Because of the difficult and discouraging time Teckla and I have faced these last few years, understanding the nature of God’s presence has become crucial. We are not promised much more than His abiding presence this side of heaven. He has not promised us freedom from suffering, sickness, persecution, or poverty, but He has promised to never leave us or forsake us. He has promised us fellowship with Him and the strength to escape or resist every temptation and to endure every trial.
Yet God’s presence with us is unlike the presence of others. First, He is invisible—at least for most of us, most of the time. As I have written recently in other posts, this makes the common exhortation to “just follow Jesus” or “keep your eyes on Jesus” too simplistic to be useful—even though ultimately true. Second, God doesn’t engage in much of the dialog we would normally expect of a friend. I encounter believers who claim to have this kind of back and forth with God, but their claims usually fall apart when carefully compared with actual dialog where questions are posed and answered. As soon as I give such folks five or six questions to ask God, they explain it doesn’t work that way—which is exactly my point.
The problem for the believer is that because God is invisible and often silent, His presence looks a lot like His absence. Of course, the beauty and design of nature can declare His existence, but this is not the same as evidence of His abiding presence. And the Bible can comfort us with the promise of God’s presence—but a promise is not the thing promised. God’s Word is beautiful love-letter to us, but a letter is not the person.
Often people respond to such questions by pointing out that we are called to walk by faith and not feeling. Yes, our faith that God is with us can comfort us. But this is the comfort of our faith, not the comfort of His presence. Such faith could comfort us even if God did not exist—a point atheists are quick to make. So how do we experience the comfort and grace of God’s actual presence with us?
Much of the answer is found in John chapters 13—17. In this long discourse Jesus is preparing His disciples for his own departure. He promises that the Father will give them the Holy Spirit, a Helper, “that He may with you forever”. He assures them, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (14:16,17). Jesus explains that the Holy Spirit will “guide you into all truth; for he will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come” (16:13). Jesus presents the gift of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit as the main way in which God will continue to make the presence of Jesus manifest in the lives of His disciples.
And yet I and many other believers do not find the Holy Spirit wonderfully chatty. Often the leading of the Holy Spirit is felt by the absence or presence of peace. But it is hard to sit down and talk things out with the Holy Spirit like we would with a friend. And despite much asking while sitting alone in prayer, my requests to be filled with Holy Spirit seem to get undetectable answers: no dreams, visions, trances, angelic visitations, revelations, or prophetic messages. And in case you wondered, I am open to every Holy Spirit experience in the holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic catalog: entire sanctification, baptism of the Holy Spirit, fullness of the Holy Spirit, the second blessing, or even a third one. In other words, I am not one seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit while denying that the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit are for today.
After one of my recent posts, a friend messaged me and asked when I most often experienced the presence of God. She suggested that it might be in nature, but I replied that it was when looking into the eyes of a person who needed Jesus. This realization pointed me to an important truth about my experience with God’s presence. I have experienced God’s presence most often and most powerfully when loving and serving others.
Part of the problem is that I am an American and a Protestant, and I therefore approach serving God and walking in His Spirit as an individual rather than a member of the Body of Christ. In Jesus’ farewell discourse in John there is a second emphasis that complements the promise of the Holy Spirit. Again and again, Jesus exhorts the disciples to abide in Him by keeping his commandment to love one another. In other words, the abiding presence of God comes in the context of us loving one another and serving one another. This corporate emphasis runs against the individualism that shapes much American and Protestant spirituality.
Another problem is that we often approach church as the place our personal spiritual needs are met. We can read reviews of churches like we do restaurants—to find one that fits our taste. But in the New Testament, the church is presented as central to our experience of God and His presence—not an option. Paul places all the gifts of the Holy Spirit in the context of the Body of Christ when it gathers to build up one another. It is significant that many of those gifts (see I Corinthians 12:8—10) involve God communicating with His people.
We often take Paul’s exhortations individualistically, but so much of what is written in Paul’s epistles are written not to individuals but to churches or the Church in general. Yes, we are individually to be filled with the Spirit, but it is not just our bodies that are the temple of the Holy Spirit—the church is “a holy temple in Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:22).
Perhaps I am asking God to do individually for me what He desires to do within the context of the church loving and building up one another through the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Maybe God withholds, except in extraordinary circumstances, the full ministry of the Holy Spirit because He wants us to need each other and seek the ministry of the Holy Spirit from each other. He is not real interested in how gifted I am when sitting alone at my desk. And God may have much to say to me but wants to say it through the ministry of the Body of Christ.
Here is another reason I think this may be true. During this last year when Teckla has faced cancer in both breasts and our son, Peter, has come near death multiple times, we have had many unanswered questions. We have had to make some hard decisions. Doing all this with Covid-19 restrictions has made it even more difficult. We have often not heard much from God in the midst of this crisis. However, we have found Emanuel, God with us, through Rosalie who faithfully drove Teckla to her radiation treatments in Eugene for three weeks—two and a half hours each way, and through Petra who would take Ari to school some mornings, and Phil and Erin who would pick Ari up and watch him until I got back from work. We heard the love of God through brothers and sisters in Christ who blessed us financially as we struggled with bills that piled up. We felt the love of God in the prayers of our pastor, Joshua, for our family.
If someone asked me where God was when we were facing these many hard things, I would point to the church. Once one of my sons has asked, “Where is God? I don’t see Him doing anything for me.” I would patiently point out some blessings that seemed to have God’s fingerprints on them, but eventually I would just say, “He is right here in me, your father, who He led to adopt you, love you, and never give up on you. What you think is my kindness, is His.” Once, I heard a person in the church, who had just been given money to avoid eviction, complain, “I just don’t see God doing anything in my life.” When it was pointed out that God had just kept him from getting evicted, his face lit up and he exclaimed, “I had never thought of it that way!” Most of us need to see God’s presence as something He desires us to experience in the context of the Body of Christ.
The reasons why we don’t experience God’s presence and hear His voice more clearly in church has multiple causes: a failure to love deeply and entangle ourselves in each other’s lives, a failure to embrace the full ministry of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and a failure to do church in ways that nourish the ministry of every member of the Body of Christ. Each of these would deserve another post (or chapter).
But of this much I am now convinced, God is with us, and we experience more of His presence when we are with each other. I think God is so committed to doing things through His church that much of His presence and His voice is missed if we go it alone. Yes, God is with me, but will most often be experienced as Emmanuel, God with us.