I’ve been rereading Exodus lately. It’s really boring.
Sure, the book of Exodus has its exciting bits. The book’s first half tells the story of Moses, and how God worked through him to rescue Israel from its slavery in Egypt. It’s an engaging story: the Lord strikes Egypt with all kinds of interesting disasters, and Moses’s standoff with Pharaoh gets pretty heated.
Moses and the Israelites end up in the desert next to a mountain called Sinai, and that’s where things grind to a halt. God, who appears to the Israelites as a cloud, retreats to the mountaintop. After laying out a bunch of societal regulations for Israel, God commands Moses to climb Sinai in order to receive… more rules and instructions.
I won’t go into more details because, honestly, they’re rather tedious. Besides those details, however, something stands out to me from the second half of Exodus.
God keeps his distance.
At Sinai, God gives the Israelites very specific instructions to avoid the mountain. Only Moses is permitted to climb to its summit, and even then he isn’t allowed to see God’s full glory.
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” (33:21-23)
From all Israel, God’s chosen nation, only one man gets a brief, incomplete glimpse of God. It’s pretty much the closest anyone comes to seeing the Lord in the Old Testament. Sure, God makes a few appearances here and there, but he mostly seems to run things from behind the scenes. Only a few priests are allowed anywhere near God’s presence in his places of worship. Just a handful of leaders and prophets ever glimpse him.
I have often wondered why God seems so distant—especially in our own skeptical, pluralist, postmodern age. The silence of God troubles me greatly, and faith sometimes seems foolish. Is it fair for God to demand obedience and fealty without providing irrefutable evidence of his existence?
I don’t know. Is it okay to admit that? I really don’t know.
Maybe God keeps his distance because we can’t handle the full measure of his power and holiness. That view certainly finds support in the Old Testament. (It’s also supported by the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which God’s glory fries a bunch of Nazis, but Indiana Jones movies might not be the best resource for theological speculation.) It’s possible that God hides because faith, “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see,” is a virtue he values highly. If God were obvious, faith would not be possible.
It’s worth pointing out that after seeming largely absent in the Old Testament, God showed up in the New Testament in the person of Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus didn’t keep his distance. Heck, he spent much of his time with the sort of people no one else would go near. Christ touched lepers and chatted with floozies. He was as close and immediate as God had previously seemed distant and unapproachable.
I’m comforted by some of Christ’s final words as he hung dying on a cross. He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
These few words reveal something I find almost unbelievable: even Jesus Christ was troubled by the seeming distance and silence of God. I don’t get it. I don’t understand why God seems so far away. Apparently—at that moment—neither did his Son.
Some of my questions may never be answered, but I’m far from the only person asking, and that gives me hope.
I wonder what it must have been like for Adam and Eve, strolling through the Garden of Eden with God, then suddenly not being able to look at him. God’s glory is too much for our eyes to see now, and the song “I Can Only Imagine” describes my feelings towards finally seeing His Glory in heaven. My theology teacher describes the Son and the Father as like the sun and its rays- if you look at the sun you will go blind, but the rays bring its light to us and make it so we can see in general. He also told our class that when we see God the least is often when He’s working the most, but I have to remind myself of that and often. Lately, the book of Psalms has been a great comfort- many of the psalms are “God where are you?” songs- my favorites so far 4-14 (I’m working on the Bible-in-a-year program but started mid-August- not too far in Psalms just yet XD.) 13 begins with “O Lord, how long will you forget me? Forever?/How long will you look the other way?” I think there should be more worship songs along these lines. In choir, we are singing a song called “Father of Light” dedicated to a boy who struggled with depression until he finally took his own life; the song is derived from a psalm his family found in his journal- Psalm 56, in which the Psalmist reminds himself that God sees his confusion and struggle and understands, like in the you mentioned with Jesus on the Cross.
How wonderful it is to have a God that understands.
I think that there are many reasons that God hides Himself. Some times it is us, but not all the time. Some times it is a test, others because He wants us to seek Him (for example, another one of my teachers believes that one of the reasons Jesus spoke in parables was because those who seek God will try to interpret the parables while those who don’t will not.) I know that God never leaves us, but I know God will hide Himself purposefully sometimes. I had a dream once when I was very close to God of me trying to run to God but never getting any closer, and He had his back to me, hiding himself; this troubled me immensely during then. The “why” though for that… I can only speculate at the moment.
Remember the end of Exodus- they do reach the Promised Land. Remember what is ahead of you, and what is behind, and Who is beside you, even when he puts on His Cloak of Invisibility.
As for the Indie reference, I think it was using good theology in it, so I think it works as an analogy 😉
I’ve heard a lot of theories as to why God doesn’t make himself more plainly known, but none of them satisfy me. In the end, his seeming absence from the universe is one of the things that troubles me most about Christianity.
That said, I’m comforted to know it troubled Jesus as well, however briefly.
In other news, I wish I could use more geeky media as theological sources. 🙂
Great question, and some great points too. I have a blog to try to answer questions like these, and I’ll let you know here when I get something posted. I hope I can get my lazy monkey (I only have one so far) to get the work done in a reasonable length of time! He’s already made decent progress, so it’s a good chance he’ll finish it. Until then, don’t give up on getting satisfactory answers – there are answers! And keep studying those scriptures. I hope you get past the boring parts quickly.
I hope your blogging goes well… and that your monkey behaves better than my disreputable crew.
As for boring Scriptures, well, at least I’m not reading Ezekiel. That’s my consolation whenever I read anything that isn’t Ezekiel. 🙂
I’m finally getting back to you. And you know what? I just going to fire the monkey and write for myself from now on.
If I were to offer my answer to why God keeps his distance, it would be: Actually, He doesn’t! It’s just that sometimes our own actions keep us distant from Him. Moses did in fact speak face to face with God. Look carefully, it’s only a few pages from where it says God had to hide himself partially from Moses’ sight. And the only reason He did that was as a symbol for how wicked the people were being at that moment, that even their righteous representative was not allowed to view God on that occasion.
God gave us all freedom to choose right or wrong, and to help us choose right He promises good consequences for good choices, and bad consequences for bad choices. Sometimes, that means “go to your room” type consequences. It’s actually pretty impressive that God was able to appear to the Israelites as “a pillar of fire by night,” and a pillar of smoke by day. They saw so many miracles that couldn’t be denied, but they still sinned, and so do we.
Really, our sins are the only reason we aren’t close to God (like Moses was) every day, for Christ told his apostles, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” (John 14)
Christ came to reconcile us with God, not that God had come to dislike us, but rather to prove to us that He loved all of us, even though we aren’t as near Him yet as He would us to come. That even Christ was willing to be separated from His Father for at least a moment, at the time when he most needed Him AND most deserved Him. Once again, it was our sins that were the cause, but he bore the full punishment of our sins so that we could repent and be forgiven and reunited with God.
P.S. Have you read The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Christ? I’ve always thought it was a bit easier a read than the Old and New Testaments. (Still, it is ancient scripture, and if you’re bored by Isaiah…)
I think you’re wise not to rely on monkeys to do your writing for you. 😉 Perhaps I’ll get rid of my typewriter monkeys someday and hire better assistants… but perhaps not.
While there’s certainly an argument for our sins keeping us distant from God, I don’t think it ends the discussion. What about Mother Teresa, who served and sought God earnestly, yet struggled with depression and felt far from him? What about all of the other people who believe, or try to believe, yet fail to see God? We may be blinded by imperfections, but couldn’t God make himself more visible before demanding absolute obedience and fealty?
I’m not sure there is any simple answer to the silence of God.
To answer your question, I haven’t read the Book of Mormon. I have yet to be given any compelling reason to suppose it is either a genuine ancient text or a canonical Scripture.
“While there’s certainly an argument for our sins keeping us distant from God, I don’t think it ends the discussion. … I’m not sure there is any simple answer to the silence of God.”
I agree – it doesn’t end the discussion. I’ve heard a lot of good answers to the question, and each of them is different and applies in different circumstances. The full and most personal answer will come from God, who knows our hearts and circumstances. When the Spirit speaks peace to the soul, that’s the simplest answer. And in my experience, it’s a very common way that God answers our prayers.
But spiritual inspiration goes hand in hand with physical experience, and the closest we come to hearing from God in the world today is listening to the words of His modern-day prophets and apostles. The way you asked your questions reminded me of a beautiful talk by Henry B. Eyring (linked below). Watch it, don’t read it, or much of the expressiveness is lost. Also some background info: Joseph Smith, like Mother Teresa, was a very spiritual person who was imprisoned unjustly and whose following was persecuted in those days.
“We remove the pavilion [between us and God] when we feel and pray, ‘Thy will be done’ and ‘in Thine own time.’”
“As we do what He would have us do for His Father’s children, the Lord considers it kindness to Him, and we will feel closer to Him as we feel His love and His approval.”
“Where is the Pavillion?” https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/where-is-the-pavilion?lang=eng.
The message to which you linked makes a number of good points, yet seems to oversimplify the problem.
The speaker states, “The pavilion that seems to intercept divine aid does not cover God but occasionally covers us. God is never hidden, yet sometimes we are, covered by a pavilion of motivations that draw us away from God and make Him seem distant and inaccessible.”
This principle is often true. Scripture says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you,” suggesting we are often the ones responsible for the distance between us and God.
However, while it may often be true, the speaker’s statement (and supporting examples) seems like a huge generalization. “God is never hidden, yet sometimes we are.” What evidence is there of that in Scripture? Was Jesus covered by a “pavilion of motivations” when he cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Was Mother Teresa, with her feelings of depression and distance from God, somehow more at fault than Christians who fail to accomplish one hundredth as much good yet feel better about themselves and their faith?
Our sin, selfishness, or wrong motivations often distance us from God, but I don’t think we can ascribe the entire problem to that.
OK, here I am on the soapbox again, hopefully to explain that the scriptures do indeed back up that God’s love is available to everyone.
“God is never hidden, yet sometimes we are.”
Jesus Christ told his detractors, “And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.” (John 8:29)
That is the key to understanding why he felt forsaken in his dying hour. Hanging there on the cross, God the Father withdrew his presence from his Son. And for one brief moment in his entire life, when it seemed like he needed support the most, Jesus felt the same kind of loneliness that we might feel in our daily lives, from earth being far from Heaven. And more than that, I suppose that he also felt the worst kind of loneliness, the kind that the most wretched sinner feels when God withdraws His Spirit. For there was no other way for the Savior to carry the burden of all of the sins of the world, to sinlessly take upon himself EVERY problem that we go through. Christ was not troubled because his Father seemed absent, he was troubled because his Father HAD NEVER been absent up to that very moment!
That’s the story as I understand it, from what I’ve gathered from conference talks and sacred scripture in the church I belong to.
Mother Teresa’s story, as far I can tell, was similar in some respects to the Savior’s, and helps us understand our own life circumstances. Depression is a terrible thing, but if we know anything at all about her, I think we can suppose that she became who she was – compassionate, full of love, fiercely loyal – at least in part BECAUSE OF the trials she endured. If she had lived a luxurious life, would she have become the same beautiful person? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that our struggles in life don’t need to break us – they can be for our good, to help us grow stronger. We all go through a lot, but we’re not victims of circumstance. I just know that we were each placed here by design, by a loving, caring God. We are his children. We are of infinite worth and divine potential. And the Life ahead is worth the wait:
“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
Respectfully, I must point out that I never questioned God’s love or its availability. I’ll be the first to admit that suffering is no proof that God doesn’t love people. As you pointed out, suffering sometimes allows us to become better, wiser, stronger people; this principle is echoed throughout Scripture, especially in Romans: “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” and “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”
However, not all suffering has an obvious benefit. My point is that pain often seems purposeless, and God often seems distant. His love, as described by the Bible, sometimes seems at odds with the harsh realities of the world. When I see suffering, my first reaction isn’t to say, “Well, this certainly proves God’s love!” My first reaction is to wonder why God lets good people get hurt.
In the end, I wrote this post not to say “God is distant,” but rather “God seems distant.” There are times when no amount of theological discussion will make God seem nearer.