Makayla writes in to ask, “Pastor John, in episode 19 you said God sometimes withdraws his presence from us. How does that not contradict God’s new-covenant promise to never leave us or forsake us in Hebrews 13:5?”
I love that kind of question, because to me the best questions are how things fit together. What has helped me most, I think, in my study of the Bible is seeing when things seem not to fit together and seem contradictory. And then, instead of walking away from the Bible and assuming, “Well, it is a bunch of double talk,” we dig down to the root so they come together. Then you realize, “Oh, these two plants are not opposites. They have the same roots.” That is what we are dealing with here. We need to think about kinds of presence of the Lord. The Bible talks about different kinds of his presence.
For example, most of us would agree that God is omnipresent. There is no place where he is not. Paul said, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). He is quoting a pagan poet there to agree that, yes, everybody is in God — held in being by God. And Jeremiah in Jeremiah 23:24 says: ““Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’” — God is talking — “‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.” So, I think the first and most basic sense that we need to talk about is, he is everywhere. God is omnipresent, including in the lives of believers and unbelievers, holding them in being, knowing all that they do firsthand.
God Stays with His People
And then Makayla points to — and she is definitely right — this special presence. She calls it the new-covenant promise of God’s presence in Hebrews 13:5, which says, “Keep your life free from love of money and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Or we could go to Matthew 28:20: “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Or we could go to 2 Corinthians 4:9: I am “persecuted, but not forsaken.” So you have these New Testament, new-covenant promises. God is never, ever going to abandon or leave his people.
The one I love most is Jeremiah 32:40, where it goes over the top and says: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant” — this is now the new covenant — “that I will not turn away from doing good to them.” And then he adds: “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” So this new-covenant promise is not only that God won’t walk away from us — he won’t let us walk away from him.
“God is omnipresent, including in the lives of believers and unbelievers, holding them in being, knowing all that they do firsthand.”
So, I want to say to Makayla, yes, yes, yes, yes. She is right that there is a presence of God, a keeping, a staying with, that will never fail for God’s elect, for those who are in Christ. But — now here is what she picked up on — there is another way that the Bible talks about the presence of God: “Hide not your face from your servant, for I am in distress; make haste to answer me” (Psalm 69:17). The psalmist senses that God is distant, that God is hiding from him.
Or look at Psalm 143:7: “Answer me quickly, O Lord! My spirit fails! Hide not your face from me, lest I be like those who go down to the pit.” Or Isaiah 64:7: “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us [your covenant people], and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.”
Old Testament Promises
Now what occurs to me when I read these is that Makayla might say or others might say, “Wait a minute. Those are Old Testament prayers. Maybe the saints had to pray like that in the Old Testament — ‘Don’t hide your face from me. Don’t go away from me.’ But we are new-covenant people. Would we ever pray like that?”
There are a couple of problems with that objection. One is in the very text that Mikayla quoted — Hebrews 13:5: “[The Lord] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” That is a quote from Joshua 1:5. So he is quoting an old covenant promise and applying it to New Testament believers. And the other problem is that the Old Testament abounds with promises to God’s people that he won’t forsake them:
“The Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake” (1 Samuel 12:22).
“The Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints” (Psalm 37:28).
We all love Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). In other words, even in the worst of horrible, dark times, my Shepherd is with me.
Those are Old Testament statements.
Run to the Cross
So here is my answer to her question: The old Puritans put it all together by talking about the manifest presence of God. And they were using that phrase — manifest, experienced, known, tasted presence of God — to distinguish it from the omnipresence of God and from the covenant-keeping of God, which may or may not be experienced intensely from time to time. And I think this is really, really helpful. In other words, sometimes God withdraws his presence from us. That is the statement I made that Makayla stumbled over. She said, “How can that be?”
When I say that sometimes God withdraws his presence from us, I don’t mean that we are forsaken by our covenant God. I mean that the manifestations of his presence are limited. He doesn’t withdraw his covenant commitment to us or his sustaining grace from us. What he withdraws is the sweetness of his fellowship from time to time or the conscious sense of his power. And he has his reasons for doing this — I think maybe there would be another time for us to talk about that — but surely one of them is to make us feel our desperate need for him so that we fly to Christ and to the cross where we hear the covenant promise afresh.