The Total Darkness Where God Was

We have a windowless room in the center of our house that’s probably supposed to be an office, but I’ll never be grown up enough to need an office, so it functions as the multi-personality room. “Multi-purpose room” doesn’t fit the M.O. of my family as well as “multi-personality,” so just this second I coined the new, better term. Sometimes it becomes guest quarters. Sometimes it’s a library. Sometimes it’s a sewing room. Sometimes it’s a craft space. Two times it’s been a gym. Most of time it’s a storage facility. All of the times it’s a mess—except for when it’s a guest room, because we’re not monsters.

Recently, when we had to redo the ceiling in our master bedroom, Daron and I set up camp in the multi-personality room. On the first night, we turned off the lights and discovered the shocking definition of darkness. I mean, it was so dark I couldn’t tell how many fingers I was holding up in front of my face. What we previously perceived as dark in our regular bedroom was demonstrated to be dimness in comparison to the darkness in the windowless multi-personality room. To my surprise (but not Daron’s because he knows better than me how much of a weeny I am), it made me a little scared.

Most people grow out of being scared of the dark. I have, as long as I’m not alone, there are no unfamiliar noises, and there’s plenty of light.

Exodus 20:18-21 arrested me today. I think it might be the one of the saddest portions of Scripture, and yet, one of the most instructive. It reads

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain surrounded by smoke. When the people saw it they trembled and stood at a distance. “You speak to us, and we will listen,” they said to Moses, “but don’t let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses responded to the people, “Don’t be afraid, for God has come to test you, so that you will fear him and will not sin.” And the people remained standing at a distance as Moses approached the total darkness where God was. (CSV)

In case you don’t remember the story, in dramatic fashion, God delivered the Israelites from Egypt and from the pursuing Egyptian army. While in the desert the Israelite horde had cloud cover by day, fire warmth by night, water to quench their desperate thirst, meat to satisfy their desperate craving, and manna to supply what they truly needed.

I don’t know if it was physical exhaustion or adrenal fatigue, but by the time the multitude rolled up to Mount Sinai and God spoke to them in an audible voice (Deut. 4:12), their nerves couldn’t handle it. What they saw terrified them, and they shrank back. They were fearful that the God who moved heaven and earth to rescue and sustain them that far would then destroy them with his voice. Instead of hearing God for themselves, they asked Moses to be God’s spokesman. Sadly for them, Moses obliged and relieved them of the pain of their privilege. I want to spank every last one of them, because who wouldn’t give both kidneys and donate bone marrow to hear God speak with their own ears?

…the people remained standing at a distance.

Is there anything more heartbreaking than those words? They remained in the place of their fear. At a distance from God.

What’s even more striking to me in this story, though, is what Moses did.

“…Moses approached the total darkness where God was.”

Let that sink in for a second. When you imagine where God is (heaven, for example), what’s the lighting situation? Taking from Revelation the description that God Himself is the light source, I imagine total illumination there- no shadows, no poorly lit parking lots, no dark corners. But that’s the description of renewed creation. This passage describes Sinai. What was the lighting situation where God was at Sinai? Total. Darkness.

That doesn’t seem right, does it? And yet, in the scene God was in the last place any of us might expect to find him. On the outside looking in, it might seem like the Israelites did the rational thing. After all, if scary movies have taught us anything, it’s that one should N.E.V.E.R. go into the dark place. Logically, then, the Israelites remained at a safe distance from the total darkness. But Moses…what was going through his mind?

Moses could have remained standing at a distance with the rest of the people who were afraid of the dark. Who would fault him for that? And yet, because God was in the total darkness, that’s where Moses went. To him it was better to be where God was, even if it meant going into the dark, rather than remaining at a distance where he wasn’t.

This is where it’s important to read the story to the end. Moses went up to meet with God who was cloaked in deep shadows, but the illumination Moses received was so complete that when he came back down the mountain, the people who stood in the broad daylight could not look at him for his radiance. He went into the dark to be with God, and when he came out, the light that consumed him put the sun to shame.

I can’t help but consider what this means for me. I don’t like dark places. I don’t want to be uncomfortable, or hurt, or afraid, but I also want to experience intimate fellowship with God that transforms me like it did Moses. What I can’t deny is that the times I’ve met God most intimately and in the most transformational ways haven’t been while I remained standing at a distance. They have been when I met him in the darkness.

This occurred to me several years ago when a dear friend of ours was in a health crisis. During that season, even the daytime felt dark. I vividly remember waking up one night in mid-prayer for my friend, and I’ll never forget sensing the palpable presence of Jesus with me even as my chest felt so heavy with grief that it was hard to breathe. On one hand, I didn’t want to be in that place pleading for my friend’s life. Yet, on the other, I wouldn’t trade the new level of intimate fellowship I experienced with Jesus that night for anything.

1 John 1:5 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light and there is absolutely no darkness in him.”

Rest assured, my friend, God may be in the absolute darkness, but there is absolutely no darkness in him.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get to a place in life where I won’t always try to avoid the darkness. I’d like to think that one day I’ll effortlessly follow Moses’ lead, but I can’t make any promises. One thing I know, though, is that when I find myself in the darkness, that’s where I’ll be met by the Light of the World in ways I would forfeit if I remained standing at a distance.

photo credit: Tim Rowland

photo credit: Tim Rowland

Are you in darkness right now? God is there. Do you see something that looks frightening that you’d rather avoid? Is your initial reaction to remain at a distance satisfied with comfortable cloud cover in the day and warmth of a nearby fire at night, or do you want to meet with him personally and intimately? Let’s make a deal. I’ll encourage you, and you remind me when my courage fails. We can confidently approach the total darkness because that’s where we’re certain to encounter God.