John Calvin famously wrote, “Man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.1.2).
In other words, there is a feedback loop at work: We can’t (truly) know ourselves until we know God.
In the Bible, when men and women come face to face with God—that is, when the volume of this feedback loop is turned up loud—the response is always the same, and it’s always twofold: a heightened sense of one’s own sinfulness and a heightened sense of the holiness of God.
Several years ago, I wrote a hymn about this experience of coming face to face with God. It’s called “Visions of God.” I included the lyrics and the audio below. I hope you enjoy it.
I based the hymn on the passages where Job, Isaiah, and Peter have dramatic encounters with God (Job 42:1–9, Isaiah 6:1–7, Luke 5:1–11). While these encounters (and the others like them in the Bible) have always been interesting to me, I found it difficult to capture their experiences in a song. People often complain about the music in church, but I don’t think most of them realize how difficult it is to write a good song until they have tried it themselves. This humbling experience is a lesson I’ve had the privilege of learning several times.
I didn’t set the hymn to music. That would have been far more than humbling; it would have been impossible! I’m very thankful that one of my brothers (Brian) is very gifted musically and was able to do this. Brian’s wife (Molly), who is also very gifted, was gracious enough to help him. Though the audio recording below is only a rough demo, I think it turned out very well.
The only other comment that I would like to make on the hymn is that I know it is not the whole story. I realize there is much more to Job, Isaiah, and Peter’s encounter with God than what was felt on the front side of their experience. That is to say, there is more to their experience (and our experience for that matter) than an overwhelming sense of our smallness and sinfulness.
If I had written another hymn, I would have attempted a sequel to “Visions of God.” In it I would have attempted to write about the great mercy of God in forgiving Job’s self-righteousness and God’s blessing the latter part of his life more than the first; the mercy of the atoning coal that touched Isaiah’s lips and his commissioning as a missionary; and the mercy of the instructions to Peter, “Do not be afraid” and his new employment as a “fisher of men.”
Maybe someday I will write that hymn.
* * *
Visions of God
I knew by the hearing of the ear
But thunder, storm, and lightning roared
Now in dust and ashes I repent in holy fear
For my eyes have seen, seen the sovereign Lord
To know me as I am
And see You as you are
Sovereign and Wise
Holy and True (x 2)
Woe is me, I am undone
I am a man with lips unclean
Now all my former ways I shun
For my eyes have seen, they have seen the King
Faced with the greatness of the haul
I know I am a man with sin
Now to the Saviors knees I fall
For my eyes have seen, the Fisher of Men
[Picture by Sam Ferrara / Unsplash]