Podcast listener Derek, from Toronto, Canada, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, what does it mean to be in the presence of God? Not eternally in heaven, but living in his presence now? I’m struck by Psalm 21:6 — ‘you make glad with the joy of your presence.’ If God is omni-present, what does this mean, to be in God’s presence now?”
I think the first thing I should say is that the biblical writers were not naïve in the sense that they thought God had a body with spatial dimensions so that he could have a locality in the universe. Stephen said in Acts 7:48, “The Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands.” The point being, God is not that kind of being.
Therefore, I think all the biblical imagery about drawing near to God or departing from God or being before the face of God — which is, by the way, the literal translation of presence. The word “presence” is almost always translating the Hebrew penae or peneme and it means “face.” I think all of those images are metaphors or pictures.
And I will mention what they are metaphors of in just a minute, but I want to stick in a qualifier, perhaps, first. To be sure, God ordained in the Old Testament that his “presence” be directly associated with the tabernacle in the wilderness or the temple in Jerusalem so that people could speak of entering into God’s presence in the sense that they came near to the place where he had appointed his name especially to dwell or to be identified with.
In the New Testament with the coming of Jesus into the world, we now have God in human flesh, which does have spatial dimension. And we can go right up to him and touch him, or we can walk right away from him, like Judas did. Jesus could be touched here. He could be kissed here. Indeed, even today I think we could think that way about Jesus in our dying. Second Corinthians 5:6–8, “We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” And what he means, I think, is literally the incarnate, God-man, Jesus Christ exists in dimensions that we don’t fully understand in a human body that is different from ours and yet like ours, and that when we die, we will be at home with that Christ, that God-man incarnate Christ, in a way that relates to his body in ways we don’t fully comprehend.
But with those exceptions — namely, the localized presence of God in the temple in the Old Testament and the localized presence of God in the incarnate Christ — with those exceptions, the ordinary way of speaking about the presence or the nearness of God in the Bible is not connected with spatial orientation. And here is my answer to the question, then what does it refer to?
My summary answer would go like this: The presence of God or the nearness of God is a metaphor from two sides. One, our experience of it and the other, God’s expression of it. Our experience of it means that we taste or feel or realize the reality of God more directly, more authentically, more intimately, more effectively — that is, producing more effects in our lives — more certainly, more satisfyingly, or more terrifyingly, and so on. In other words, his presence as we experience him is the heightening of his reality in our lives either for good, if we are in his grace, or for ill, if we are under his wrath. Which is why Jesus makes all the difference here to shield us and make God a welcoming reality or presence for us.
So, for example, we read, Psalm 100:2: “Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” Or James 4:8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” These are invitations into the fuller, more intense, more certain, more joyful, more satisfying, more transforming experience of the reality of God. That is my first half of the metaphor.
The other half is that it refers to God’s manifest influence from his side — not thinking now about our experience of it, but his more manifest influence. And I am thinking of a text like Psalm 114:7–8: “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob, who turns the rock into a pool of water, the flint into a spring of water.” In other words, when God manifests himself or his presence in a fresh new way, stunning things just objectively happen in the world, whether or not anyone experiences them.
So in summary, God is yes, to be sure, omnipresent in some of his influences like his sustaining all things at all times, holding every electron and every sub-nuclear particle in its place. But he makes his influence more manifestly felt and experienced in particular ways and particular times, and this is what we are referring to when we say with the psalmist, “For me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord my refuge, that I may tell of all your works” (Psalm 73:28). Here is Psalm 145:18: “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” That doesn’t mean that God traveled some distance. It means he is near in the sense that he exerts his influence for our good in special ways and causes us to experience the sweetness of his reality in special ways.