“I will never leave you or forsake you.”
What do we mean when we speak of the presence of God? To attempt an answer it may be helpful to look at human relationships, then we’ll look at Scripture.
When we use the word ‘presence’ in reference to someone we usually mean he/she is here or was there. The person was physically present. If we push it a bit further we can speak of someone as having a certain presence about them. I’ve known people, and you probably have also, who can walk into a room and somehow their presence dominates, stands out. If you’ve been in a small group and one person is remote or distant for some reason, you might say that so and so just wasn’t present. They were physically present but that’s all. Or someone in the small group may have a dominant presence which causes the others in the group to be diminished in their presence. And there are those relationships of consequence, spouses, deep friendships and so forth, that will have varying intensities of presence.
The point is that when we speak of the presence of God, our language may slip a bit if we are not careful. What are some things we can say about God where presence is concerned? Based on what we read in Scripture we can assume that God is eager for closeness. God is eager for intimacy. God wants to be as close as possible to those He loves. We can be sure of that. At the same time we might say that God is always having to work with the human need for varying intensities of presence and with the human desire to resist His presence.
Where the Lord’s Supper is concerned we speak of the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine. By “real” we mean to say that there is an intensity to Christ’s presence there with us. When we look at the Scriptures we find that there is a range of intensity where God’s presence is concerned.
In the opening verses of the book of Jonah we are told – twice – that Jonah fled from the presence of the Lord. Now, Jonah knew that God created the world and that God is present everywhere. So, it was not God’s presence, per say, that he was fleeing. It is the intensity of that presence in the direct command of God’s Word that he go to Nineveh.
When Jesus prayed a portion Psalm 22 on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, He was acutely conscious of God’s absence while, at the same time, He WAS praying. So the sense of God’s presence was there. Forsakeness did not mean absence.
If we equate God’s presence only with those aspects of life that are pleasant, affirming, comfortable and so forth, we are going to miss the God of the Bible. For, the person whose trust, whose faith is in the God of the cross, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who lives by God’s intimate and ever-present Word, there will always be a Nineveh to which we are summoned. This does not mean that God does not provide us with signs of the resurrection every day. Baptism, after all, is the Spirit’s promise of God’s intimate presence in all suffering and all joy through Christ.
This does mean that while we may experience God as forsakeness or a Word that calls us to paths we would rather not walk, God is never absent. To the contrary. God is there, shepherding His people through the valleys of shadow and death, leading them to the cool, still waters of his amazing grace.
“May the peace of god that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”