Before diving right in we need to start with God, because the Story is truly about him and his interactions with all that he has created.
Let’s begin with some difficult stories.
Our first story finds us in a doctor’s office where you have finally gotten in to see your doctor because of a constant pain you have been experiencing for some time. After a series of tests, the doctor sits down with you to inform you that you have terminal cancer and that even with various treatments that you only have a year to live.
In our second story you are traveling back home with your family from a week long vacation. The family is all packed up and each has found their place in the car and settled down for the long ride home. As you are traveling home, the car in front of you loses control and spins out. You are unable to stop in time and hit the stalled car head-on. You wake up to the cries of your family members and soon notice that your youngest son is not moving and has a horrible gash on his head. It is soon clear that he has dies due to the car crash.
The third story is of you and your extended family who gather together regularly for all of the major holidays. One of your relatives has always taken an interest in you and spends long hours playing together with you and is very affectionate towards you. One holiday you find yourself in an isolated room and the relative touches you in places that are not appropriate. Due to fear, innocence, and shame, you say nothing, but this becomes a pattern for each holiday from this point on.
All of these are difficult, horrible, and terrifying stories. For some of us these are our worse nightmares, but for some of us it is our reality. We live in a broken and messed up world. No one can deny that, but for those of us who think it ought to be different, we wrestle with understanding God and why bad things happen.
For most people it is simply a fact of life, but for those of us who believe in the existence of a good and loving God, we are challenged with two realities that should not exist. How can you have an all-powerful, good, and loving God, while at the same time have pain, suffering, brokenness and death?
Looking at the God of the story.
In Exodus 33-34 we see how God describes/reveals himself to Moses. To give some context, Moses has been on Mt. Sinai receiving Torah (what we know as the 10 commandments) from God, while Aaron has stayed at ground level with the rest of the Israelites. After a period of time, the people are concerned with Moses’ absence and look to Aaron to create for them an image of the god that delivered them from Egypt. Aaron crafts a golden calf and Israel breaks out in false worship and sexual immorality.
When Moses comes down from the top of Mt. Sinai and sees their broken actions, he smashes the tablets with the Ten Commandments and punishes Israel. God is ready to be done with Israel due to their continued disobedience, but Moses continues to intercede for them.
Exodus 33:12 Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
Moses reminds God that during their many conversations, God has told Moses to lead these people and that God knows him by name and is highly favored by him (only used of Moses in the Scriptures). Based on their past, Moses wants God to continue to be with Israel because God has told him that Israel is the people of God.
Exodus 33:14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
God responds by telling Moses that He will be present and will give rest from all the potential enemies in the land of promise; however, God only promises to be with Moses (the pronouns in God’s response are all singular and refer to Moses alone).
Exodus 33:15-16 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses reminds God that Israel’s identity and uniqueness in the world is based completely on their relationship with God. If God departs, there is nothing that will make Israel special in the midst of all the other nations. If God does not go with Israel, Moses and the people are not going to move.
Exodus 33:17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Amazingly, God listens to Moses and chooses to honor Moses’ request. God let’s Moses know that he continues to be pleased with him and that he knows him by his name. We are given a glimpse into the intimate relationship that existed between Moses and God. Moses’ intercession on the behalf of Israel continues to confirm God’s opinion of Moses. God’s response to Moses leads to a really strange request from Moses:
Exodus 33:18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
Moses may possibly be one of the characters in the biblical narrative that knew God the best, yet he still wants to know more about God. Moses wants to see the presence of God.
Exodus 33:19-34:4 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” 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.” The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain.” So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the Lord had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands.
God honors Moses request, but provides some guidelines concerning this encounter. God will allow his goodness to be presented to Moses and he will once again share his name, but God makes it clear that he will not be manipulated by Moses, or anyone, who has access to his name.
Why is this important? It was believed in the Ancient Near East that having the name of a god or spiritual being would give you power over him/her. God makes it clear that this does not work in a relationship with him. God also makes it clear that no one can see him directly and live, so God provides a way for Moses to experience in an indirect way the wonder of his presence. He also orders Moses to provide a new set of tablets, since he broke the previous set. God provides further directions, just like his original time on Mt. Sinai, and Moses obeys all the words of God.
A love story like no other.
Exodus 34:5-7 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”
God presents himself to Moses and provides the following list of descriptors that give a deeper understanding of God’s own perceptions of himself. God begins with the attribute of compassion, which reveals itself in mercy and a deep love. God’s love is different than much of our definitions of love today. In common terminology, we use love as an excuse to do whatever we want or feel. If we love something or someone, previous commitments do not matter because love trumps everything.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis states the following: “God has no needs. Human love, as Plato teaches us, is the child of Poverty – of want or lack; it is caused by a real or supposed goal in its beloved which the lover needs and desires. But God’s love, far from being caused by goodness in the object, causes all the goodness which the object has, loving it first into existence, and then into real, though derivative, love-ability. God is Goodness. He can give good, but cannot need or get it. In that sense , His love is, as it were, bottomlessly selfless by very definition; it has everything to give, and nothing to receive.”
As we get further into our study concerning the topic of suffering and the existence of a good God, C. S. Lewis reminds us in The Problem of Pain of something very important about love and suffering: “The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the center of them. Man is not the center. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the divine love may rest “well pleased”.”
God continues and shares that he is gracious and kind or one who bestows favors or blessings. God enjoys extending mercy and blessings to those who seek him. At the same time, we learn that God is very slow to anger, or in other words, God has a really long, slow burning fuse that seldom goes off. God can patiently wait for those of us who continue to charter our own paths because he can out weight the most stubborn of us.
The next pair of descriptors are very important because they form a single idea throughout the biblical narrative. The idea of love and faithfulness are really about God’s covenant faithfulness. God is the promise maker and he is the promise keeper. God is willing to limit himself by making promises with people and keeping them even when they do not.
God is also the one who forgives us when we pursue wickedness, rebellion, and sin. We can firmly trust and accept that God will forgive us when we confess and repent from our disobedience. However, God makes it clear that he will also not hesitate from punishing those who continue to rebel.
Exodus 34:8-9 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes,” he said, “then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”
After God reveals himself more intimately to Moses, Moses responds with worship and a physical response of bowing before God. He continues to intercede on behalf of Israel, but he includes a prayer of confession and names the sins that they have committed as a community.
Reflecting on all these stories.
As we look at his self-revelation to Moses, we can begin to talk about God by using some attributes that may help us make more sense about ‘why bad things happen’ as we move forward.
We need to remember that God is truly a mystery to us.
This does not mean that we cannot have meaningful discussions about what God is like, nor is it impossible to learn more about him. However, there is so much we do not know or understand about who God is and what he is like. We need to be careful when we make absolute statements about God’s will and actions in our lives and in the lives of others.
We need to understand that God has limitations.
We do not like to talk about this because it seems irreverent, but God cannot do anything he pleases. He can do all things within the realm of power and possibility, but he cannot make 2+2 = 5 nor can he make it rain and not rain at the same time. God has also self-limited himself due to promises he has made in the past. God cannot destroy the world with water and he cannot allow sin to go unresolved. These limitations will need to be taken into account when we talk about suffering and loss in the world.
We need to reflect on God’s wisdom and its role in shaping the universe.
Most of us want the world to function in the realm of logic and what makes sense. However, the Scriptures reveal that God has created the world through wisdom which is far beyond our ability to see all the pieces of all the stories throughout all of time. Somehow, God can.
For a deeper dive on this topic, listen to Pastor Chuck’s message on “The God of the Story”.