Intimacy Comes Through Trembling

The Surprising Path to More of God

Has it ever struck you that Moses, from the depths of his being, pleaded with God, “Please show me your glory” (Exodus 33:18)? Bear in mind, he prayed after he had experienced unsurpassed theophanies: the burning bush, the signs in Egypt, the exodus and Red Sea deliverance, the pillar of cloud and fire, the miraculous provisions in the wilderness, the miraculous victory over the Amalekites, the Mount Sinai encounters, and God speaking to him in great detail all along the way.

If we could go back in time, we might be tempted to ask Moses, “It seems like God has shown you so much of his glory. What more do you want?” Moses, I think, would have been puzzled by the question and probably would have answered something like, “More of God’s glory, of course. I’ve barely glimpsed ‘the outskirts of his ways’” (Job 26:14). And he would have been right.

“To know God and love God always produces a longing to know God and love God more.”

David, from the depths of his being, pleaded with God, “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me” (Psalm 25:4–5). He prayed this after God dramatically chose him “from the sheepfolds” to be king over Israel (Psalm 78:70), gave him the astounding promises — such as an eternal kingdom (2 Samuel 7:13) — abundantly blessed nearly everything he did, protected him over and over from the conspiracies of his enemies, and guided him all along the way.

We might be tempted to ask him, “It seems like God has so greatly made you know his ways and taught you his paths. What more do you want?” David too, I think, would have found this puzzling and responded with something like, “The Lord’s ways are so far above mine that I feel like I barely know him” (Isaiah 55:9). And he would have been right.

More of You, God!

To know God and love God always produces a longing to know God and love God more. It’s inevitable. For if we really know him in some measure, it implies that he has made himself known to us (Luke 10:21–22; Matthew 16:17). And if we really love him in some measure, it implies that he first loved us (1 John 4:19). Which all implies that we’ve in some measure encountered God the person (or persons, since he is triune), not merely God the idea or the truth proposition or the theistic worldview or the theological system.

To encounter the living God is to get a glimpse of the Source of all joy and pleasure (Psalm 16:11), all hope (Romans 15:13), all power (Job 42:1–2; Luke 1:37; Revelation 1:8), and indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16; John 3:16). It is to get a glimpse, in the words of C.S. Lewis, of “the place where all the beauty came from” (Till We Have Faces, 86). And to get such a glimpse, a taste, an apprehension of this magnitude of glory can’t help but leave us longing for more.

That is what I think most of us mean when we say we desire “intimacy with God.” It is an expression of the inconsolable longing every person has who, to greater or lesser measures, has encountered the God of all glory: More, God! Show me more of your glory, teach me more of your ways; I want to be closer to you!

Friendship of the Lord

This is a wonderful longing. For, as Frederick Faber wrote, “None honors God like the thirst of desire.” Why? Because God is the fountain of all satisfaction, and as John Piper says, “The best way to glorify a fountain is to get down on your empty hands with your thirsty soul and put your face in the water, and suck life, and then look up and say, ‘Ah.’”

“God is the kindest person in existence, and the most severe.”

That’s why Scripture teaches us that saints are characterized by a deep soul-longing for God (Psalm 63:1), a thirst to be near him like a deer pants for water (Psalm 42:1). This longing is part of what made Moses a friend of God (Exodus 33:11), and part of what made David a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). For the highest good any of God’s saints will ever experience is to be near God (Psalm 73:28).

But what does it mean for us to be “near God”? Here is where knowing our Bibles well becomes crucial. For, as David wrote, “The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant” (Psalm 25:14). The Hebrew word for “friendship” (sôd) often connotes confidentiality or entrusting secrets. God reveals mysteries, discloses himself, and is intimate with “those who fear him.”

For Those Who Fear Him

I have no desire to quench anyone’s longing to experience greater nearness to God. But we must keep in mind who God really is as revealed in the books of his world and his word. One look through a telescope or a microscope, one sight of a hurricane or an avalanche, and certainly one serious read through the Bible, tell us that the person behind creation and inspiration is not someone to be trifled with.

And given the familiar way I hear some speak or sing about intimacy with God, I sometimes wonder if we grasp what a real experience of intimacy with him is truly like. A dimension of appropriate (biblical) fear often seems lacking. I know the apostle John wrote that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). But fear of condemnation in judgment isn’t the kind of fear I mean. I’m talking about the fear the apostle John experienced when the risen Son of God — the same person on whom John leaned during the Last Supper (John 13:25) — manifested himself to him on Patmos and caused him to “[fall] at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).

And John was by no means alone in this fearful experience of intimacy with the Almighty. When God answered Moses’s prayer to see more glory, he still only revealed a further glimpse, since, as he told Moses, “man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20–23). And here’s what Moses heard from God as God showed him more glory:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6–7)

To be intimate with God is to know his mercy, grace, patience, love, faithfulness, and forgiveness, and it is to know God’s severity and wrath against sin. In response to this experience of greater nearness, “Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped” (Exodus 34:8). This friend of God got on his face in reverent fear.

“There is no intimacy with God without trembling before God.”

If we examine Scripture, we find that those who experienced the most intimacy with God knew more than his wonderful tenderness; they knew enough of his holiness to fear him. Think of Abraham in his dreadful night vision (Genesis 15:12) and his unsettling walk up Mount Moriah with Isaac (Genesis 22:1–8). Think of Jacob in his unnerving night vision at Bethel (Genesis 28:10–17) and his discomforting wrestling match at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32:22–32). Think of Isaiah’s vision of “the Lord . . . high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1–7), the disciples witnessing Jesus still the storm (Matthew 8:23–27), and Paul caught up to the third heaven, which required him to live with a thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:1–10).

God is the kindest person in existence, and the most severe. In Christ, he is “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29), and he is “the Almighty” whose wrath is terrifying (Revelation 1:8; 6:15–17). He is “a friend of . . . sinners” (Luke 7:34), but only to “those who fear him” (Psalm 25:14).

No Greater Friend

Again, I do not say all this to discourage anyone from pressing for greater intimacy with God. No, God wants us nearer to him (James 4:8). His nearness really is our greatest good.

But our greatest good often requires more from us than we imagine. God in his goodness will not allow evil in us to go unaddressed. His holiness will not allow our unholiness to rest in peace. Our greatest Friend loved us with the greatest possible love by laying down his life for us to cover our sins (John 15:13). And he loves us enough to grant “various trials” that test and strengthen our faith, wean us off the passing and false pleasures of the world, and increase our longing for real, lasting, unsurpassable pleasures that are available to those who are truly near God (James 1:2–4; 1 Peter 1:6–9; Psalm 16:11).

This is the loving discipline of the Lord that “for the moment . . . seems painful rather than pleasant,” but later “yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). The pain is often more painful than we expect or wish. But the peaceful fruit will be far sweeter than we expect or wish.

So, pray with all your heart with Moses and David for more: more glory, more understanding, more intimacy — whatever it takes. And know that it will take more than you think. But remember, the intimate “friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him” (Psalm 25:14). There is no intimacy with God without trembling before God.