I wish someone would write a book about not seeing God in scripture. Perhaps someone’s already done it. I’m not talking about blindness or feeling the absence of God. There are plenty of those reflections, stories, and sermons. There are blind beggars, blind preachers like Saul, and leaders blind to God’s purposes (like Pharaoh or King David). At other times we encounter people who can’t see God they also feel God is absent. I am thinking of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his execution, Job, or Jonah in the belly of the whale. The God they believe they know and should be able to find or reach has vanished. As outside observers, we know this isn’t the case.
God is still there. God hasn’t changed. Perhaps, they’re looking for the wrong kind of God or worse yet, a God who doesn’t exist. They are worshipping a God who’s not there. As such, they’re not seeing the real God. We can call it idolatry or create your own God. The point is, we’re looking for something meaningful and this supposed God-like other thing isn’t delivering, even though we’ve attached all sorts of God-like powers, qualities, and ideas to its being. Yet this thing we think is God or God like isn’t God. God remains unseen and hidden, waiting to be acknowledged in other ways.
This is why I think we need to think about the places in the Bible where we don’t see God. Yes, I mean not seeing God. I’m thinking of passages like Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” God was not seen. In Acts 9:4, Saul was riding with his companion to Damascus. Intent on arresting and bringing some early Christians back to Jerusalem for trial, he was knocked from his horse. “He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’” He fell to the ground and heard a voice. He did not see a soul nor did the people with him hear the voice. Saul did not see Jesus or God. God was unseen. In fact, after this encounter, Paul was physically blinded. There is something about going onward with God, totally sight unseen, that we regularly miss, when reading our Bibles. In our visual, image driven culture, we are not hearing God.
I’m also thinking about today’s verse from the epistle reading in 1 John. 1 John 4:12 states, “No one has ever seen God”. John, the beloved disciple and purveyor of “I am” statements, communicator of who sees who through the son, tell us “No one has seen God”. Yes, I think there’s something to be said for these passages saying God has not been seen.
At one level, encountering (seeing) God would appear to be the defining feature of Christianity. Whether figuratively, literally, metaphorically, or spiritually, we shape or faith around seeing the risen Christ in the world around us. Easter begins with Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus in the garden. There are subsequent resurrection encounters where the disciples see Jesus and the physically touch the wounds on his body. Others, like Paul have metaphorical or more spiritual encounters with Jesus. Thanks to John’s language we group these under the broad heading of “seeing God”. We understand Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity. From John we learned if we’ve seen Jesus we’ve seen God. These ideas are passed down to us. We see God at work in people and in the world around. The disciples saw one way and now we see another. Yet, this is hallmark of our belief for two thousand years. We see God or the evidence of God’s presence in people and their actions. When I was a child, I was convinced that the diffusion of sunlight around a cloud was what God looked like. That was evidence of God’s presence above my backyard.
John wants to change the rules. He says, “Let’s go back a step”. Is it possible to alter the working assumption? What if no one sees God? What if no one has ever seen God? How does that change our faith experience? Is our faith stronger or weaker? If God isn’t seen, where do we find God now?
If God’s not a visual thing, confirmable by our eyes and rational senses (because that’s what sight means, particularly in the ancient world), where (and how) do we affirm the divinity around us?
Here is what I know. The Christian faith is a shaped by hearing, listening, and feeling. If we cannot trust those truths, those senses other than sight, then we cannot trust the very idea of God. Paul didn’t see God, nor did Moses, Job, or Jesus. Yet each person heard, listened, felt, and encountered the living God. Visual appearance did not matter.
If we don’t see God, what happens? Is it possible to be Christian, especially Christian as we’ve come to know and define “Christian” in the early 21st century? If Jesus isn’t on a billboard or bumper sticker, how do we make God tangible? How do we talk about God with turning God into an idol or a watered down version of our own personalities and priorities?
Here’s what 1 John 4 is telling us: God can be anyone. God can be black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern; it doesn’t matter. If God can be seen, God will likely resemble a template we’ve created. Our God will be white, middle class, and be more like Santa Claus than the actual God John’s describing. When God is unseen, it’s much harder to create a God in our own image. The ability to create visual stereotype is removed. Hearing, listening, and feeling God changes our faith in unspeakable ways. We are listening for who God to speak and act; not who we expect to see. Remember what John says, “No one has ever seen God”. We see idols and things we shape into our own versions of Gods.
It is helpful to remember that God is an emotional response. God is felt, confirmed, and observed in emotion. You probably think that sounds like psychological double talk. Try this on, “God is Love”. Is that hard to grasp? God is an emotion. In fact, John says if we loved each other the way God loved us, our problems would be solved. We can’t. Our ability to love is hampered by our humanity. In the paper rock scissors game of life, our flawed humanity beats God’s gracious love every time.
John acknowledges the difficulty of living a love infused life to the level God loves us. However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for God’s love made manifest in lives we can see. Our limited ability to love doesn’t absolve us from participation in God’s kingdom. We are not off the hook. Or we will find ourselves like the Apostle Paul, knocked to ground level, and forced to listen to God’s penetrating questions. So often, we come to God with petitions and requests. When we’re listening to God, there are probably going to be questions posed to us. What is God asking you?
Richard Lowell Bryant