I grew up in churches where we never, ever ended the worship service without having an altar call. And these weren’t just “come forward to make a decision for Jesus Christ” altar calls. These were long, sometimes multi-hour Holy Ghost hoedowns full of weeping, shouting, dancing, singing and rejoicing.
Part of me felt right at home in that kind of ecstatic celebration. And yet there is part of me that never felt at home there. While everyone else was cutting loose, I’d find myself standing down near the front with my eyes clenched shut, sometimes my fists clenched, too. I would go down wanting to “seek God,” and yet somehow I didn’t know exactly what to do, what to say, what “seeking God” really meant. Instead of being liberated by the activity around me, I was almost paralyzed by it.
Now that I’m a pastor, I’m the one who gives invitations for people to seek God, even if I do it a lot differently than what I experienced back then. And yet, when someone wants to know how to know God, there are moments when, for a moment at least, I feel like that kid clenching his fists. There is something in me that feels paralyzed all over again. I sense that same familiar panic. “What will I say? What will I do? And what do I know about any of this to begin with?”
Like most pastors, I would rather talk about processes and procedures related to knowing God than talk about the God I know. I’d rather talk about spiritual formation, or about the disciplines—prayer, worship, Bible reading, fasting, giving.
And yet there is a peculiar heartache when I sense myself going down that familiar path. I feel the sting of something like betrayal. A fleeting impression floating in the back of my head, which may well be the Spirit, saying, “You love to tell them how to have a relationship with me, but you don’t tell them about me.”
Don’t get me wrong: The Church needs people to help guide us through the concrete processes of spiritual formation. But so often, it seems we use these things as a diversionary tactic. In some ways, many of us are still strangely guarded about our own experience with God on His terms—the actual God as opposed to our set of ideas about Him. We would much rather talk about spiritual practices relating to God than to talk about the enigmatic character of God Himself, the shadowy force of wisdom and delight who haunts us as a lover.
One can be an expert in the disciplines of spiritual formation. But there are no experts on God.
Hiding Behind Our “Expertise”
No wonder preachers come up with inane things to talk about like “Bible codes” or charts and graphs speculating about the end of the world. We are looking for something to master rather than have a head-on collision with the mystery that cannot be mastered.
We live in a world where it feels like everybody speaks with an air of assumed authority. We also live in a volatile, rapidly changing time where there seem to be a lot of reasons to be afraid. The appeal of certainty in an uncertain world is perfectly understandable. Sometimes we admire the confidence we hear underneath these authoritarian voices. We long for their simplicity and conviction, those who have the world so easily figured out. At times, we have been those people ourselves. Yet, deep down, many of us harbor a deep suspicion that the experts are not as bright as they think they are; that the world is perhaps not as ordered as they would have us believe.
If we live long enough and develop a little healthy insulation from the prophets of certitude, we find out that beholding God is, in fact, a complicated thing. It starts when our own lives begin to get complex. But the world didn’t get complicated when life got complicated for us. We just hadn’t lived long enough, seen enough, heard enough or experienced enough to know better just yet.
Encountering the Whirlwind
The classic riff in evangelical culture is “It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship.” And that’s true to a point. But the misleading thing about such an assertion is the subtext that religion is the man-made complication and that having a relationship with God is the easy thing. A relationship is something natural, something anybody with common sense can do as easily as breathing. The undertone is always that we could happily get on with the simplicity of such a relationship if there weren’t all these humans interfering between us and God.
But let’s not be quite so naive. If some forms of religion feel like a racket to us, let’s not pretend we are innocent, as if it’s not a scheme of our own making. When the mystery of God first struck the ground, crackling with the electricity of a storm on Mount Sinai, it was the people who said, “Don’t let Him speak to us directly or we will die.” There is no conspiracy to keep obstacles between us and God. We are often the ones inserting ourselves in that space.
We fill the space between us with everything we can get our hands on because, deep down, we know there is something terrible about staring into the mystery for ourselves and finding ourselves fully seen and fully known in return. Even if we find a gaze of love staring back at us, we are uncomfortable with the wildness in that gaze. To encounter God is to encounter lack of control, to come to terms with our own ultimate powerlessness. To encounter God is to discover both how small we are and how beloved we are, and we are not prepared either to be so insignificant or so desperately loved. Both revelations are unnerving.
There is no amount of spiritual knowledge, practice or experience that gives us any sort of claim on God directly. God is impossible to cage. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” It is no wonder that life with God is always described in elemental terms—those who are born of the Spirit move with the unpredictability of the wind, because the Spirit itself is unpredictable.
Job has been one of my favorite guides in Scripture for my own relationship with God, precisely because it captures the elusive nature of life with God so perfectly. After all of Job’s friends get done blustering and Job gets done responding, God Himself finally responds. And Job 38:1 sets the parameters of a relationship with God quite well: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”
God does not answer out of the calm, gentle breeze—though he does that in other parts of the Bible. In this case, the Lord answers out of the violence of the storm. Having a relationship with God is like having a relationship to electricity or having a relationship to a tornado. That is not to say there is not comfort in it, but it is the peculiar comfort of a storm. It’s precisely why our spiritual practices can capture something useful of how we relate to God, but our relationship to God is hardly the sum of them.
The Playful, Tender Other
Since this relationship is something intrinsically violent, unpredictable and uncontrollable, the next thing Job helps us learn about a relationship with God might seem almost contradictory—but deeply true. There is something tender about the presence of God and the voice of God, a tenderness that never fails to break our hearts.
The the heartbreak of a relationship with God is not sentimental in the least—it is the sheer goodness of God, the tenderness of His heart that relentlessly shatters our own. We have been presumptuous to think we know what God might be saying or what He wants in a given situation, smug in our judgments. And then comes the real voice of God, which always turns out to be more tender, more gentle, more loving than what we could have imagined. That unfathomable mercy that, more than any of the extraordinary things we might say about God, ultimately makes Him the most unlike us.
There is something dangerous, something tender, something playful about that God all at once. The One who will not be confused by us, tricked by us, impressed by our capacity for good or evil. There is a certain divine mischief about the One who looks at us, always knowing both the things we know but can’t afford to say, as well as the things we do not know at all. He does not lord this knowledge over us or leverage it for harm. In fact, you might say He almost affectionately teases us with it.
Job is the sort of person God likes because he didn’t attempt to hide the truth of his heart from Him, the sort of person that talked to Him in shockingly familial ways. Because Job is so brazen with God, He brings out the playful tenderness of this God, who comes out of the whirlwind but is not all whirlwind Himself. When God finally responds to Job, He starts by chiding Him: “Who is this that darkens my counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.”
The first few times I read that text, I responded with a kind of terror at the words “Gird up your loins.” But the more I have reread Job, the more I have detected something different in God’s speech. Keep in mind, the construct of the whole story is that God likes Job—it is God who directly rescues Job in the end. Job’s relationship with God is so familiar that his friends find his protests to be blasphemous. Yet, it seems God likes Job not despite the candid way he talks to Him, but because of it. And when God responds, we detect something in the tone of these speeches different than incredulity and rage; we can hear a kind of playfulness.
While there is a kind of violence to God’s appearance, there is also the familial tone of a father wrestling with his son—a kind of playful taunting. “Who is this little man who thinks he knows how the world works? Since you are the expert, why don’t you tell me—where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? And my favorite line, “Surely you know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!”
The language of God may seem fearsome, but there is also a winsome quality to it—this is the playfulness of a father to a son he knows well. It is hard to explain how a relationship with God can have the unpredictability and occasionally primal force of the whirlwind, and yet have such shocking intimacy and playfulness at the same time. But this is what it is to know God.
The Figure Standing in the Whirlwind
However broken we might feel or be, it takes a certain courage to stare into the whirlwind—to fix our gaze into the storm that knows us—without flinching, without covering ourselves, without looking away. And when we stay there long enough, a figure emerges from the storm. Like the Israelites when God appeared on Sinai, we are tempted to cower in terror, to find someone to stand between us and Him. And then comes the voice: “It is I, do not be afraid.” We stare into the storm long enough until we find that the God behind it is Jesus, that this God has always been Jesus. He is the one who has always seen and known us.
From out of the whirlwind, from out of the storm, Jesus comes walking. In Matthew 17, Jesus is drenched in the same terrible glory of Sinai, His face shining like the sun, His garments blindingly white. And again comes the voice, as familiar on this new mountain as it was in the midst of the storm—except this time not just a voice, but a hand that reaches out to touch us. “Get up, and do not be afraid.” The same terror, the same glory, but with a tender touch and a voice that has always been familiar—telling us we have no reason to fear.
We have come all of this way without giving proper steps to have a relationship with God, no experiments to try, no spiritual practices. For once, I’ve talked about the God I know instead of trying to tell you how you should know God, and tried to tell you what that God is like. I’ve tried to warn you of the terror and comfort you with the comfort I’ve seen and felt behind the cloud.
Now I can only tell you to go chase the storm. Behold the elements of mercy and tenderness and playful, mischievous love, and keep looking into it until you see that God turns out to be Jesus.
Jonathan Martin is the lead pastor of Renovatus, a church for people under renovation in Charlotte, N.C., where he lives with his wife, Amanda. He holds degrees from Gardner-Webb University, the Pentecostal Theological Seminary and Duke University Divinity School.