Lord, You have searched me and known me. You are acquainted with all my ways. You lay your hand upon me…. Let me ask you. What kinds of feelings come up for you when you hear that? Do you like the idea? God knows you inside and out, better than you either do or ever could know yourself. God knows every time your heart swells to a piece of music, every time a tear comes to your eyes, every time you pick your teeth, or tell a lie, or break a nail. God knows every thought, every word, every action, every intention, every minute detail of your life . And what’s more, God knows all this before any of it even happens, before you were conceived, before you were a gleam in your parent’s eyes. He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake. This is the image of God that the psalmist has painted for us. What do you think of it?
Paul Tillich, one of the better known theologians of the last century, once wrote a sermon on this psalm. He called it, Escape From God, and in it he talked about how hard it is for people to bear this all-knowing, all-seeing God. Tillich writes:
“‘Where could I go from Thy Spirit? O, where could I flee from Thy Face?’ The poet who wrote those words to describe the futile attempt of man to escape from God certainly believed that man desires to escape God. He is not alone in his conviction. Men of all kinds, prophets and reformers, saints and atheists, believers and unbelievers, have the same experience. It is safe to say that a man who never tried to flee God has never experienced the God who is really God.”
With all due respect to Tillich, I have a couple of problems with his sermon. As I read Psalm 139, it is not at all clear to me that the writer actually did want to escape from God. It seems to me he was asking his questions more in a rhetorical way. What I hear him saying is, “There is no where to flee from God, but that’s a good thing. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.” It is beyond anything I can grasp. I take it the psalmist was offering praise and thanksgiving for that very inescapableness of God. To me, it doesn’t sound like he would have wanted to get away if he could. Tillich, on the other hand, clearly found God’s inescapableness oppressive. He ends his sermon by saying, “To endure it is more horrible and more difficult than anything else in the world. And yet, to endure it is the only way by which we can attain to the ultimate meaning, joy, and freedom in our lives. Each of us is called to endure.” Wow! Can you imagine wanting to stay in the church if the best you could hope for is to endure the oppressive inescapableness of God? And how we’re supposed to get from that grim sort of endurance to “the ultimate meaning, joy, and freedom in our lives” is beyond me. Tillich says that this is the God who really is God, but I beg to differ.
Personally, I love the feeling that I’m known, through and through, in every detail, by God. Because if we’re not known through and through by God, Then we’re not known – really, fully, completely known – by anyone at all. There’s a section in a book called, The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley, in which he describes people as “Island Universes.” Listen to this:
We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves…. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable. We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes.
What do you think of that? You are an island universe. I first read that when I was in high school, and all these years later I still find it profoundly moving and profoundly true. As important as it is for us to be in social and romantic contact with other people, there will always be a space around us that we can’t quite get across. When we stop to think about it, much of what we do in life boils down to trying to overcome or distract ourselves from an essential loneliness that is built in to our very humanity.
Some people feel it more than others. Poets, artists and philosophers are often people who spend their time exploring our less frequently traveled human experiences, boldly going to places most of us shy away from. But the truth is, the essential isolation of human life is something that catches up to all of us from time to time, usually in the wee hours of the morning. “Nobody knows, the trouble I’ve seen.” Not me personally, you understand, but all of us. Nobody can get inside of anyone else’s head. That’s what Huxley is saying. That’s what makes us “Island Universes.” But what the psalmist is saying is different. While that essential isolation may be true of people, he implies, it is precisely not true of God. God knows what other people don’t and can’t. God sees us, at a level and depth nobody else can touch. Every thought, every word, every deed – God knows, God is “acquainted with all our ways.” And when I think about that, I’m inclined to agree with the psalmist. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me.”
So who’s right, me or Tillich? Is God’s presence wonderful or horrible? Does it overcome our essential isolation and loneliness, or is it something we must simply endure? Well, the truth is, how you answer these questions doesn’t depend on me or Tillich, or even God for that matter. It depends on you. It depends on where you are in your relationship with God.
Alfred North Whitehead was a mathematician and physicist, but he was also a philosopher. He’s remembered in religious circles for a book he wrote on the nature of religious belief. He called it, Religion in the Making, and it’s mostly remembered for one idea he came up with. He said that in the normal course of events, our relationship with God generally goes through three phases. “Religion,” he said, “is what the individual does with his own solitariness. It runs through three stages, if it evolves to its final satisfaction. It is the transition from God the void to God the enemy, and from God the enemy to God the companion.”
Whitehead’s “solitariness” is much the same as Huxley’s “Island Universe.” They would both agree that we are, humanly speaking, essentially isolated from one another. But Whitehead goes on to say is that in this isolation, in our solitariness, what we do is develop a relationship with God, and that relationship normally goes through three stages. In the beginning, God is a great mystery, an unknown, a “void.” If in fact there is a God, and if that God is watching us at all, we’re mostly unconscious of it. For all practical purposes, God is hardly in our lives at all. But then something happens. The God we have kept in the back of our minds and hearts for years, suddenly fails us. We pray, but our prayers aren’t answered. Someone we love dies tragically. Hurricanes, earthquakes and floods destroy whole nations. Tyrants rise up to throw millions of people into gas chambers. And through it all, God is silent.
For many people, that’s when God goes from being an abstract mystery to a mortal enemy. The God who really is God becomes at best absurd and at worst, obscene. People rail at the heavens, or they abandon God altogether. I suspect this was the God Tillich was struggling to reconcile himself with. For whatever reason, he wasn’t able to simply leave God behind. He didn’t abandon the church, but his theology became one of grim endurance. He found the presence of God horrible, but inescapable.
When God becomes the enemy, it can truly be an embattled time in our lives. And yet, for those who make it through and beyond this “Dark Night of the Soul,” for those whose understanding of God, “evolves to its final satisfaction,” as Whitehead says, God eventually comes to be seen as the Great Companion. The one to whom we can turn in all circumstances. The one we can trust regardless of not being able to understand life’s tragedies. The one to whom we can say, “How [incomprehensible] to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.”
God the mystery, God the Enemy, God the Great Companion. How you respond to Psalm 139 depends on where you are in your own journey of faith. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” “You … are acquainted with all my ways.” Is that wonderful, is it horrible, or is it a matter of supreme indifference? There is no one right answer. It all depends on how you experience God. But, when we are able to see our life with God as journey, it opens up the possibility that our understanding of God can evolve as we do ourselves.
There’s a wonderful little book written by the great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy. It’s called, A Confession, and it tells the story of his own journey of faith. Early in life, like virtually all of his contemporaries, Tolstoy rejected God and the Church altogether. He worked to make his life meaningful by turning himself into a consummate perfectionist. But the further along he got, the harder it was to live up to his own expectations of himself. Eventually, he found it hard to find any satisfaction in his life at all. When he was about fifty years old, he fell into a period of such deep depression that he seriously contemplated suicide. Everything had gone stale for him, and he wondered what the use of living really was.
The turning point came at a time when he was walking by himself in the woods. He thought of God, and the very thought brought welling up within his heart new courage and new joy. Suddenly it came to him that whenever he concentrated his mind on God, he had this experience of renewal and faith. And so he says that finally the realization came to him: “Why do I look further? He is there; he, without whom one cannot live. To acknowledge God and to live are one and the same thing. God is what life is. Well, then! Live; seek God. There will be no life without him!”
Out of the depths of his despair, out of his profound isolation, loneliness, and cynicism, Tolstoy found the Great Companion. He came through his dark night of the soul. He discovered that the one who knows all and sees all, is also the one who loves and forgives all. God, who is the source of all our journeys of faith, is also that journey’s goal, our hearts one true desire, the one without whom there is no life at all. “Oh Lord, you have searched me and known me.” Is that a matter of indifference to you? Is it horrible, or is it wonderful? Where are you in your journey of faith?