A Season of Doubt
Brennan Manning once said that Christ will ask us only one question when he comes to judge the living and the dead. “Did you believe that I loved you?” I am not sure that I agree with his eschatology. Nevertheless, the question haunts me. Like everyone else, I sometimes wonder if I ever make God happy. Some days, I just get tired of the struggle to put the sin within me to death, and I wonder if all of my efforts will ever be enough.
Lately, I have been walking through one of these seasons of doubt. Professional disappointments, financial pressures, and an increasing awareness of the many ways I fall short as a disciple and a leader have plunged my heart into darkness and have hidden God’s glory from my eyes. It is easy for the religious know-it-all to pick apart my theology, to de-legitimize my experience, or to criticize my lack of faith. Perhaps they are right, but, right now, I don’t care what they think. I care about what God thinks, and I care about those who walk with me along the road of uncertainty.
To my fellow travelers, I say this. I am sorry that you are here. It is hard enough just walking through the everyday pressures of life and ministry; it is even harder when you are doing so not knowing whether you are on the right path. I do not have any easy answers, but what I do have I will share with you.
Back to the Basics
As I have prayed about my own doubts and my own fears, the Lord encouraged me to go back to the basics—to reflect once again upon the foundational assertions that God has made about himself. At the same time (and for different reasons), our pastor here at First Baptist Church of Arlington directed our attention to Exodus 33-34. As I have reflected upon this pivotal episode in the life of Moses, God’s message to him has come alive to me in a way that it never has before.
When Exodus 33 opens, Moses is in a really dark place. The people of Israel betrayed God while Moses was still on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. Now, God has commanded Moses to leave Mount Sinai—a holy place where Moses had experienced God in a way that he never had before. Moreover, God has informed Moses that He will not make the journey with Israel.
The despair that Moses feels is almost palpable. Three times he asks God to go with him, two of which were after God had already relented and agreed that His presence would make the journey. Why? Clearly, Moses is feeling the pressure of leadership. Clearly, Moses appreciates the personal interactions that he is having with God. But there is more to it than that. Moses needs to know that he is okay with God, and God’s plan to leave the people has surfaced all of the doubts and insecurities that have been lying dormant in Moses’ heart since the day he met God at the burning bush.
Indeed, the promise of God’s presence is a direct response to Moses’ anxiety about how he will lead the people and about whether he himself is a beneficiary of God’s favor (Exodus 33:12-17). Once the issue of God’s presence is settled, Moses makes a second request: “Show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18). The request seems to come out of left field, but it expresses Moses’ continuing anxiety about how he will remain in God’s good graces.
God’s response is remarkable. He instructs Moses about how this will be accomplished (Exodus 33:19-23), and He describes what Moses will learn in the encounter. In the Bible, the words we translate “glory” usually refer to a public manifestation of a superior’s honor, authority, and accomplishments. That is what Moses asks to see, what this not what God says He will show him. Rather, God tells Moses that He will show him all of His “goodness.” Furthermore, God emphasizes that Moses will hear His covenant name—the name by which God identified himself to Moses at the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3). God seems to be saying to Moses that the real antidote to his anxiety lies in a thorough understanding of who God is.
So what happens when Moses does, in fact, see God’s glory? Exodus 34:6-7 tells us that God begins with a double proclamation of His name, thus emphasizing not only His existence but also His special relationship with Moses (and, through him, with all of Israel). Then God enumerates several traits that describe His character. There is a great deal of nuance and overlap among the words that are used here, but that is part of the persuasive appeal. God is layering adjective upon adjective to paint a vibrant picture of His benevolence and dependability. Finally, God describes two behaviors that are indispensable to His essence. God forgives, and God punishes. The former should be a great comfort to Moses, given the history of the people that he is leading. The latter? Not so much. Still, it is an essential aspect of how God interacts with humanity. Besides, it may not be a central concern of this part of Exodus, but the Psalms make it clear that many of us suffer doubt about our own standing with God precisely because we do not see the guilty punished.
In Pursuit of God’s Presence
I am more like Moses than I ought to admit. Like Moses, I doubt God’s love for me even thought I have experienced it at many times and in many ways. Like Moses, I have plenty of failures in my past that would seem to disqualify me from enjoying God’s goodness. And, like Moses, I need to be reminded that God’s favor—God’s grace—rests upon me.
I need to experience God’s presence in my life, and I need to experience it in new and powerful ways. When I experience God’s presence, I am reminded of who God is and of how God acts—which, in turn, reinforces the message God is sending simply by showing up. And there is something else that I need. I need to believe the things that God is trying to communicate when He shows up and shares His glory. Believe it or not, Moses had a choice. He could have experienced God’s presence and rejected its message. But that is not what he did. Sure, Moses repeated his request for God’s presence in Exodus 34:8-9, and this may indicate some lingering uncertainty on his part. But he believed God enough to keep asking and to keep obeying.
That is the kind of faith that I need to have. When all around me is darkness, when I cannot point to any tangible proof of God’s favor in my life, I need to seek God’s face. I need to remember who He is and what He does. I need to trust Him.
And so do you, my fellow traveler. God has showed up in the midst of my doubts, and God will show up in the midst of your doubts, too. If there is a broken relationship or an unhealthy behavior that you need to address, He will point it out. You can be sure of that. But He will also remind you of the grace that He has lavished upon all of us through Jesus Christ. Take hold of that grace, place your petition before the Lord, and see where the journey takes you.