Beholding God or How People Change

The air was growing brighter and brighter about us; as if something had set it on fire. Each breath I drew let into me new terror, joy, overpowering sweetness. I was pierced through and through with the arrows of it. I was being unmade. I was no one. But that’s little to say; rather, Psyche herself was, in a manner, no one. I loved her as I would once have thought it impossible to love, would have died any death for her. And yet, it was not, not now, she that really counted. Or if she counted (and oh, gloriously she did) it was for another’s sake. The earth and stars and sun, all that was or will be, existed for his sake. And he was coming. The most dreadful, the most beautiful, the only dread and beauty there is, was coming. The pillars on the far side of the pool flushed with his approach. I cast down my eyes.” C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

Looking back over my posts over the last couple of months, it’s clear to me that I’ve really spent the summer thinking about one question—What does it mean to encounter the divine?  Till We Have Faces is in many ways a book length answer to that question. And in reading the novel, I realized that encountering God can never be an end in itself. Rather, it is about transformation, or as we Christians call it, sanctification. In fact, as Christians, our own ongoing transformation actually depends on our beholding God.

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

In Exodus when Moses asked to gaze on the glory of the Lord, simply seeing the passing glory of the Lord made his face shine with a resplendent glory so radiant that the people of Israel asked him to wear a veil. And in reflecting on that encounter in light of Christ, Paul makes an astonishing claim–our relation to God through Christ is even greater than Moses’ because we come to God with unveiled faces by the power of the Spirit, and in beholding him we become like him. In Christ we are able to gaze on God, a reality that sparkles and cuts like a diamond because to gaze on the divine is to encounter both terror and beauty, both dread and joy.

Terror and dread because who we are and what we desire is finally exposed. Just as Orual is finally able to see how sickly her love for Psyche is in the presence of the divine, we too are exposed, laid bare, disintegrated in God’s presence. One reason I believe people don’t really seek God, don’t really read their Bibles or pray with any real earnestness is because deep down they know to do so is to risk exposure, to have their desires revealed as petty, to have their loves exposed as anemic. The sound of the Lord comes to the garden like a storm, and we hide ourselves because we know that we are naked.

But it is not just terror and dread. It is beauty and joy too. God is not simply beautiful—he is the source of beauty. As Augustine says, God is, “The beauty of all things beautiful.” This means that the rush of joy we experience in the presence of earthly beauty, in faces and sunsets, in symphonies and meals, in laughter and mountains, finds its source and fullness in the face of God. To gaze on him is to experience the fullness of beauty which is itself the fullness of joy. But it is more than that. To gaze on God is to be realigned with and by the source of beauty itself, a beauty that actually changes us into the fullness of beauty itself-the face of Christ.

Homeless Dung Bread or Cooking from the Bible! Ezekiel 4

“And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast it up a mound against it.” Ezekiel 4:1-2

Say you have just spent a night out in the city, enjoying downtown, perhaps taking in a show, at the very least dining somewhere, and after dinner you decide to walk the streets and take in some air before heading home. And suppose you turn the corner and pass an alley only to hear the grunt and rustle of a human body, and peering in the dark down the alley you see a man on his side, laying next to what appears to be a model of a city.

As you look closer you realize it isn’t just a model of a city, it’s a model of your city, skyline and all. And more than that this model is surrounded by tanks and artillery and soldiers—it’s a city under siege. Next to him is a small fire on which he cooks what appears to be a loaf of bread, and yet when you smell the fire’s flames, they carry the pang of manure.

Of all the things you might think of this, ranging from curiosity to pity to revulsion, perhaps the last thing you would think is that this man is a prophet of God who speaks the very words of the Lord. In fact, if you could have made out any of his mumblings, and you heard his supposed divine proclamations, then you would be instantly convinced that that he harbored delusions of grandeur and that he needed serious help.

And yet this scene—the model city, the man laying on his side, the food cooked on dung—is the scene of Ezekiel 4. God asked Ezekiel to do all of those things in order to enact the judgement that was about to befall Jerusalem.  And Ezekiel did them. So the only way that he isn’t completely insane is if God actually spoke to him. If there isn’t a voice on the other side, then Ezekiel was nothing more than insane, a seeming schizophrenic.



When I was in high school, my mom started buying something called Ezekiel Bread. It was the first health food that I ever remember eating and enjoying. And I still enjoy a toasted slice with bananas and honey. But what is interesting about the bread is that it is made from a recipe taken from Ezekiel 4. You can read the verse that contains the recipe right on the bag—“And you, take wheat and barely, beans and lentils, millet and emmer and put them in a single vessel and make your bread from them.” Bread of Life actually makes this bread using this exact recipe. Amazingly enough the bread is actually good, and more amazing than that is that the combination of ingredients forms a complete protein. It is a perfect health food. And you can still find it at Whole Foods today.

What the bag doesn’t tell you is that God first told Ezekiel to cook it over a fire of his own dung, but that after some bartering Ezekiel talked God down to a manure fire instead. I can assure you that the makers of Ezekiel Bread are not literalists when it comes to the bread’s cooking method.

But when I think of Ezekiel Bread as a commodity in light of the scene of the man in the alley, I feel a disconnect. I wonder is that what this text means? Are we supposed to walk a way from reading this disturbing scene with nothing more than a bread recipe? The reason I ask is because this question really gets down to what we believe the Bible is for. If all Ezekiel 4 is good for is a bread recipe, then the text is both manageable and practical. It’s healthy! It’s a complete protein! Isn’t God good? And this plays in to the dominate impulse that we have about living and applying Scripture, namely that it must be practical. That we must seek out the timeless principles of a text and live them.

Now the longing for practicality can be a noble impulse, but it can also be a kind of pragmatic fetish and a veil for taming those Scriptures that confront and offend our sensibilities.

Don’t get me wrong.  Seeking principles from Scripture can be a way of honoring the text. After all aren’t we meant to be doers of God’s Word and not just hearers? But what is there to do in this text? What are the principles in Ezekiel 4? Are we called to build replicas of our cities, lay on ours sides, and enact God’s judgement? Moreover, if we are going to go ahead and bake the bread, why not cook it on dung like Ezekiel did? But people who do things like that either live on the streets, in an institution, or are starting cults. Surely, God can’t mean that. So we bake the bread  the way we want to and then say thanks for the protein, as if that is all this chapter or this book has to tell us.

Here’s the truth. If this text has a principle at all, then that principle horrifies us, and that principle is this—because God is our maker and our redeemer, there is no limit to what he can demand of us. If there really is a voice on the other side, that if God actually speaks (and speaks still to us through his Word) then what he asks we must not refuse, even if it appears insane. When we read the Scriptures with only practicalities and application in mind, then we can often go hunting for recipes, when God is trying to confront and overwhelm us with the reality of his character and might, with the actuality of his grace and judgement, with the centrality of his voice. 

How High School English Helps You Read the Bible

“As I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” Ezekiel 1:1

“Metaphors are dangerous. Metaphors are not to be trifled with.” Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being 

“A metaphor is not merely an ornament; it has communicative power that transcends literal language.” McCartney and Clayton, Let the Reader Understand

Though you may not have consciously thought about metaphors since high school English class, and even then perhaps only reluctantly, you live with metaphors every day. Take love. Love catches us so off-guard and throws us so off-kilter that we describe it as falling. Or take time. Time is not money, and yet how many are slaves to both watch and wallet because they believe it is?

And this makes metaphors dangerous because metaphors are often stealth. They sneak in and imprint themselves like a thumb on the cortex, changing the way we think. How many lives have been destroyed because people operate with the metaphorical understanding that sex is power or that people are animals? Conversely, and beautifully, how many lives have been enriched by the thought that life is a story?  Donald Miller, in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, uses this metaphor to powerfully shape and ultimately change his life. Read the book. Without the animating metaphor of life as story there would have been no movement forward.

Movement is actually one of the best ways to think of metaphors. Metaphors are a way of moving our thoughts and language from one place to another. Standing on the edge of a lake, I might be able to describe the other shore. But I need a boat to take me to that shore. In the world of language, metaphors are the boats that move us from one shore to another. With literal language, I can look over the edge of a cliff, but with a metaphor I can repel down its face. Literal language is a still shot of a cityscape. Metaphor is a sweeping crane shot through the streets.

All of this is a way of answering the question—how do you describe a vision of God? How do you describe the one who dwells in everlasting light? How do you give form to the invisible one? The simple answer is metaphor. You trace the face of the ineffable with metaphor and simile, and all the other tools of poets. It is no accident the prophets of Israel are also the poets of Israel. Without a poet’s sensibility of sensory language, without a poet’s feel for the metaphorical, what the prophets wrote could not communicate the beauty, depth, and power of what they saw.

This is not to say that the metaphors  contain God or grasp him. They are still at best approximation; they are just the best we have. We must stretch language as far as it can go in our effort to honor God, but we must also fall down in worship before him, knowing that no language can fully contain him. Ezekiel may have been an exile on the shores of the Chebar, but without metaphor and poetry he would have been language’s exile because he would have had no words, however feeble, however approximate, to describe his experience. And without metaphor we too can become language’s exile.

Ezekiel is so overcome that he uses the word “like” eighteen times to try capture the vision. What he sees is so overwhelming, so other, that he can only pile up approximations. He must use metaphor. The sights are “like the appearance of lighting” and “shining like awe-inspiring crystal.” The sounds are “like the sound of many waters” and “like the sound of an army.” Here we see the metaphorical in all its glory, because here metaphor becomes an act of worship. Let us be as Ezekiel. Let us be overcome–“Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking” (Ezek. 1:28).

Read through Ezekiel 1-3 with all this in mind. Read it like you might read a poem. Don’t try to understand every detail or explain the imagery. Instead let the utter strangeness and beauty wash over you. Be as Ezekiel-slack-jawed and stunned that God would appear. Be overcome.

Why you should be eating your Bible

“And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them…be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you…When I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there was written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe…And he said to me, ‘Son of Adam, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.”  from Ezekiel chapters 2 and 3

Ezekiel is a very difficult book. Its images are strange. Its pronouncements are harsh. And more than that, its world is foreign. We are not, after all, post-exilic Jews living in Babylon. In light of all these obstacles, the ESV study notes advises readers to “give themselves to the sheer strangeness of what is presented.” This is actually really good advice, and I think it’s what Ezekiel did himself. He sees incredible visions, so he pulls at the very hem of language trying to describe what he sees. He hears God speak, so he enacts living parables, becoming himself a sign to the people. He gives himself to the strangeness.

Before all of that, Ezekiel does something that is even more striking—he eats the very words of God. This is how things begin for Ezekiel. He is in Babylon with the rest of the exiles, and God shows up, in all his glory and strangeness. And in the midst of an overwhelming vision, of God wrapped in light carried by seemingly mythical beasts on a chariot with spinning wheel within wheels, Ezekiel falls to his face. In the same way that the vision stretches language to its limits, Ezekiel is taken to the edge of himself. He is so overwhelmed and weakened that as the Son of Adam that he is,  he must be reanimated by the Spirit of God (Ezek. 2:1-2).

But then something else happens that is almost more incredible. To nourish and refresh him, God spreads before him a scroll and commands him to eat it. God commands Ezekiel to eat the word of God. The scroll is spread before him like a feast, and Ezekiel takes and eats, and what he tastes, though its contents were lamentations and woe, is as sweet as honey.

There is something in Ezekiel’s experience that helps us approach the book ourselves. We like Ezekiel must feast on the words of God. It has all the complexity and depth of a five course meal prepared by the most meticulous and subtle of chefs. And the implication is clear. If we will not savor, then we will not taste. This is not a meal to be scarfed. It is meant to be savored. This is not merely functional food meant to fuel the body so that you can get you through the day. It is food as art, food as culture, food as community. Bu we, it seems,  don’t want such a feast. Ezekiel, like foreign cuisine, turns the stomach, and like so many Americans in Paris, we crave McDonald’s over the city’s richest fare. We want all that is pungent and earthy in the Bible processed and made palatable.

And our problems with Ezekiel are indicative of our unspoken problems with all the Scriptures. We really don’t want metaphor and mystery. We really don’t want narrative and poetry. We would prefer the Bible to say what it means.  We want the Bible to explain things precisely with the concern and care of a technical manual, complete with attendant diagrams. Don’t believe me? Flip through your favorite study bible and you are likely to find outlines, charts, diagrams, maps, all of them means of, if I can say it this way, digesting your food for you. I am not against such helps (I did, after all, just quote the study Bible of the hour). They are often wonderful. But they can also whitewash the Bible’s inherent strangeness. And more than they can obscure the flavor and taste God intended, a flavor and taste we can only get if we are willing to feast.

Will you take the scroll, will you taste, and savor?

Over the next few weeks, I plan to blog through Ezekiel in an attempt to feast on it and give myself to its strangeness.