Being God’s Beloved: Reflections on God’s Love.
Moses has fled for his life into the desert after killing an Egyptian guard. One day, while tending the sheep, he sees a burning bush. Oddly, although it was on fire, it doesn’t burn up, so he goes closer to get a better look. Then God speaks to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” Moses says, “Here I am.” (I don’t know about you, but this sort of things doesn’t happen to me much. Actually, if I think hard, I can’t ever recall God speaking to me out of a burning bush! It’s enough to blow your mind.)
Then God says, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Generally, when the Bible speaks about God as holy or the things of God as holy, it means two related things. First, it is about purity and second, it is about being separate. God is God, holy, exulted, powerful, tremendous, pure, untouchable, unseeable, unspeakable. God is so high and lifted up that we cannot even look upon God’s face. The theological word for this is ‘transcendence’. It means that God is enormously different from us, to such an extent that we cannot really connect with God. It includes all the omni’s – omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence and so on. It is why some people kneel or bow or genuflect – a sign of our smallness in comparison with God’s greatness, our unworthiness in comparison with God’s sublime splendour.
Here God says to Moses that even the ground around the bush through which God’s voice is projected is so holy that Moses must remove his shoes. It is, in a way, the holy of holies before the temple was built, before even the tabernacle. This is a great example of transcendence.
Transcendent is often how we perceive God to be in the Old Testament. God seems massive and fearsome, austere and remote, more likely to smite you than bless you. The Old Testament God is not the Jesus who draws alongside people, who shares a meal of bread and fish, who touches the leper, who weeps at a graveside, who calls God ‘Abba, Dad’. The New Testament God seems to us to be much warmer and a lot more approachable. The Old Testament God has to be appeased with offerings before being willing to forgive, setting out strict rules and striking down those who accidentally look into the Ark. And because of this, many of us spend a lot more time reading the New Testament than the Old Testament – it helps us feel closer to God, because God seems more accessible to us.
But here in Exodus chapter 3, we now read a most remarkable passage:
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers. And I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
This is absolutely one of my all-time favourite passages in the Bible! It is hard to write when you’re jumping up and down with excitement.
Notice how God describes his actions:
- I have seen…
- I have heard…
- I am concerned…
- I have come down…
Do these sound like burning-bush, holy-ground words? Are these the words of a transcendent and remote God? Is this an austere and slow-to-warm deity? No! Not at all!
These are the words of a God who is intimately connected with human experience, particularly human suffering. These are the words of a God who empathises – who shares our feelings and suffers along with us. These are the words of a God who does not observe passively from afar, but who engages and intervenes. These are the words of a God who moves into human experience rather than remaining aloof. These are the words of love.
God says, “I have seen the misery of my people… I have heard them crying out.”
As a counsellor and as a person who has been in counselling, I have come to learn that being present with someone in their suffering is very often all that is needed. Not everyone is willing to see and hear another person’s suffering. Truly, it is painful to see and hear suffering. Sometimes when someone starts talking about their not-so-happy life, we’d prefer to change the topic, or cut them off because we have an appointment, or do the empty-hearted uh-huh’s that mimic real listening while our thoughts wander. It hurts to really listen and truly witness another person’s suffering. This is exactly what God does here: I have seen… I have heard. God is willing to be emotionally present with us in our pain.
Many years ago, I suffered from a major depressive episode and wound up in a psychiatric ward. I spent my first week there trying to make myself feel better – pulling myself up by my bootstraps, putting on a brave face, hoping that I could trick myself out of depression. Of course, that did not work. One day, in the second week, I surrendered to the depression, and spent an hour long therapy session weeping. I could not speak – only tears – I had dropped to the depths of my despair and pain. My therapist spent the hour sitting beside me, saying nothing, passing me tissues. She saw me. She heard me. She did not flinch away or try to patch me up. She did not offer comfort or advice. She did not give me medication to dull the pain. She simply sat with me in the darkness, like Job’s friends (initially) sat with him in his despair. This was the first day of my recovery.
God’s willingness to see and hear the misery of his people reveals God’s love. God is willing to sit with us in the worst of our experiences, in the darkest or most savage feelings, in the worst thoughts. God does not close his eyes or block his ears. God opens Godself to hear and see our lives, just as they are.
God says, “I am concerned about their suffering.”
It is possible to see and hear someone’s suffering without being moved by it. Sometimes caregivers become so burned out that they witness suffering without feeling it – they are emotionally disconnected and shut down. But God is emotionally engaged and present. God feels! God is not unmoved. God suffers with us.
There is a difference between physical presence and emotional presence. Physical presence involves being present with someone without emotional connection. You are there, listening, using all the right counselling skills, doing your job well, but not allowing yourself to be impacted by the person’s experience. On the other hand, emotional presence involves also allowing oneself to be touched by and even hurt by the other person’s experience. It involves emotional risk, because sometimes another person’s pain can be overwhelming and frightening. It hurts to engage with another person’s hurt.
The Hebrew word translated ‘concerned’ is yada. It has a range of meanings, including to recognise, perceive and care about. It is also the word used for ‘know’ – to really know someone, to understand, to have insight. And it’s the word used in Genesis 4:1 for ‘know’, as in Adam knew (had intercourse with) Eve. It is used some 20 times in Hosea to speak about our knowing and loving God. The word conveys an intimate and deep knowing of another person. It is about being in continuous and open-hearted relationship with someone. So, when God says, “I ‘know’ their suffering”, God is speaking of an intimate knowledge of human experience rooted in God’s relationship with us. It is a knowing that is so intimate it is as if God is the one who is suffering.
Today, we’d call that empathy. God empathises with us. Think on this. God is perfect wholeness and balance. There is no want, distress, need or lack in the experience of God. God is like custard with no lumps – smooth and satin. But when God chooses to be ‘concerned’, God allows the crunchiness of human experience and the sharpness of human suffering to disturb that perfection. No-one likes lumpy custard! But God chooses the lumps; God chooses to be immersed in these aspects of our life. Because God loves the whole of us – the joys and triumphs, and the darkness and sorrow. God is whole-hearted towards humanity, towards you, embracing every aspect of your life, not only certain parts of it.
God says, “So I have come down.”
The transcendent God becomes immanent – God draws near, coming right into the human sphere. God is not watching from a distance. God is present and active. ‘Coming down’ might not seem like a big deal, but consider that God is beyond time and space. God created space and time, thus lives outside it. So ‘coming down’, entering our world, is a very big deal. It is a foretaste of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity into the individual named Jesus of Nazareth – that great emptying out of God’s divinity to be immersed into a single human life. ‘Coming down’ is, perhaps, the most remarkable aspect of God’s engagement with humanity.
The presence of God makes all the difference. God’s presence in human suffering gives suffering perspective. God’s presence in suffering gives us hope. God’s presence in suffering gives us comfort. God’s presence gives us the assurance that God knows what it is like to be us.
We cannot adequately explain suffering. But there is comfort in the testimony that God sees, hears, knows and comes. All of these are real demonstrations of God’s love for humanity. God did it for the people of Israel, which lead up to the Exodus. God did it for me when I was depressed in hospital. God does it for you in whatever situation you find yourself facing today.
Meditation for the Day
God is nearby, seeing and hearing you, knowing and feeling concerned about you, desiring to come down to be with you. Reflect on the nearness of the God who loves you and open yourself to experience God’s presence with you.
Prayer for the Day
Oh God, my parent. Be present with me today. Help me to recognise your heart, turned towards me, with empathy and compassion. Let me lean on you.