The interior link with God begins with an ardent longing for him. A desire is kindled in the heart by God himself and the soul’s yearning cry is to “know God fully even as I am known by him” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The author of the psalm, by virtue of his exile from the temple, typifies the grief of a believer who has an uneasy sense of distance from God whatever the cause. The soul that is dry mourns his absence and thirsts for his gracious presence. Our poet shares the longing of the apostle Paul and confesses: As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. He wants to be replenished not just with ideas and memories of God. He must move beyond concepts to companionship: My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. He doesn’t want a head filled with facts alone, but a heart filled with feeling. He has known barrenness for too long. He knows that revitalized faith restores the soul. God is present in the means of grace: “I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God”. However he is now deprived of attendance at the festive occasions that afforded him such strength and joy, but he recollects the promises heard and sung in the assembly of God’s people and finds God, and reassurances of his goodness, in the word he has retained and taken with him into the exile he must endure. The recollection of promises converts to prayer: “I say to God my Rock”. He pours out his woes and then preaches to himself: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, My Saviour and my God”. His reliance on his Rock is renewed. The God whose face he wanted to see has revivified his hope at last by the revelation of his face which glows with divine favour and pledges deliverance. He enjoys or anticipates a countenance to countenance encounter. All the help he needs is signalled in the smile of his God.
Faith affords a vision of the face of God which is mirrored in his word. The word is sufficient to delineate the principal features of God and guarantee his presence and assurances to his people. Yet language cannot fully display him and our understanding cannot fully apprehend him. But, as with Moses, we see him partially which is enough for us to claim that he is there. His presence means that his face shines upon us and so we know the kindness of the face even if we are sheltered from the full exhibition of his glory. The dimmed down reflections communicated to our knowledge (cf Paul’s ancient and inadequate metal mirror) still enable us to be sure that our knowledge of God is good and true for the time being. We are in communion with the living God and our fellowship with him is real and personal. It is fellowship through Christ and by his Spirit.
The One whom Paul wishes to see face to face is Jesus Christ. By grace he knows much of the Lord already, for to focus on Jesus believingly is to gaze on God. Indeed, “The light of the knowledge of the glory of God (is seen) in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). But we need keener more penetrating sight to look into the face of Jesus with complete appreciation of whom he represents. The gist of Holy Scripture is that we show our faces to God by entering his presence and he appears to our faith through the witness of the word made effectual by the Spirit. We read and reflect while the Spirit works within – indwelling and illuminating. The living God meets with us. We read, ponder, and remember the text and the Lord himself teaches us (John 6:45). Ours is not a solo exercise of the mind or imagination and prayer is not a soliloquy. We are enjoying a rapport and relationship with God which is as “face to face” possible under present conditions and definitely face to face (as he is) prospectively, according to unchangeable promises. Word, Spirit, and the pledge of future fulfilment delight us in our acquaintance with God.
The name “Jesus Christ” is more than a slogan, a slick expression from the tip of the tongue, or even the central theme of formal theology that helps us organize our thoughts of God and his purposes.
Jesus Christ is risen, alive, and regnant over all reality and the believer has access to his presence through mutual approach and appointment (Hebrews 5:14-16, Revelation 3:20). “The Lord be with you” is the very greatest blessing we can convey upon another. Beyond words, notions, and emotions, to fasten upon God firmly by faith in his word, and confidence in his reliability, is the greatest benefit granted to us. To linger with him, converse, with him, and ruminate upon him, sure of his closeness and care, is the ultimate enjoyment on earth and a foretaste of all that is to come. He communicates through canonical revelation and confirms our association through his ordinances. Thomas Aquinas came to the summit of his spiritual experience, after long labour in the word, in the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The Lord touches us and reaches us through his means of grace. It is always a moment of sovereign self disclosure and we possess his personal invitation to come and try his promises any time - to quietly wait.
It is the reality and cultivation of the presence of God that is our main preoccupation. It is this engagement that our flesh and deadly foe most assail. The lapses, interruptions, and separations are the causes of our keenest woe: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? My soul is downcast within me. Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?” We are not alone in the fluctuations of our spiritual wellbeing and the saints of Scripture and subsequent Christian history rally to support us. We have all things in common: our dark nights of the soul, Luther-like periods of languor, John Newton-like seasons of neglect, times when our exile seems irreversible. But pining is the agony of love, not the evidence of abandonment. Longing, says St. Augustine, makes the heart deep. The deeper our heart the deeper our relationship with God will be, for in our hearts he can store more of himself. The emptiness is preparation for fullness.
Face to face! The words themselves compel us to recognize that the culmination of the seeking after God is to know him, as well as to know that he is, and to know about him. To echo the psalmist, this aspiration is ever with the believer: “When can I go and meet with God?”
“This happiness, my dear Sir, is open to you – to all who seek. He is enthroned in heaven, but prayer will bring him down to the heart. Indeed he is always with us; and if we feel one desire towards him, we may accept it as a token that he gave it us to encourage us to ask for more” (John Newton).