There is an ancient Christian classic in the mystic tradition called The Cloud of Unknowing. The understanding behind its title is that there exists between our soul and God a dense, all-but-impenetrable barrier to the true knowing of God as He actually is. The author calls this a “cloud of unknowing” and instructs his readers that it cannot be pierced by the faculties of the mind but only by the volition and affections of the heart.
I was in a corporate worship setting several months ago when the Lord began to speak to my heart about this “cloud of unknowing” as it relates to our personal and collective worship. What became evident to me was that so much of what we consider to be worshiping in “truth” is merely a suggesting or a seeing of “shapes” in “the cloud of unknowing” while thinking we are encountering the true reality of God in them.
Think for a moment about the childhood pastime of looking up at the clouds and envisioning from their shapes what objects they suggest. None of us would ever believe that what we saw in the clouds was the actual object, but rather it was only a fleeting imagination and representation.
When it comes to spiritual realities, our natural mind does not have the ability to perceive that which is spiritual in nature. 1 Corinthians 2:14 states clearly, “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (NKJV) Or as the Message paraphrase puts it: “The unspiritual self, just as it is by nature, can’t receive the gifts of God’s Spirit. There’s no capacity for them. They seem like so much silliness. Spirit can be known only by spirit – God’s Spirit and our spirits in open communion.”
Even when the mind is focused on Scriptural/spiritual truths, at best it can only apprehend the outward appearance and mental representation of spiritual realities. In other words, it can only form and see “spiritual shapes” in “the cloud of unknowing” and not pierce through to the actual realities that lie beyond what those “shapes” suggest and represent.
That is not to say that the mind has no place in spiritual matters; it certainly does, but it must know its place. The mind is like a hiking guide that is only authorized and able to lead a mountain climber up to a base camp that lies below the clouds. From there, the climber must rely on the more experienced and constitutionally fit “sherpas” to take him up through the dense clouds to the heights above where the light is gloriously shining. Those “sherpas” that guide our heart and spirit up into the light of God’s presence are Faith, Hope, and Love.
In our spiritual ascent, as the “cloud” grows dense and the “shapes” that first drew us onward begin to disappear in the mists, Faith keeps whispering in our heart of the glorious vistas that will be seen from above and continually assures us that we will make it to those higher realms if we press on in implicit trust.
As the way grows steeper, the air grows thinner, and the darkness presses in, Hope encourages our flagging spirit not to give up, but to patiently persevere until the clouds begin to part, the light from above breaks through, and the lofty wonders begin to appear in radiant splendor.
All the while Love is leading the way, undaunted and undeterred, ever pressing onward and upward in singleness of purpose, intention, and desire. This, the greatest of all “sherpas”, never falters and never fails.
It is the singleness of Love’s desire, strengthened by Faith and Hope, that enables us to do our part in pressing into and piercing through “the cloud” unto a true knowing of God “in spirit and truth.” As He sees us seeking Him with all of our heart, He in turn does His part by imparting a “spirit of wisdom and revelation in the full knowledge of Him” (Eph.1:17 DBY), thus parting the “cloud of unknowing” with rays of revelation from above.
God is earnestly searching for those who will not settle for mere “shapes in the clouds” in their knowledge of Him but are desperate to press in and know Him experientially and intimately through an ever-increasing revelation and impartation of His Spirit. Let us search our hearts to see if our knowledge of Him is merely a part of “the cloud of unknowing” or does it come from a parting of “the cloud of unknowing!”
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“Oh, that we might know the LORD !
Let us press on to know him.
He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn
or the coming of rains in early spring.”
Hosea 6:3 NLT