A shadow in the shade

People often say, ‘I never forget a face.” I think there is something wrong with me. I never remember one. Well, “never” is an exaggeration. But I’m pretty sure my “facial recognition software” is faulty.

I can recognize a picture of a person forever, but if someone gets a haircut or puts on five pounds or starts wearing glasses, I might walk right by that person without realizing I know him or her. My brain fails to extrapolate from known features to current identity. But if I hear the person speak, I’ll probably recognize him or her; my “voice recognition software” is excellent.

This is an embarrassing condition for anyone, but especially for someone who does what I do. People expect their pastor to know them, even if they rarely make it to church, but I can walk by someone with whom I have been acquainted for years and fail to recognize him.

People also expect God to know them, even if they fail to make it to church or talk to him very often. But the Bible presents the frightening prospect that God may not recognize some people. C. S. Lewis reminds us that “we are warned that it may happen to anyone of us to appear at last before the face of God and hear only the appalling words, ‘I never knew you. Depart from Me.’”

When St. Paul writes that “Whoever loves God is known by God” he raises the alarming possibility that people who do not love God may not be known by him. A similar thought interrupts the same apostle as he writes to the Galatian Church: “But now that you know God—or rather are known by God …”

It’s as if the apostle is afraid of overstating the knowledge that humans, who at best “see through a glass darkly,” have of God. Safer to speak of God knowing us. He “knows a word before it is on my tongue,” said the psalmist. The prophet added, “You know me, O LORD; you see me and test my thoughts.” God, according to Professor William J. Mander, “knows me better than I know myself … God knows the true me; the person I really am.”

That God knows us—really knows us—is a claim made repeatedly by biblical writers. He “searches the heart and examines the mind.” He probes “the heart and the mind.” He sees beyond appearances and false fronts to the reality that lies beneath. On page after page, the Bible affirms that God knows us like no one else, even ourselves.

A person is like a deep mine. His friends know only the surface terrain and the entrance. He himself knows only the main shafts. God alone knows the treasures—or horrors—that lie in the depths. We may find his knowledge of us a comfort or a terror. Either way, he knows us.

So what are we to make of the idea, introduced by Jesus himself, that a person might be unknown to God? How is it that, in Lewis’s words, “we can be both banished from the Presence of Him who is present everywhere and erased from the knowledge of Him who knows all”? Could God’s “facial recognition software” be faulty?

The biblical writers would answer that question with a resounding no. Nothing can exist apart from God’s knowledge. To be unknown by God is to lack any kind of existence worthy of the name. It is to be a negation, a nullification, an impossibility. It is to be a shadow in the shade—or to use biblical language, an outcast in the outer darkness.

To be unknown by God is to be a potentiality never realized, an idea never thought, a song never sung. To be unknown by the one who knows everything is to be nothing. To be banished from the presence of the omnipresent one is “everlasting destruction…shut out from the presence of the Lord.” It is an unthinkable thought, an impossible possibility; it is hell.

But to be known by God is to be a potentiality fully realized, an idea thought and shared and brought to fruition; it is to be a child of God. To know God—limited though our knowledge be—and be known by him is nothing less than eternal life.

 

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 11/8/14

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