in church praying

Are you there, God?

This is a question that is seldom, if ever, answered to our satisfaction. Christians around the world attend church, worship fervently, and live lives that exemplify the character of God, yet so many of those same Christians secretly lament His absence. Why doesn’t He appear out of the clouds to take away our pain? Why doesn’t He speak to us as he did to Moses and the prophets in the day of the Old Testament?

Where is He?

David Bowden wrestles with God’s apparent absence in his book, When God Isn’t There, summing his insights up in the following passage.

“God is absent in the way we most desire

But present in the way we most require”

These two sentences, part of a larger poem, convey a profound truth: God isn’t confined to our expectations. He’s not here in the ways we want. He’s here in the ways we need. We must learn to relate to God, as Bowden puts it, “in ways that are consistent with His character,” and adjust our expectations accordingly.

In this realization, there is peace. But first we must understand a few things about the nature of God’s presence.

The Need for Separation

If we feel we are separated from God, it is because we are. Isaiah 59:1-2 tells us why.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short that it cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.

Sin isn’t scary to the Lord. It isn’t God-repellant, so to speak.

Rather, God is sin-repellant.

Sin cannot survive a face-to-face encounter with the God of all creation. His justice and perfection would annihilate us. In this way, the absence of God is a mercy. It is a grace given to us ever since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world—rather than receiving death, they were merely cast out.

But still, our innermost beings know that something isn’t right. We were made for fellowship with God—real, in-person fellowship. And so we viscerally feel that absence. Author C.S. Lewis put this into words like no one else when he wrote that, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Lewis’s words ring true—we’re supposed to be physically walking in the garden with God right now. But we’re not, and we can’t. We would be destroyed—this is from the mouth of God, Himself, written in Exodus 33:20, when He tells Moses that:  “You cannot see my face, for no one may see Me and live."

But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t with us in another way.

The Nature of God’s Presence

While we may not have the pleasure of being able to physically see and touch God, He is still everywhere.  There is no place where God is not. There is no place over which He does not have absolute power and knowledge. Knowing what we know about our separation from God, this seems a bit of a paradox. How can He be with us, and yet not with us?

But the power of God is what sustains all of Creation, and in this way, He is not absent. But his presence, in this manner, is not the same as an in-person encounter. This is the “presence required” part of Bowden’s poem, not the “presence desired” that we so crave.

So how, then, is it possible to have a close and personal relationship with God? Is He content to simply have watched His creation fall, removed from it all?

No—He’s with us. And not only with us, but within us.

In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul teaches that our bodies are temples, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within each of us. As Bowden puts it, God is no longer among the people, but within them.

That means that God isn’t confined to the church. He isn’t in a structure, and we don’t have to beckon Him to have Him visit us, as the ancient pagans did with their gods. He’s here. Right now.

Both Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and the ascension of Christ into Heaven are forms of God’s absence. But the Holy Spirit He gave us in place of these things constitutes His presence.

This is the resolution of the paradox of God’s presence. We don’t have the immediate presence of the Father. We don’t have Jesus Christ here with us in the flesh. We have the third member of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit.

So while the face-to-face meeting with God in His fullness must necessarily lie somewhere in the future, we are not disconnected from Him in the present. He is here, with us, and in us.

The End of the Story

The full presence of God is coming back to us—this much, the Bible promises. And with Him will come a fully renewed creation. There will come a time when all Christians will find themselves in new bodies, enjoying the newly recreated world, and walking with God in a way that satisfies their every longing.

But until that day comes, we can rest in the knowledge that God does love and care for us, and that His absence is not a personal punishment or an abandonment. It is a mercy, and the gift of the Holy Spirit continues to allow us a personal relationship with God, despite our fallen state.

God loves us. Of that, there can be no doubt after seeing the lengths He has taken to preserve us, to guide us, and to remain with us. Missing the feeling of that love in person, and missing His full presence is human. It is natural. But realize that, while He may not appear to us in fire and lightning and luminous glory, He is with us in a quieter, subtler way.

Remember this, and you’ll keep your faith alive.

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