Exodus 3:14, I AM WHO I AM
A serious young Christian wrestles to integrate the "many faces" of God (the one true God that we’ve come to know in and as Jesus Christ). He isn’t alone in his wrestling. The rest of us who are equally serious do plenty of that ourselves. There is no getting to the bottom of the mystery of God. We can pile up all the words on top of one another until they’re higher than the Matterhorn and the depth and mystery of God still eludes us. We call him things like omnipotent, omniscient, sovereign, gracious, loving, majestic, omnipresent and so forth—all true I’m sure; but he’s bigger and grander and deeper and more elusive than all our words. A prophet who knew God intimately said, "You are a God that hides yourself!" Of course he was right! But God doesn’t even have to deliberately conceal himself in order to be beyond our grasp.
Moses wanted to know who’d he’d say sent him when Israel asked and God said, maybe even a bit dryly, "Tell them that I AM WHO I AM sent you." We can get from I AM WHO I AM to Yahweh because they’re linguistically/verbally connected, but we can get nowhere with either one of them. God gave him a name but clearly he was withholding a name from him. No one knows how to render the Hebrew phrase. We just say things like I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE to keep from saying nothing. Scholars give us educated guesses at the linguistic options and from there they guess even more about what their linguistic guesses mean.
I say we don’t know what God said, but that’s an overstatement. He didn’t leave us utterly ignorant. One thing we’re sure of is this: Moses wasn’t to go to Israel and say GOOD LUCK SENT ME!
Nevertheless, God will not be boxed in. He won’t give us a name that we can memorise and then pigeonhole him. "Oh, yes, well you know there’s Osiris and Zeus and Molech and Bel and then there’s ‘Yahweh’." No verbal sound captures God. No series of sounds, no theology contains all of him. No Christology can lock Jesus Christ in with even its wise pronouncements—like God he breaks through all the verbal boundaries. Even my Ethel’s too mysterious to be summed up in any biography I might write. Persons are bigger and vaster than our mental constructs no matter how accurate they are in their way.
Will God continue to puzzle and mesmerise us? Will he always be showing us his "back parts" while telling us "you can’t see my face"? (Exodus 33:20-23) Will the temple always be filled with smoke at his presence? See Yes—he’s beyond us! It is with good reason that Paul, when he had finished spilling out his Romans 9—11 was suddenly seized by it and poured out his awe and adoration (11:33-36).
But our inability to grasp God fully is not just an intellectual thing—it’s a moral and spiritual affair. We don’t see him well because we’re not pure enough to see him well. It’s hard to think God’s thoughts after him when our own thoughts are so unlike his. Our sinfulness has affected our capacity to judge well. We think because we can still use our brains to work out mathematical problems or grasp cosmological theories or understand that 2+2 = 4 that our rational capacity and the way we use it are unaffected by sin. Sin has hurt us! "How can you believe?" Christ said to them, "when you seek the glory of men and not God!" He didn’t have in mind their ability to handle abstract truths or empirical realities. He said (Matthew 16:1-4), "You can understand the weather patterns but because you are evil you’re completely ignorant of your spiritual peril and who is speaking to you."
If texts look like they’re saying things we don’t want to be true our vested interests will suppress them.
We don’t have to build idols and fall down and worship them to be idolaters. We can build a verbal picture of God, a picture we draw from pieces taken from here and there in the Bible. We can build a verbal picture of God and fall down and worship that. It will be God built in our own inner image and he’ll come out looking like us—with all our likes and dislikes. We’ll tell him what he can or cannot do or look like. We’ll tell him, as ancients (and many moderns) have done, that he can’t come dragging a cross. But when the Holy Father laid the cross on the Holy Son of God he defied our labels and our idolatrous worship that would tell him what he can or cannot do as he works to bless us.
For while we are reverently agnostic about much that God is he has made it clear to us that he has made an eternal commitment to his creation—the human family included. That eternal commitment and purpose arose from his holy love and came to a throbbing completion in Jesus Christ. He will never turn from that commitment because he cannot be faithless to himself. Those of us that have been privileged to be called to be his witnesses in Jesus Christ have come to trust him—for all our dithering and our fumbling—that he is holy love "embodied" in a God that has shown himself in and as Jesus Christ.
He is no destroyer! If we will not trust that his wrath and chastisement on the human family is the form his redeeming love takes, because he thinks it is appropriate, then it’s because we know less of him that he has given us to understand. It is humility to confess that we do not know what we do not know. It is not humility to say we don't know the truth that God has explicitly brought to our attention. It is not humility—it may be idolatry!