There is a remarkable interaction with God in the Book of Exodus that shows the balance we must develop in how we understand and relate to Him. Many of us get the balance wrong by turning God into a doting grandfather figure or seeing Him as an angry despot just waiting for any misstep. Trivializing or domesticating God is the more common error today, but we ought not to underestimate the number of people who struggle to find in God a loving Father.
Therefore, consider the passage from Exodus. It begins with a description of God’s loving tenderness for Israel.
In the third month after their departure from the land of Egypt, on its first day, the Israelites came to the desert of Sinai. After the journey from Rephidim to the desert of Sinai, they pitched camp.
While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, Moses went up the mountain to God. Then the Lord called to him and said, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself. Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exodus 19:1-7).
Yes, they are a people dear to Him, His special possession, holy and set apart. The Lord did not just lead them out of Egypt; He carried them. Later, through Hosea, God spoke of His tender love in similar language: I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them (Hosea 11:4).
Yet, as God descends upon Mount Sinai, the Israelites do not experience a tender Father stopping to feed them; their reaction might better be described as terror.
Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the Lord came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. Trumpet blasts grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder.
When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the trumpet blast and the mountain smoking, they all feared and trembled. So they took up a position much farther away and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but let not God speak to us, or we shall die.” Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid, for God has come to you only to test you and put his fear upon you, lest you should sin.” Still the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the cloud where God was (Exodus 19:15-20:18-21).
It was surely frightening for them. Yet recall that in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve experienced intimacy with God. Scripture spoke of God as walking in the garden in the breezy time of the day (Genesis 3:8). How different that experience was from the one described in Exodus! Had God changed? No, we had changed. On account of sin and its debilitating effects, the evening walks with God ended. After sinning, when Adam and Eve heard God walking, they hid from Him. Although created in the image of God, they could no longer endure His presence; almost as if in mercy, God let them live at a distance. So the Lord drove out the man and stationed cherubim on the east side of the Garden of Eden, along with a whirling sword of flame to guard the way to the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). Ever since, we have yearned to see God’s face (e.g., Ps 27:8). Yet Scripture warns, For who can look on the face of God and live? (Ex 33:20)
Only with the coming of Christ and His reparative grace could we ever hope to see the face of God again and walk with Him. Indeed, Christ did open the way to the Father. At the moment of His death, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Mat 27:51). Jesus restored access to the Father. The Book of Hebrews says, Therefore, brothers, we now have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way opened for us through the veil of His flesh (Heb 10:19-20). As the Centurion pierced the veil of Christ’s flesh with a lance, the very heart of God was revealed. Through Jesus we will one day enter into the Holy of Holies in Heaven and forever behold God’s radiant and beautiful face. St. Paul says beautifully, And we all, with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image with ever-increasing glory. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
In all these texts there is for us a tension that must be held, a balance that must be found. There are some who are overly scrupulous and must often be reminded that God loves them—even likes them! God wants to save us and so loved us that he sent his only Son. More common, though, are those who too easily dismiss the reverence that is due to God. They have trivialized and domesticated God, forgetting that He dwells in “inapproachable” light such that none of us, in our current state of imperfection, can endure it. Their tendency is to reduce God to a doting grandfather, diminish Jesus to a harmless hippie, and think that the Holy Spirit exists only to console and affirm us. This made-up, “designer God” just happens to agree with everything they think and do. He never challenges, rebukes, or sets expectations of beyond what they already want.
Back in the day of “that old time religion,” making up and worshiping your own god was called idolatry. In these days of wordsmithing and euphemisms we prefer to speak of the “god within” or the “god of my own understanding.” The idea that God would reveal Himself on His own terms and expect us to respect who He is—this is contrary to the notion of the modern anthropocentric “god” whom we contrive. This manufactured god is not the God of the universe but rather a personal deity who serves only us—and “serve” is just the word, for this “god” is more of a butler does things for us and offers sage advice but asks nothing much in return except that we follow some vague ethic like empathy.
I exaggerate somewhat, but only a little. Even some Catholics find the biblical God—who punishes, warns of Hell, has set high standards, and expects better of us because of His grace—to be a God they can’t accept. If the real Jesus of Scripture were to step into a Catholic pulpit today, He would unsettle many with His talk of repentance, parables of warning, and assertions that if we do not have faith in Him, we will die in our sins. “Doesn’t he know that we’re a welcoming community? We don’t upset people by talking about sin and judgment! Who does this guy think he is?”
Yes, we have lost the balance that reveres God and takes Him seriously, while gratefully acknowledging His grace, mercy, and love for us. The real God has shown us mercy; He offers us grace because we need it, lots of it, if we are to stand a chance of being able to endure His presence.
Recall that even St. John, the beloved disciple, fell on his face before the glorified Lord Jesus (Rev 1:17). The heavenly Jesus He encountered was no hippie; He was and is the Lord of Glory. Of Him, John says,
He had a loud voice like a trumpet … He was One like the Son of Man, dressed in a long robe, with a golden sash around His chest. The hair of His head was white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a blazing fire. His feet were like polished bronze refined in a furnace, and His voice was like the roar of many waters. He held in His right hand seven stars, and a sharp double-edged sword came from His mouth. His face was like the sun shining at its brightest …. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and was and is to come—the Almighty (Rev 1:12-16).
The same passage also says,
To Him who loves us and has released us from our sins by His blood, who has made us to be a kingdom, priests to His God and Father—to Him be the glory and power forever and ever! Amen. (Rev 1:5-6).
Does your prayer and understanding of the Lord have this balance? Do you love Him and know that He loves you? Do you also revere Him and hold Him in awe? Do you rejoice in His saving love while also realizing the gratitude, worship, and praise you owe Him? Do you render to Him the obedience of faith and gratefully receive from Him the fruits of faith or do you view Him as merely a butler who serves you on your terms?
When you pray or go to Mass are you aware of the glory of being in His presence? Personal prayer can be a little less formal and impromptu, but do you ever just tremble in awe as you approach His Church and His presence? Do you ever kneel, stand, or even sit in His presence, saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening”? Do you bring to Mass a joyful and grateful sacrifice of praise to God, who has been so good to you, or is Mass for you more an egocentric event at which you demand to be entertained? Is your parish a clubhouse, or a lighthouse? Is it a cruise ship or a battleship? Is God on the throne in your life or do you imagine him more as your butler, stepping and fetching for you?
The Lord Jesus has opened the way to the Father, but not to trivialize or domesticate Him. Rather, it is so that we can enter the narrow path that stretches on a thrilling journey toward wonder and awe, toward unspeakable joy and untold glories. Rejoice in God’s love for you, but let it be a joy that is wrapped in reverence, one that makes us fall down in awe before so great a God. Indeed, our God is an awesome God.
Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: The Gifts of Wonder and Awe Are More Necessary Than Ever