The Backside of God: Reponding to the Tragedies of Life

This has been a devastating week. Every American and many around the world have been shaken by the murderous acts that took place in New York and Washington D.C. During the week there have been many questions.  And with those many questions I have wondered what God would have me say this day.  Do we continue in Exodus or do we break into our series with “a special report”. I have gone back and forth all week.

Finally, with the help of some friends, I came to see that our current course of study (in God’s perfect timing) may be speaking to us with just the right text in just the right time. In Exodus 33 we see the aftermath of the terrible judgment of God on Israel.  In Exodus 32:35 we read about the plague that came on the children of Israel.  If you remember from two weeks ago, I suggested that the death toll in this situation may have been 23,000 people who died. Moses finds himself in a situation not completely different from our own.

Moses is directed by God to move on . . . to go forward to the promised land.  But then adds the chilling words, “but I will not go with you.”  Moses and the people are heartbroken. In order to meet with God, Moses now needs to leave the camp and go to the “tent of meeting”. We are told that Moses had an extraordinary relationship with God.  He spoke to God directly, “face to face”.

Moses pleads for God to forgive the people, to cleanse them and to return personally to lead them.  And God agrees to extend His mercy and to do so.  Then Moses makes this extraordinary request,

Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”  And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.” Exodus 33:18-23

It is this request that occupies our attention this morning. I think in this time of crisis you and I also yearn to “see God”.


In the midst of this situation, Moses asks to “see God’s glory”. What an interesting request.  I’m not really sure what Moses was hoping to receive from God. What is behind this request?  Let me make some suggestions.  Moses craved an assurance of God’s love.  In a time of crisis we often feel deserted. Moses saw 23,000 of his people die from a plague.  He watched as brothers killed brothers. Moses saw things that were forever embedded in his mind. I think Moses may have understood some of what we are feeling.  Moses sought God. He worshipped God. But he still needed more.

President Bush reported on Friday that a woman at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York on Tuesday, said, “I prayed to God to give us a sign that He is still here.” I wonder if that isn’t really the prayer that Moses was praying.  It’s a prayer that many of us cry, “Lord, show us your glory!”

In the hard times we feel especially vulnerable.  I imagine that Moses, like us, felt very small. He may have felt that life was out of control, and he was overwhelmed by it all. Moses needed something visible and tangible to hold on to. It was all so overwhelming. 

Wouldn’t it be great for God to appear to us today and tell us that “It’s going to be OK?” Don’t you wish we could hear God assure us that “there is a reason and a purpose” behind this disaster? 

The people of New York told us how much it meant for them to have the President come to the site of the tragedies and visit with them. I know how good it was to see the President arrive home at the White House on Tuesday. Think how much more encouraging it would be to see and talk with the Almighty.

Second, Moses understood that the key to surviving tragic time is to seek intimacy with God rather than isolation from God.  Here was a man who spoke with God with a greater intimacy than anyone but our Lord. We are told that he would go to the tent of meeting outside of camp and talk to God directly, “face to face”. And yet, it’s this same Moses that says, “I need more.” It’s this same Moses that asks to “see” God. Every time there is a crisis such as what we experienced this week, people have a couple of choices. 

  • we can get angry and strike out at our enemies
  • we can get angry at God and withdraw from and blame Him
  • we can despair and be filled with anxiety
  • we can feel hopeless and lifeless in the helplessness we feel
  • we can look at the situation squarely and run to the Lord

Moses understood 

  • that only God can make sense of tragic times
  • that only God can bring healing
  • only God can give us the strength we need

Those who turn from God are left hopeless. They are left to conclude that life is arbitrary and meaningless. And everyone of us here hopes and prays that life is not just randomness. Rather than running from God, Moses runs to God. He wants to go deeper.  And that is what you and I must do. We must dig our roots deeper.

  • We must realign priorities to show that the things of God really are first
  • We should be driven to prayer seeking God’s cleansing, healing and strength
  • We should be driven to His Word to search out His will and His instructions
  • We should be motivated to obey because we know that time is short. 
  • We should be devoted to presenting Christ to the people around us

Crisis reveals the true nature of our faith. Do you merely profess faith or do you possess it? Are you playing the religious game or are you truly trusting Christ?  Are you looking only for the benefits of religious involvement or are you committed to the Lord, regardless of the circumstance?


God tells Moses that He cannot see the full splendor of the Almighty.  The reason given is that no one can see God and live.  Why is that?  We must understand that the holiness of God is such that it will consume and destroy everything that is evil.  That is the nature of holiness. True holiness cannot put up with that which is sinful because to do so would be to violate the character of God.

As much as we want to see God’s face, as much as we want to hear Him explain so we can understand, we cannot apprehend His glory. We cannot understand His ways.  They are above us.  They are beyond us. They are too grand for our feeble minds.  For God to explain His ways to us would be like trying to teach a baby about wiring your house or teaching a toddler the complexities of the Internet. The child, the toddler would feel the words were incomprehensible. They would make no sense.

God does allow Moses to see the aftereffects of His glory.  I really have no idea what this means. In some way, Moses was given by God what He needed, even though He wasn’t given what He wanted.  God allowed Moses to catch of glimpse of His greatness because a glimpse was all He could handle. This picturesque speech was designed to let us know that God reveals just a little of Himself to Moses and it was enough.

In chapter 34 we read of the account that is mentioned here,

The LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” [34:5-7]

Even though God tells Moses that He cannot see God in all His glory; God will give Moses enough of what He needs. And even though we don’t have answers to the myriad of questions we have from this week, though we cannot understand all of what is going on, God has not ignored us either,

  • He has given us Jesus. From watching Christ we know that God is loving. We know that God is not arbitrary or hateful. We know that God’s heart yearns to have a relationship with us.  We know from Jesus that this life is not all there is. We know from the Savior that God has prepared a place . . . a wonderful place for everyone who believes in him.
  • He has given us His Word. The Bible tells us accounts like this one of Moses.  It gives us the record of Job who held on though he lost everything; of Habakkuk who didn’t understand why Israel was being attacked by the wicked Babylonians; David who is persecuted time and again for just trying to be faith; of Jeremiah who walked through the remains of Jerusalem after it had been destroyed; of Jesus in the garden before His crucifixion; of the disciples who faced horrible persecution.
  • He has given us His Spirit to comfort us, to guide us, and to assure us of His love.

And God has given us each other.  President Bush pointed to this fact this week.  He said,

“God’s signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that His purposes are not always our own. . . In this trial, we have been reminded and the world has seen, that our fellow Americans are generous and kind, resourceful and brave. We see our national character in rescuers working past exhaustion; in long lines of blood donors; in thousands of citizens who have asked to work and serve in any way possible.” [Speech 9/14/01 during the Nation Day of Prayer and Remembrance]

All week long we have seen a nation that spends much of it’s time indifferent to God, turning the Lord in prayer. In a country that was so concerned with separation of church and state, we have our President leading us in prayer.  There have been prayers in city parks.  There are the stunning images of people in Europe and around the world pausing and joining as one in prayer.  We read about the people of Cincinnati who just weeks ago were torn apart by issues of race, now coming together as one to seek the Lord.  In the midst of devastating tragedy, God is doing an extraordinary thing.  If you will, He has shown us His reflected glory.

We may not get the clear cut answers we would like.  We will not see God’s face, but we can see enough of His glory to know that He has not forsaken us.


In conclusion this morning let me make some general statements to help you face not only the crisis of the terrorists but any crisis in life.

First, we must guard against trying to “protect God”.  Many today will want to declare to the world that God had nothing to do with the events that transpired in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. Be very careful. We certainly would not say that God sent airplanes hurling into buildings occupied with people.  God is not the author of evil . . . sin brings such things to pass. But at the same time the Almighty God could have prevented it and for some reason did not. 

It is not enough to simply say humans do such things and “God will not violate our free will”. We are constantly talking about wonderful answers to prayer when God has intervened in our lives . . . the times God has overcome our resistance and drawn us to Himself. We pray frequently that God will turn the hearts of those who steadfastly resist Him.  We must decide what we believe. Does God change hearts or doesn’t He?

If God intervenes some of the time we must acknowledge that God could have done that this time.  And since it appears He did not, why didn’t God do so?  Why didn’t He stop these madmen and some point in their plan?  I don’t know. What I do know is this: God is Sovereign; He is in control.  If God is not Sovereign, if He is not really in control, then our situation is much more tragic than we thought.  Life really is out of control. Even God is standing by helplessly.

I believe with all my heart that God is still on the throne.  I believe His will is accomplished in our lives.  And because of my belief I can only proclaim that God has a purpose in allowing such actions that we don’t see. In The Case For Faith, Lee Strobel records a dialogue between himself and author/philosopher Peter Kreeft:

“How can a mere finite human be sure that infinite wisdom would not tolerate certain short-range evils in order for more long-range good that we cannot foresee?” [Kreeft] asked.

I could see his point but needed an example. “Elaborate a bit,” I prodded.

Dr. Kreeft (a philosophy professor for 38 years) thought a moment. “Look at it this way,” he said. “Imagine a bear in a trap and a hunter who, out of sympathy, wants to liberate him. He tries to win the bear’s confidence, but he can’t do it, so he has to shoot the bear full of drugs. The bear, however, thinks this is an attack and that the hunter is trying to kill him. He doesn’t realize this is being done out of compassion.

“Then, in order to get the bear out of the trap, the hunter has to push him further into the trap to release the tension on the spring. If the bear were semiconscious at that point, he would be even more convinced that the hunter was his enemy out to cause him suffering and pain. But the bear would be wrong because his understanding is too limited.”

Kreeft let the illustration soak in for a moment. “Now,” he concluded, “how can anyone be certain that’s not an analogy between us and God? I believe God does the same to us sometimes, and we can’t comprehend why he does it any more than the bear can understand the motivations of the hunter. As the bear could have trusted the hunter, so we can trust God.”  Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Zondervan, 2000), p. 32;

We must cling to the reality that there is a purpose that is unseen.  There is a working we do not yet know about.  Rather than strike out at our Redeemer . . . we must trust Him.

Second, we must respond to this crisis with personal evaluation.  Yes, we should love our family more.  Yes, we should stop putting off the good until tomorrow.  But even more, you and I should look at our own hearts.  We must be honest about our sin and like the Israelites, get serious about repentance.  We have seen a picture of judgment this week.  It should scare us. It should awaken us to our need to address the eternal issues of life.  We don’t know when sin will boil over and take our lives.

This morning I hope you will look at your own faith.  Have you been a fringe believer?  Have you maintained a religious façade but have never confronted the claims of Jesus Christ?  It’s time to do so.  Beware, the call here is not to become a “fox-hole Christian”, a person who runs to God in a crisis but walks away when the crisis is over . . . . the call here is to confront the real issue of whether or not there is a God, whether there is meaning to life, whether there is life, meaning and purpose beyond this life.

Please, if you sit here today and have not made sure of your relationship with Jesus Christ,  If you have not received Him as your Savior, and trusted Him as you leader and ruler in life, then I urge you to do so today. Every person going to work in the Pentagon and World Trade Center last week thought they had more time. They were wrong. Don’t risk that mistake.  Settle the eternal issues now.  Make sure of Heaven. There are no “magic prayers”, but if you need help in taking this step of faith you might say something like this,

Father, I admit the rebellion of my heart. Though I have tried to cover it up, the rot of sin is still there. Today I turn to Jesus. I receive His offer of forgiveness, salvation, and new life. I place all my hope for salvation on what He has done for me. Today I trust His death and His resurrection as my assurance of heaven. And as I do so, I invite Him to take the central position of my life. I invite Him to search out my heart and to lead my life not just today, but forever. Amen  

So, the first area of personal evaluation is to see if we are “right with God”. But that’s not the only place we need to do a personal inventory. We must look at our hearts.  We are justifiably angry with the terrorists.  We should be.  Their actions are desperately sinful.  But at the same time we need to ask,

  • why is it so easy for us to want to strike out at others before we know the facts?
  • why is aggression so close to the surface in our lives . . . not just here, but on the highway, in competitive activities, in relationships?
  • why are we so quick to exploit a situation by raising prices?
  • why are we intent on fixing blame?
  • why are we so quick to rant and rail against the Almighty?
  • ho could we have been so indifferent when tens of thousands have died in other countries?
  • why do so many other things come before God in our lives?

Aren’t all these things sin? It’s time to take a hard look at our own lives. Maybe we are more like the high-jackers than we would like to admit. That thought alone should lead us to repent.

Finally, we should yearn to grow deeper.  This is the time to build a real faith. A plastic faith will not hold in the difficult times.  And there may be difficult times ahead. Like Moses we must cling to the Lord. We must proclaim, “we do not want to move forward unless you go with us.” But we must not only proclaim it, we must mean it.   

%d bloggers like this: