Glimpses of God

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusett, November 10, 1996


Exodus 33:7-11, 18-23 Seeing God's face and back
Luke 12:22-31 Strive for God's kingdom
Divine Providence #187, 189 Seeing divine providence

The Lord said to Moses, "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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:22, 23)

Is God shy? We can see his back, but not his face. We can get glimpses of God passing by, but we cannot sit down for a face to face talk. Or can we? The irony of this passage is that only a few verses before in the same chapter, it speaks of Moses sitting in the tent of meeting, where the Lord would speak to him "face to face, as one speaks to a friend."

What is wrong with this picture? First God speaks to Moses face to face. Then God covers Moses with his hand so that he will not see his face, since, he says, "you cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live." (Gen. 33:20) This is the sort of passage that Bible-bashers love to pounce upon. "Aha!" they say. "There is a flat contradiction in the Bible, and it happens within a single chapter!"

Of course, if we approach the Bible with a mind to make fun of it, we will find things in it to make fun of. It is like our relationships with people. Every single one of us has a few quirks and a few character flaws that others could make fun of if they wished. Sometimes people do make fun of us, and it can be an unpleasant experience--especially if we are a bit uncomfortable with those things ourselves.

Most of us have the common decency to overlook each other's rough edges most of the time and look for the good in each other. When we do this, we sometimes find that behind even the quirks and flaws themselves there lies unexpected good in other people. We may turn away from someone with a disfigured face, but if we find out it was from getting badly burned while rescuing a child from a burning building, the person's damaged facial features take on a deeper significance of inward beauty of character.

This is also true of the Bible. If we focus only on the literal inconsistencies, we will miss the depths of meaning within. Those who hold the Bible in contempt because of the passages in which it does not present a pretty face are like those who reject people because of their outward looks without first finding out about the person's inner character.

This particular Bible passage speaks directly to our own experience of God. We do not always feel God's presence in the same way. Sometimes the Lord feels like a loving friend; at other times, like a hard taskmaster. Sometimes we experience the Lord as gentle and mild; other times as bold and powerful. Sometimes we seem to speak to God face to face, just as we would talk to a friend. Other times we feel as if we can catch only the barest glimpse of God as he passes by.

Perhaps this contrast is the strongest when we compare our experience of God while we are deep in prayer with the times we are going about our daily tasks. Here in church, or during a quiet, solitary time of prayer, we often have a sense that God is right with us, talking to us and helping us with our issues. But when we are out there directly facing those issues in the form of a tough problem at work, or a shaky relationship, or some other hurdle that life throws in our way, we often seem to be all on our own.

We may wonder at those times why God does not show himself to us clearly and tell what we should do. Why does God seem so close when we are quietly praying, but so distant when we have to deal with all the people and things we pray about?

We can imagine Moses asking the same question of God. "Come on now, God," he might say. "You and I talk face to face every day in the tent of meeting. What is the big problem about showing me your face when I am out there struggling over the rocks? Why do you have to cover my eyes until you have already gone by? Why can't I see you when I really need you?"

Fortunately, the Lord has not left us without enlightenment on these questions. In our church we turn especially to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg to gain insight on the tough life issues that are reflected in the Bible stories. When it comes to the hard questions about our experience of life here on earth, there is one book of Swedenborg's that we can turn to again and again. That book is Divine Providence.

The tough issues are all tackled in this book. Why does the Lord allow good people to get sick and injured? Why does the Lord allow wars to happen? Why do bad people often seem to get along better than good people? Why are so many good and innocent people the victims of bad people? In Divine Providence, Swedenborg looks at these questions and many others, moving our thinking into new pathways that can lead to understanding. While nothing can entirely take away the pain of our hard experiences, if we can gain some sense of meaning in them, the rawest edges of our feelings can be smoothed, and the sharpest pain can be softened.

This is how it is with our feelings that the Lord often seems not to be with us at the times we need him most. To us, that is a real experience, no matter how well we know the church's teaching that the Lord is always with us, even when we are aware of it. The question still remains, why doesn't the Lord make us aware of it?

Our reading from Divine Providence moves us toward an answer to this question. First, it presents the same picture presented in our reading from Exodus. We see the Lord's providence in our lives after it acts, and not before, just as Moses saw God's back after he had passed by, but not God's face as he was approaching.

Swedenborg adds a new dimension by saying that we see providence when we are in a spiritual state but not when we are in a material state. This begins to clarify why God seems more present to us in prayer than when we are working through our daily tasks. When we are praying--if our prayers are genuine, spiritual prayers--our minds and hearts are focused on God and spirit. God can be more present in our awareness because we have focused our awareness on the place where God is: within, on the spiritual level.

Most of the time, though, we are more focused on material things. How to pay for some unexpected expense; how to get the kids not to track mud into the house; how to deal with a particularly difficult family member or friend; how to do any of the jobs that take up our days. These involve focusing most of our attention on the outside world. This means that for the most part, our attention is not focused on God. Anything we don't pay attention to tends to fade into the background--and God is no exception.

There is another reason that we tend not to see God while things are happening in our everyday lives. It gets back to the statement that we can see God's back but not his face; that we can see divine providence after it acts in our lives, but not before. In our reading from Divine Providence, Swedenborg makes a brief statement, which he explains in more detail elsewhere. He says that if we have been spiritually reformed and accept what flows into us from heaven, "we do not wish to see divine providence in the face--meaning before events happen--since we fear that our own wishes would break into some part of its order and flow."

Elsewhere, Swedenborg uses the image of our body. When we are healthy, we are able to make our bodies do such things as walk, talk, eat, pick things up, and so on. While we are doing these things, we have no awareness at all of the millions of tiny interactions that have to take place in our bodies each second to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. We don't think at all about the thousands of brain cells firing thousands of neurons that cause thousands of individual muscle fibers to work together in a synchronized way so that we can take a single step or even lift a single finger. We eat food, but we are completely unconscious of the complex process of digestion that begins right about the time we are enjoying the taste of our food and sending it down to our stomachs.

All the millions and billions of events that must be perfectly coordinated for our body to act are like the work of the Lord's providence in our lives. The Lord does not just tend to our lives in a general way, giving it a nudge here and there at certain points along our paths. No, the Lord works very intimately on the smallest details of our everyday lives, continually causing things to work together, right down to the slightest and most fleeting thought or feeling that passes through our heads. God does not only create the sun, moon and stars, but also clothes every lily of the field and every single blade of grass in the field.

If we were to become aware of the working of divine providence in our lives right now, it would be like trying to become aware of the firing every neuron and the contracting of every muscle fiber in our bodies each time we pick up the hymnal to sing a hymn. There would be such a huge torrent of information that we would become completely paralyzed and would never even make it to the first note. Worse than that, we would not be able to take the collection!

But let's say we were somehow able to take in all this information, and gradually began to make patterns out of some of its workings. How long could we resist tinkering with it? "Ah, I see what my body is doing," we might say. "Now if I adjust it a bit here and tweak it a bit there, perhaps it will work a wee bit better..." We could not remain passive observers for long. Soon we would be attempting to micro-manage the way our bodies worked--sure that we could improve on the natural flow of things.

Unfortunately, we are not as good at managing nature as God is. By the time we had finished tinkering, things would be worse, not better, than they were before. We have enough to do just to treat our bodies better than we often do so that we can stay healthy.

This is even more true when it comes to the flow of our spiritual lives. When we are dealing with physical events, at least we have some amount of experience to draw on when we attempt to adjust something. Even then, we often foul things up, as our continuing problems with pollution, disease, crime, and so on attest. We have even less experience in spiritual affairs. If we were to become aware of the millions of ways the Lord works in every detail of our spiritual life, and if we tried to adjust God's work using our own rudimentary knowledge of spiritual things, we would certainly foul things up much worse than we have with our physical world. God puts his hand over our eyes as he approaches our lives, not because he is shy, but because he wants to protect us from our own troublesome meddling!

Still, God does not leave us with no awareness of his presence. Once he has worked in our lives, he does take his hand away, and we are able to see divine providence in our lives as we look back over its events. It is the classic case of 20/20 hindsight!

This has certainly been the case in my own life. If I had followed my own path toward ministry, it would have gone like this: After I graduated high school I would have gone to four years of college, four years of theological school, and straight into the ministry. I would have been in a parish in my mid-twenties. The only problem was, I was not ready for ministry at that time in my life.

Now, if the Lord had told me that beforehand, I either would have become discouraged and not bothered to do a lot of the preparation I did do during those early years, or I would have ignored the Lord's message and went right ahead on my mistaken track. Instead, the Lord broke it to me gradually. I did go through the first two years of college that I had planned. By the time those two years were over, I knew I was not ready. I did not know what course my life would take. I did not know it would be another ten years before I would again consciously head toward ministry. During those ten years, I did not even expect to go into the ministry. I just moved along in my life, trying to support myself, getting married, and learning and growing from a lot of mistakes in the process.

I say that at the time I didn't know where I was headed. But looking back on those years, I can see the hand of the Lord very clearly working in my life. I won't go into detail on exactly what the Lord was doing with me at that time. If you want to hear more about that, you can read my graduation address in the Convention issue of The Messenger. For now, you do not need the details of my particular journey, because each of us can look back at our own lives and see the Lord working there in ways that we were entirely unaware of at the time.

I am thankful that I did not know everything the Lord was doing in my life. If I had, I certainly would have tried to get in there and do the Lord one better. Ten years from now, I expect I will say the same thing about what is going on in my life right now.

We do not need to see God working in our lives every moment of every day. It is enough for us to recognize that God is working in our lives, and to do our own part by following the Lord's teachings as well as we can. If we do this, we will find glimpses of God scattered throughout the events of our lives. Amen.


Music: Prism (Colors of Love)
Bruce DeBoer