Epistemology is a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. One of the questions is: How do you know what you know? This question, for Christians, often goes like this: How do you know God is telling you something? How can I be certain that it is God leading me in a certain direction?
For most Christians, the answer is, “I can’t say exactly, I just know.” This isn’t satisfactory to unbelievers, even to many Christians. Some of us would like something more concrete, similar to what the children of Israel had in their wilderness journey.
“He erected the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and set up the screen of the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.” (Exodus 40:33–38)
We’ve seen cartoons where a cloud (or some other object) hovered over and gave direction to a character, but this doesn’t happen in real life. Even devout Christians say, as a friend did this week, “I just wish God would give me clarity on what I am supposed to do.”
That OT love poem hints at the perplexity of looking for direction and not finding it. Solomon wrote these words depicting the bride who could not find her beloved. How often I’ve felt like this when seeking the will of God and feeling as if God had departed:
“I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, on the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but found him not; I called him, but he gave no answer. The watchmen found me as they went about in the city; they beat me, they bruised me, they took away my veil, those watchmen of the walls. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my beloved, that you tell him I am sick with love.” (Song of Solomon 5:5–8)
Of course God has never left me, but my subjective feelings sometimes move in and replace what I know of His promises. It is during those times when my “soul fails me” that I am to seek Him even more, not just for answers, but because I love Him.
In the NT, Jesus was talking to the Jews who grumbled about Him. He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53–58)
The disciples heard this too, and also grumbled. He responded to them with: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) (John 6:63–64)
They didn’t understand. At that point, many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66–69)
Following Jesus Christ was never promised to be a walk in the park. In those early days, God did give a cloud and fire, for they needed it. In the same way, new Christians today are often given special treatment to help them follow. However, we eventually experience that, “where is God?” sinking feeling that maybe He has gone. We call Him, but He gives no answer. We cry out and hear nothing from Him.
Silence happens, but the journey also becomes difficult, even impossible. He tells us to do something (or not do something) that is completely beyond us. He asks for action beyond our skills or persistence that seems beyond our faith. Some say their “faith is getting stretched” and when it happens, that is how it feels!
The comforting thought is that during such an experience, we “just know” we will survive for we “just know” who is doing the stretching.