered?” he said.

“Yes,” said I.

Lewis, C. S. (1980-07-09). Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Kindle Locations 2927-2957). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.


How was she answered? She finally saw her self.

There is a theory that on judgment day all God will need to do for us is show us our own self in his true light. God will need no external thing to judge us against, we will judge our own self.

Did Orual love Psyche or was she actually Ungit and the shadow beast all in one who wished to possess Psyche and to consumer her.


Moses can’t see God’s face for the same reason last week that God wouldn’t accept Moses offer to sacrifice himself for the nation. Despite all progress Moses has made in the context of his relationship with God Moses is not yet ready to see himself or to become a sufficient sacrifice for the people. Moses’ face is not fully formed.

If you read Isaiah 6 and the call of Isaiah there is a great mystery. Isaiah is called to speak to a people who won’t listen and their not listening will be their own destruction. This call is echoed by Jesus. The people are hearing but never listening. “He who has ears to hear let him hear” but apparently we have no ears despite what we imagine.

THE complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean. Often when he was teaching me to write in Greek the Fox would say, “Child, to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” A glib saying. When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

Lewis, C. S. (1980-07-09). Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (Kindle Locations 2958-2963). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.


Jesus comes from the face of God to be our mirror before the day of judgment. He comes into our midst and we reveal to him and each other exactly what we are made of. Why did we kill him? How was he dangerous? We couldn’t stand the light so we choose darkness and in the darkness murder.

Jesus as we are murdering him asks us “Now do you see your own self? Now in this glimpse of judgment day do you see why you can’t see God, that you are standing in your own shadow as you run from him?”

Jesus then says “I will take the justice you deserve and give you the mercy that I deserve and set you free.”


When you say “religion doesn’t work” you have to first answer “what is religion for?”

Religion, just like everything else in this world is to invite you into love.

There are two queues in this world, one is for “those looking to receive” and the other “those looking to give”. One is “those looking to be loved” and the other “those looking to love.” There is a line at one queue as long as the world is large and no line at the other.

Matthew 7:13–14 (NET)

13 “Enter through the narrow gate, because the gate is wide and the way is spacious that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. 14 But the gate is narrow and the way is difficult that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Ironically we grow a face as he presents his face to us. His face full of the scars from the wounds we have inflicted upon it by whip and crown of thorns.

As we increasingly look upon his face our face begins to look like his just as our hands begin to do as his did. It is all response and in the response we become solid and real.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why Religion Doesn’t Work and Why God Is So Hidden

  1. Pingback: What Backyard Tigers and Chuck-e-Cheese Bears Reveal About Our Hunger for God and the Ironic Way in which God Turns it Around | Leadingchurch.com

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