Who is God?
That’s a question a lot of saints and theologians and philosophers and deep thinkers have wrestled with. It’s a complicated question that nags at most of us from time to time. Who, exactly, is God?
The way we know people here on earth usually starts with the visual: We know them by their looks. I know my husband by his trademark oversized goatee. I know my best friend from high school by her long, dark hair.
But this is not how knowing God works. We learn this from the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath…” (Exodus 20:4). God isn’t interested in pictorial depictions, so those of us interested in knowing God have to turn someplace else.
And the someplace else we’re going to turn today is the story of Moses and the burning bush.
You might be familiar with this one. Moses is tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. When he wanders by the mountain of God he discovers something quite unusual: a bush that is burning, but not being consumed by the flames. When Moses pauses to inspect this curiosity, God speaks: “Moses! Moses! Take off your shoes, for the place you’re standing is holy ground.” Then God reveals a plan to Moses; a plan to free the Israelites from slavery; a plan in which Moses will play the leading role; a plan which Moses does not feel totally confident about.
What happens next is of special interest to us on our quest to know God, because Moses asks God a really good question: “When I go to the Israelites, they will want to know who sent me. So, what should I say? What is your name?”
What a great question. What an important question! Because we can’t really know someone if we don’t know their name. I could know what you look like, and what kind of food you like to eat, and what your favorite movie is… but if I don’t know your name, well, you won’t feel like I really know you at all.
God seems to think this question is valid, also, because God gives an answer:
Interesting name, huh? I don’t believe you’ll find that one in any baby book. It might help to think of it like a nickname, because nicknames describe the person they’re referring to – and God’s name works like that.
But in order to explain, we’ll have to go to English class for a minute.
First: “I AM” is a very short sentence in the present tense.
[I AM: Present Tense]
This is significant. God is not “I WAS,” past tense, a God who was active back in the days of the Bible but no more. And God is not “I WILL BE,” future tense, a God who will do things for us one day, but not right now. Our God is “I AM.”
I AM is at work for us, right now. Whenever we need God, our God is with us, always in the present tense.
Second: “AM” is a verb.
Verbs are action words. They describe what we do: “run,” and “dance,” and “eat” are all verbs. This tells us that our God is a God who does.
God doesn’t just sit back, arms folded, taking a hands-off approach to our lives. Our God takes action. For me, this is not so much in the form of miracles like the burning bush, but frequently in the tug and pull inside my heart. God is at work in my life, changing me for the better each day. Our God is a verb.
“AM” is a conjugation of the verb “to be,” which just happens to be the basic verb in pretty much every human language. This brings us to another important quality of our God: our God, “I AM,” is essential to life. Like… breathing .
We can really see this when we get into the original language behind God’s name. The Old Testament is written in Hebrew, which looks like this:
Hebrew reads from right to left, so we start with that little comma-looking-thing on the right. Beginning there, these letters are YHWH; you can read them phonetically as: yod (“yode”), he (“heh”), wad (“vad”), he (“heh”). One way to pronounce this is Yahweh, the name of God.
Rob Bell points out that when we say these letters out loud, it kind of sounds like the rhythm of breathing. Try it yourself:
Yod he wad he… yod he wad he… yod he wad he…
Not long after I heard Bell explain this, I went for an early-morning run with yod he wad he bouncing around in my brain. I started to mutter the letter to myself as my feet pounded the pavement:
Yod he wad he… yod he wad he… yod he wad he…
The world became still. I felt connected to a rhythm bigger than just my running, or my breathing. A rhythm that’s part of life itself; the rhythm of I AM.
Just as we can’t go without breathing for very long, we can’t live – really live – without God for very long. God is essential to life.
This is our God. This is the God Moses discovers, all by asking for God’s name.
Our God is I AM, present tense, right now.
Our God is I AM, a verb, at work in the world.
Our God is I AM, essential to life, just as necessary as our inhales and exhales.
And our God, I AM, is the one who created us in his image.
Which means: everything that we are is because of I AM.
John Shelby Spong’s Sins of Scripture
Fleming Rutledge’s And God Spoke to Abraham
Louie Giglio’s I Am Not But I Know I Am