“I AM” Shows Us How We Encounter God
The encounter between Moses and the burning bush (in Exodus 3) is one of the most famous scenes of the Bible. And rightly so: Exodus 3:14 is the very first time in Scripture that God reveals his name. Not just his attributes, but his name: “I am.” It’s a name as unusual and surprising to us as it was to Moses. But it’s the only name that shows us how we can truly encounter God.
When Moses asks God for a name, he wanted to put God in a category he could understand, to define God based on what he already knew. But God flips that idea on its head. He says, in essence, “Moses, you can’t define me based on what you already know. I am. I don’t have a beginning. I am. I don’t have an ending. I am. I didn’t come from anywhere. I am. You don’t define me based on reality; you define reality based on me.”
For most of us, we don’t encounter God through a lifetime of philosophical reasoning. Our encounter with God is much more personal and experiential. We come to some moment when we are simply confronted with the fact that God is. Like Moses standing before the burning bush, we come face to face with something that we simply can’t explain away. We are going through life unsuspecting, when suddenly—boom—God interrupts.
Burning bushes still happen today. They are the mysterious events that make people stop, turn aside, and listen for God’s voice.
For many people, that burning bush begins with an unanswered question. And as a person turns aside to investigate it, they may not get a voice of explanation—but they often find the revelation of “I am.”
For some, that question revolves around the mystery of the cosmos. Antony Flew, one of the past century’s most famous atheists, declared himself to be a theist nearing the end of his life, because the complex design of the universe seemed to demand it. Thomas Edison once said, “When you see everything that happens in the world of science, and in the working of the universe, you cannot deny that there must be a captain on the bridge.”
For others, the question centers on the problem of evil. Albert Einstein, reflecting on the depth of evil in the human race, concluded that something more than biological was going on: “It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.” I recently read one atheist who said the most troubling question in his life was what he called the “problem” of universal human rights. As he put it:
“I am an atheist, but I believe in human rights, which is problematic, because I believe we got here by trampling on the weak. Those of us with stronger genes dominated the weak, so why give people rights now? Some of my atheist friends say that the will of the majority grants people rights. But what if the majority says we can oppress a certain kind of person? Is there not a standard above the will of the majority to whom the oppressed can appeal? … I don’t know why universal rights exist, but I know that they must; thus I must temporarily abandon my worldview to hold such a view.”
For other people, their burning bush isn’t a question at all. It’s a longing they feel in the course of normal life. A child is born. A parent dies. And something within them is awakened, whispering, “There has got to be something more out there.” Steve Jobs, in his last public interview before his death, echoed some of this sentiment. “Ever since I’ve had cancer,” he said, “I find myself believing in God a bit more. I want to believe in an afterlife.” Some people call this wishful thinking. I see it as God shaking somebody awake to true reality.
For many, their burning bush comes when reading the Bible. It’s a story that could be told a hundred-fold: someone begins investigating Christianity by reading the Bible, and suddenly they find that they are the ones being investigated. As Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, put it, reading the Bible is like staring through a keyhole and finding someone staring back at you.
For many, their burning bush is a profound religious experience. Blaise Pascal, the scientific and mathematical prodigy of the 17th century (who has been called the architect of modern civilization), had an experience of God one night. He wrote it down and later sewed it into the lining of his coat: “Monday, November 23, 1654,” he wrote. “From 10:30-12:30…Fire…God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob. Not the God of the philosophers and the sophisticated. Joy. Joy. Joy. Tears of joy. I submit myself, absolutely, to Jesus Christ, my redeemer.” The genius Pascal had met the God of the burning bush.
Perhaps something like this has happened to you. It may not be as dramatic as Pascal. It may not be as intellectual as Einstein. But God has put eternity into your heart, which means that until you turn to the I am, your heart will be restless. The unanswered questions, the inward longings—these are burning bushes God has placed in your life. Don’t ignore them: turn aside, look, and live.