When the scriptures speak of seeing God, they are drawing on imaginative terms to describe the indescribable. God cannot be explained, only experienced.
as retold by Deborah
Moses said to the Lord, “Look: you told me, ‘Bring forth this people’; but you haven’t let me know who you’re sending with me. You’ve said, ‘I understand you, and I care for you.’ Now, if You truly do care for me, let me know Your plans, so that I can understand You. Think about it: these people are the people You’ve created.”
God said, “I will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Moses said, “If You won’t come along, don’t take us out of here. How will anyone know that You care for me and Your people unless you accompany us? That’s what will set us apart from all the others on the face of the earth.”
God said to Moses, “I will do just what you’ve asked because I care for you, and understand you perfectly.”
Moses said, “Please let me see Your radiance, Holy One; please, please, please.”
“Oh, all right,” said God, “I will make my glory pass beside you, and will tell you My Name; and I will be gracious to whoever I want, and will be merciful to whomever I please. But,” God warned, “you cannot look at My face; for no one shall see Me and live.”
“There’s a place not far from here,” the Almighty continued, “where you can stand while My glory passes by; I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by; then I’ll take my hand away and you’ll see my back — but not My face.”
This past week I succumbed to temptation. It began in the grocery store, as I was quite innocently passing through the aisle marked [ahem] “cookies & candy.” There they were, stacked in neat rows, right at eye level. Can after can of flavored almonds.
Yes, I do understand that these nuts are coated in massive amounts of salt and an assortment of suspect chemical compounds. I am fully aware that they are Bad For You. However, every so often one does feel the urge to — as Martin Luther so powerfully phrased it: “pray, and sin boldly.”
And so I selected a can from the shelf. The label assured me I had chosen a “bold” flavor: wasabi and soy sauce.
Arriving home I seized my sinful treasure from the grocery bag before anything else was unpacked. The can seemed to glow softly in the late morning sunshine; I held it up to the light, admiring it from several angles, giddy with delight at the promise hidden within its aluminum exterior.
The first taste gave a satisfying crunch to my teeth and a mild tang to my tongue. Almost sweet, I decided, dismissing my concerns that the flavor might be too bold. Besides, I’m a Californian, I grew up eating Mexican food; spicy doesn’t scare me: I can eat salsa by the spoonful!
Then I was struck by a brilliant idea: what about a combination of spicy and sweet — the best of both worlds? It was the work of a moment to mix a handful of M&Ms in with the wasabi almonds, thereby creating a kind of high-octane trail mix.
I carried my flavorful cache out to the patio along with my sun hat, reading glasses, and stack of books. Comfortably ensconced on a chaise lounge in the shade, I was set for an afternoon of bliss.
The birds were singing in the trees, the dog snored on the grass beside me and soon I was transported to a far-away land, following the footsteps of a fictional detective through the fog-shrouded moors. The story was well written, with engaging characters and an intriguing plot.
Immersed in the mystery, I unthinkingly took up a handful of the almond mixture and popped it into my mouth. “Popped” might indeed be the operative word. As it turned out, the wasabi-to-chocolate ratio in that handful was seriously skewed in the direction of green dynamite.
It started as a buzzing sensation at the bridge of my nose, extending into my eyes and across my face, up my sinuses and arcing into my brain. I felt as if a fiery serpent had been unloosed inside my head. The sensation was so powerful that, for the first few moments, I just sat there, stunned and blinking.
Later, in describing what happened, I told a friend that I “saw God.”
Obviously I was exaggerating: I didn’t really see God — although for an instant colors did appear astonishingly vivid, and I had an understanding of the pathways through my brain that a neurosurgeon would envy, as well as a powerful sense of All That Is Around Us. It was a kind of “be here now” moment writ large.
Alas, there was no heavenly vision or divine manifestation. But I’d certainly had a powerful experience, one quite out of the ordinary. And it got me to thinking about the idea of “seeing God,” and about why we are warned about such an encounter.
The mentions of God’s face in the Hebrew Testament should not be taken to mean that our faith ancestors believed that the Eternal One literally had eyes, ears, a nose and mouth like ours. They were using familiar terms to describe the indescribable: an encounter with the Essence of pure holiness and limitless power — revealed in its full glory: undisguised, unmediated.
It was like a Near Eastern potentate — a million trillion times over; for, unlike the ruler of a nation, this One reigns over the cosmos. This was no heavenly servant ready to obey our bidding, nor a warm and fuzzy Mr. Nice Guy who stopped by for an occasional chat. His ways are not our ways, his knowing far exceeds our own; his purposes are as incomprehensible to us as the ocean is to a goldfish in a bowl.
There was nothing manageable or predictable or safe in this awesome, fiery, fearful Presence. God is beyond words, beyond reason or understanding; God cannot be described, only experienced.
The experience of God is fraught with danger; there’s no way of knowing what will happen: it may leave you amazed, frightened, humble, hopeful, angry, grateful, terrified.... Seeing God can improve your life, complicate your life, or end your life (2 Sam. 6:7).
In any meeting with the Eternal, you are going to come away changed. That is a certainty, not an option.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.
~ Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10
As you know, I’m very leery of the “fear” of God business. This flammable term has too often been used against God’s people, as a weapon to chase the lost and lonely away from the mercy and love they need and yearn for. Words such as “worship” or “stand in awe” offer an equivalent, less threatening description of our response to the divine.
From the first the Beloved revealed Godself as one who gives life — as Moses says, almost as an accusation: “You created these people!” God is a reliable guide, a merciful redeemer, a faithful companion; blessing, comforting, nourishing, forgiving... beyond our ability to understand.
Mandating that God wants our fear, that we must sink in piteous, helpless terror at the divine Presence — or else! — is foolish and wrong. The Source of Life becomes a caricature: a vicious, vindictive, violent old man; a myth to be scorned and avoided, not a glorious power to approach with reverence, a grace-beyond-imagining to worship and adore.
And yet ....
God is the designer of the Cosmos, the Power of the Universe, the Presence surrounding All That Is; the One who gives life to every human person, every blade of grass, every purring kitten, every humming bee, every blazing star and swirling sea. God is greater than all we can imagine, beyond all towns, nations, beyond the earth, the sun, the constellations, greater than all universes seen and yet undreamed. To stand in God’s Presence, to see even a minute aspect of God’s Essence would indeed be a fearful thing.
In that sheltered place God revealed to Moses only what the man was capable of withstanding, any more might have destroyed his reason or even his life. And so it is with all of us; we are given what we can receive. No one can see (all of) God and live. But even a small glimpse — a tiny taste, you might even say! — will change us utterly.
The notion of “the fear of God” reminds us that God is a force to be reckoned with. If we are courageous enough to encounter that One, our lives and our world will never be the same.
Virtual prayers and real-time blessings,
What does it mean to you to “fear God”?