I have been a Christian for many years—since I was a teenager—and I have been a pastor for about 42 years, but I have to admit that I know so little about God. I say that not with a fake humility, but because it is true. I want—like most of believers—to have a deep relationship with God, but far too often there are only periods that punctuate a rather ordinary life. In fact in my experience, there is a certain illusiveness about God.
C. S. Lewis tapped into this longing when he wrote:
[It is a] secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it…. Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. And to be at last summoned inside would be both glory and honour beyond all our merits and also the healing of that old ache….
It would be easy to be depressed about such sentiments, but I am not because I am more and more discovering that people I deeply respect have similar experiences. Take, for example, Blaise Pascal, one of the greatest Christian apologists. In his Pensees, he described his own frustration this way:
This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not a matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied.
I find his words both comforting and troubling, comforting that I am not alone in my search, but troubling because I long to know God in a deeper way.
There is a Biblical example of who I think also had this longing: Moses. Most of us would have loved to have the experiences of Moses:
• God appeared to him in a flaming bush and talked to him from it.
• God used him to do mighty miracles in Egypt.
• At God’s direction, he led several million people through a sea—or should I say “in a sea”—because the body of water miraculously walled up so the people could walk through it and that on dry ground.
And one could go on and on about the fantastic things he did at the direction of his God.
I’d be satisfied if a fraction of those experiences punctuated my life.
But I want you to see that Moses had the same longing we have to know God as a person, despite the miracles listed above and others which occurred during Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. He entreated God to show himself to him. His request is recorded in Exodus 33:
Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23)
We must not hasten from these words for there are rich insights to be gained. Let me draw your attention to just a few:
- Insight #1: Moses had the same longing we have.
- Insight #2: God did show Himself in the way He wished to be known.
To understand this, we must reflect on the context in which Moses made his request. He had just returned from the mountain with the Ten Commandments to find that the people had made a calf out of gold, worshipped it as the “god” who had delivered them from Egypt’s bondage, and were celebrating in a most sensual, sexual way. In disgust and anger Moses broke the two tablets on which God Himself had written the law. He burnt the calf, leaving only ashes. He then sprinkled them on the people’s drinking water and made them drink it.
Have you ever wondered why the people of Israel would so quickly turn their back on the God whom they had seen do such marvelous works in delivering them from bondage in and to Egypt? It would be easy to think of them as being blind, rebels, and so foolish. But if you look at the text clearly, they too wanted to know their God. But he was unseen. Yes, they had seen his great miracles, but they wanted to see Him. The golden calf, then, was not so much a renunciation of Jahweh and a return to the paganism they had observed in Egypt as it was an attempt to give a visual representation of their unseen God. Note Aaron’s words: “This is the god who brought you out of Egypt.” Obvious to us is that this act already had broken the 1st and 2nd Commandments from the law God has just given to Moses but not yet delivered to the people.
In the context of that great failure, Moses returned to the mountain to plead for God’s mercy. And God was indeed indignant. He even talked to Moses about abandoning the people and raising up a new nation that would be his descendants. But Moses begged God for mercy and pleaded with Him not to abandon His people, but to go with them. It was then that Moses asked to see God, to see Him face-to-face.
What I want you to see is that God indeed did reveal Himself to Moses, and what He showed Moses was never forgotten by the Old Testament (OT) people of God. God’s revelation to him was not so much what He “looked” like from the “back” side, but what God said about himself. Indeed, what Moses heard and learned about God is repeated no less than eight other times in the OT covering a period of almost 1000 years. So what God revealed was important.
This is what we read in the very next chapter in the book of Exodus as the answer to Moses’ request:
The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)
These words specifically depict how God revealed himself to Moses:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin….
This was not the “revealing” that Moses had asked for and anticipated. But it was the one insight into His person that God wished Moses to never forget:
• How patient He is
• How full of mercy He is
• How dependable is His love
To those who are fellow believers on the journey to know God and who long to know him more, this is a disclosure God has given of Himself which like the OT people of God we must never forget, especially when now we can only “see Him dimly.” This He wants us to know is the way He treats us, despite our many shortcomings and rebellions. And, if we are to be like God, this is how we are to treat others who offend us.
Until we are on the “other side of the door” and we are able to “know Him as we are known,” wise are the words of the poet:
Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love and purity.