The Hidden Face of God
Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire. Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. Exodus 19:18,19b
There is a stark contrast between the God presented in the first three chapters of Genesis and the God described in the rest of the Old Testament. In the Garden of Eden, God was present with Adam, Eve, and the rest of creation. They walked and talked together as people in relationship do. Once Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden, God seemingly became distant and mysterious. Leading the Israelites out of Egypt, God manifested as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. As God prepared to give Moses the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, the people below heard only thunder and saw only fire and smoke. Psalm 13:1 asks, “How long will you hide your face from me?” The question arises, “Did God leave direct relationship with creation, or did creation leave direct relationship with God?” How one answers that question has a lot to do with how one views his or her connection with God. If we see God as a distant, aloof being, we are likely to believe God put the distance between us, presumably because of the original sin committed in the Garden. If we see God as a constant, involved presence in our lives, however, we are more likely to believe we separate ourselves from God. Personally, I believe the latter.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in this series, we (humankind) have developed a collective and tenacious inferiority complex. Perhaps we are taught from an early age that we are not worthy of God’s presence, that God cannot possibly love us as we are. We believe we must first go to church more often, read our Bibles more frequently, or pray more regularly. While these may be worthy goals, I do not believe God monitors our religious activities like a cosmic scorekeeper. God is interested in the content of our heart; God knows our hearts and resides there, whether or not we acknowledge it. To the extent there is distance between us and God, the distance is maintained by us, and it is completely illusory. Because of our free will, we can choose to withdraw our conscious attention from whatever we wish, even when the object of our inattention is right beside us. We are most comfortable keeping some distance from God, thus making God seem distant and aloof. It is convenient, but wrong, to say God withdrew from us. It lets us off the hook for being so self-centered when we claim God is not involved in or aware of the details of our daily lives. Of course, our feelings of unworthiness make us fear that if we reach out to God, God will not reach back. Why would God care about a lowly sinner like me?
The hidden face of God is hidden by our own fear of consciously allowing God a prominent presence in our lives. Interestingly, the Bible says that God wanted all the Israelites to come up the mountain with Moses, but they were afraid – they felt unworthy. They remained below and saw only fire and heard only thunder. We should understand this, because we are guilty of the same thing. We keep our distance from conscious encounters with God by making our religion an intellectual exercise instead of an experiential communion. As such, we turn to God and see only fire and smoke. We hide behind words, creeds, tithes, and even prayers. It is as if we believe there is a threshold of religious activity that, once met, will make us worthy of God’s love – but it is a threshold we can never attain. While there is nothing wrong with our religious practices, they cannot close the gap between us and God. God will remain a mystery to us until we surrender our poor self-image and embrace the image in whom we were created.
The hidden face of God longs to be unmasked.
Note: this is the eleventh in a series of Life Notes on the Faces of God.