How we Christians imagine God’s presence.

by K.W. Leslie, 11 October 2016
OMNIPRESENT ɑm.nɪ'prɛ.zənt adjective. Everywhere at once. Ubiquitous.
[Omnipresence ɑm.nɪ'prɛ.zəns noun.]

We Christians believe God is everywhere. Not just that he sees everywhere; Ps 33.13-14 he actually is everywhere. He’s not limited by space. (Nor time, although a lot of Christians only use the whole “sees everywhere” idea to discuss time. Not me. Everywhere also means every-when. Jn 8.58) The way David put it, God has no such limits.

Psalm 139.7-12 NLT
7 I can never escape from your Spirit!
I can never get away from your presence!
8 If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I go down to the grave, you are there.
9 If I ride the wings of the morning,
if I dwell by the farthest oceans,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
and your strength will support me.
11 I could ask the darkness to hide me
and the light around me to become night—
12 but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
Darkness and light are the same to you.

However. Though we believe this, we Christians sometimes talk about God’s presence as not always being here. Sometimes it’s here. Sometimes not.

By presence, Christians tend to mean a wholly different thing than omnipresence. We say yeah, sure, God’s everywhere, including here. But sometimes God is really here. The rest of the time he’s… well, not.

We make it sound a lot like God’s some semi-senile grandpa sitting in the corner, whose mind is almost always elsewhere. Though on some conscious level, he sorta knows stuff is going on in the room. And once we call upon him—“Hey grandpa!”—he snaps out of his reverie and interacts with us. But unlike this grandpa, God’s actually up to something in those other places. That’s why his mind is focused on that, and not so much this. He keeps a toe in our pool, just in case we need to call upon him again. When we do, here he is.

Is this really how God works? Not even close.

The Hebrew word we tend to translate as “presence” is פָּנֶה/panéh, “face,” as in “the LORD’s face,” or “the LORD’s presence,” or “before the LORD.” Found all over the bible. Ge 19.13, Ex 6.12, 1Sa 26.20, Ps 34.16, 1Pe 3.12 Of course it doesn’t mean a literal face. He didn’t really have one till he became human. So, “presence.”

God’s presence is everywhere. That’s literally what omnipresence means. But we humans can’t wrap our brains around the idea. You know how when you hear a voice and can’t see it, you look around till you know where that voice is coming from—and which direction to face? Psychologically, we need a direction to face. We need a focal point we can interact with. If we don’t have one, our mind will invent one for us. God’s gotta be in some direction, relative to our location. Up, down, in front of us, behind us, in the direction of Jerusalem, wherever. We need to know where his face is… so we can face him.

But he’s everywhere.

Where do you imagine his presence is?

Still, this brings up an interesting question. Where, physically, do you imagine God to be? You picture him somewhere in three-dimensional space. Where? And why?

  • Many Christians picture God somewhere in outer space. While we may bow our heads downward to pray, we nonetheless point our thoughts upwards—towards that space in the cosmos where we picture God.
  • Many picture him nearer. Like in one of the clouds over town. Or hovering over the building. Or in the upper corner of the room we’re in.
  • Some of us were taught in Sunday school that we bow our heads to pray “because Jesus lives in your heart—so you’re praying towards him.” A wacky idea. But even so, there are a number of adults who really do imagine Jesus in their chests somewhere.
  • Some of us were taught, “God is as close as the nose on your face.” Which is true. So they cross their eyes somewhat, trying to picture him shoving his loving face into theirs, like a daddy does with his baby.
  • And some of us were taught we shouldn’t try to picture God in any one location, lest we create some mental image which represents him—a mental idol, so to speak, and idolatry’s wrong. Ex 20.4 So whenever our minds wander towards one of those ideas—God astride our city, God seated in some giant Lincoln-Memorial-sized throne in heaven, God seated across from us at the table—we try to banish that thought, and focus on a cosmic everywhere-being who can’t be pinned down by tiny finite human minds.

Here’s the catch. Yeah, he’s everywhere. But if we try too hard to picture him everywhere, we can easily slide into one of two wrong ideas:

  1. We imagine the entire universe. We imagine, not just that God fills the entire universe… but that he kinda is the whole universe. He’s not just everywhere, but every-thing. In other words, pantheism.
  2. We imagine God nowhere in the universe. Because he’s too big, or because he’s not physical, or because he’s not finite; for whatever reason he’s everywhere-but-nowhere. Which has a bad tendency to turn him into nowhere. Not there. Nontheism.

I’m not saying our imaginations will turn us pantheist or nontheist. It’s just we’ll unconsciously lean those directions when we talk about God.

Same as those Christians who imagine God in outer space… unconsciously lean towards the idea of a distant God. Or the Christians who imagine God in the corner of our ceiling… unconsciously lean towards the idea of God as a drone who watches but doesn’t interact. Or the Christians who imagine God as towering over us all, or exalted over us all… missing the idea that God deliberately came near in order to bridge these imaginary gaps.

If our image of God makes him distant, our image of God is wrong.

He’s not out there. He’s right here. He’s not looking down upon us, plotting how to squash us; he’s looking directly at us, plotting how he can make us worthy of being called his kids. He’s not disinterested and unattached. He’s very interested, and intimately involved with our lives. Even when we’re not trying to involve him. Even when we’re ignoring he’s around.

So start adjusting that mental picture.

Sacred spaces: Our attempt to mark where God is. Or was.

If you’re familiar with the Led Zeppelin song “Stairway to Heaven,” it’s not actually about this story at all. (Hi there, everybody who found this article by looking up Zeppelin!)

Anyway, Jacob ben Isaac was headed to Haran, and stopped at Luz to sleep. He dreamed of a ladder (NIV “stairway”) to heaven, Ge 28.12 and in the dream the LORD promised him all the same stuff he previously promised Jacob’s grandfather Abraham.

Genesis 28.15-19 NLT
15 “…What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.”
16 Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I wasn’t even aware of it!” 17 But he was also afraid and said, “What an awesome place this is! It is none other than the house of God, the very gateway to heaven!”
18 The next morning Jacob got up very early. He took the stone he had rested his head against, and he set it upright as a memorial pillar. Then he poured olive oil over it. 19 He named that place Bethel (which means “house of God”), although it was previously called Luz.

Notice that God told Jacob he’d be with him wherever he went. Yet Jacob was still fixated on the idea he encountered God at Luz—which he renamed Beit El (KJV “Bethel”) regardless of the Amorites who already knew it as Luz.

Like most humans, Jacob couldn’t conceptually deal with a God who’s everywhere, in every place, in every time. Our brains kinda need him to be in one place and time. That way we can focus our attention in that direction—and then talk with him and deal with him.

God understands this. It’s why he accommodates us. If we can’t come up with our own focal point so we can give him our undivided attention, he’ll make one for us. Like showing us burning bushes or pillars of cloud; like appearing in angelic or human form. Like making is able to feel he’s in the room. It’s where all our “presence of God” talk comes from.

So God put his presence in the tabernacle and temple, 1Ki 8.11 or kept it around his Ark of the Covenant. 1Sa 6.20 When people wanted to encounter him, and doubted they could do so wherever they were, they’d go to temple, go to the Ark, or go to other places of worship. When people want to encounter him nowadays, we still do that. We go into prayer closets, go to church buildings, or chapels and sacred spaces, or go on pilgrimages. Yeah, we understand he’s everywhere, and all that. We still seek his presence—and hope to find it in these physical locations.

How much do we psyche ourselves into feeling him?

Nowadays when people talk about experiencing God’s presence, what we really mean is we felt God was in a certain place. “I could really feel his presence in there.” Or “Whoo! Does everybody feel the presence of the Lord this morning?!”

Yeah, I know. Even though God is everywhere, and we already know he’s everywhere. But some of us Christians really do insist on actually feeling his presence. It’s not enough for them to know he’s here. They want an experience to confirm the fact.

A lot of us Christians don’t realize there’s any difference between emotional experiences and spiritual ones. We humans can manufacture emotion, y’know. We can make ourselves feel happy, sad, sorry… or even “spiritual.” When someone says, “Can you feel God’s presence?” it ain’t all that hard to push ourselves into actually feeling “his presence.” Especially when we’d like to imagine ourselves spiritually sensitive.

Problem is, that feeling… is entirely unnecessary. Redundant. ’Cause God is here. Whether we feel him or not, he’s here. We don’t need to feel anything. We only do it because we want to.

No, I’m not saying every Christian who “feels God’s presence” is faking it, or psyching themselves into it. Sometimes God really does want people to feel something. We’ve had a rough week, and if we’re receptive to him, God generously wants to give us some warm fuzzy feelings. Wants to spur a little joy. Hey, if it makes Christians produce the Spirit’s fruit in other ways, ain’t nothing wrong with that. It’s only a problem when Christians don’t produce fruit—and spend all their time chasing “spiritual” euphoria. That activity isn’t of God.

Bigger problem is, skeptics are pretty sure this is all “God’s presence” consists of: Christians ramping ourselves up into self-induced ecstatic states. ’Cause that’s what it looks like. Two Christians might be in the very same room; one of ’em “totally feels God’s presence,” and the next one feels nothing. Not standing close enough to the subwoofer, I suppose.

’Cause in the bible, God’s presence isn’t subjective. When God showed up, everybody noticed it. Not just the God-fearers, nor the prophets. Not everybody would have the very same experience: When Jesus first appeared to Paul, the other folks there heard him but saw nothing, Ac 9.7 or saw the light but couldn’t identify the voice, Ac 22.9 depending on Paul’s memory when he retold the story. Regardless, the other guys experienced something. It was a legitimate appearance.

And yeah, a person’s skepticism will get in the way of admitting a God-sighting is an actual God-sighting. But when you’ve got Christians who earnestly want a God-experience, and wanna know why on earth they’re not having that experience while everyone else is falling down on the ground, we’d better have a better answer for them than the usual lame-ass, “God doesn’t think you’re ready for it,” or “Be more open to him.” (I should add neither of these answers are biblical. God gets us ready for him.)

Practicing God’s presence.

Probably one of the better Christian prayer practices is what we call “the practice of the presence of God”: We try to remain constantly aware God is here.

Constantly mindfully aware. That means we don’t just remember, “Oh yeah, God is here.” We’re alert to the fact he’s here. We stay alert to the fact he’s here. All the time. From the instant we wake up to the instant we fall asleep.

Really not easy to do at first. ’Cause God’s invisible. And you can’t just set up little visual reminders that he’s present, like Jesus statues or crucifixes or little notes, “Remember, God’s watching!” (Which can sound a little creepy if we imagine God passively watching, instead of actively interacting.) It’s not hard to turn one’s back on that Jesus painting on the wall, get distracted by something else we’re working on, and lose that alertness. And then look up hours later, remember we were trying to practice God’s presence, and kick ourselves a little for losing our train of thought.

Relax; it gets easier.

The up side of practicing God’s presence? We talk with him way more often. ’Cause it’s just rude to be in the same room with someone whom you never talk to! When we’re alert to the fact God’s here, it’s way different from remembering, “Oh yeah; I gotta pray sometime today.” Or “Oh yeah; I gotta remember to bring that up next time I have prayer time.” Or “I’ll meditate on that later.” You know how some Christians literally try to pray without ceasing. 1Th 5.17 When we practice God’s presence, a lot of us come pretty darned close to actually doing that. Just ’cause he’s here.

Oh, and we sin less. It’s a little harder to sin with God in the room. Not that he wasn’t already in the room, but we were imagining he wasn’t… and now we aren’t. Reality kicked in.

Yes, we also feel his presence more often. He feels less distant. It feels easier to recognize when he’s been active in our lives, and in the lives of other Christians. But bear in mind: These feelings are because of our new constantly-aware-of-God mindset. Not because God actually is easier to feel, easier to recognize, or less distant. In fact some immature Christians—assuming whenever they feel God’s presence any less, he’s trying to communicate with them or steer them—are actually steering themselves, and steering themselves wrong. Our feelings aren’t meant to be our guide—nor our god. You think you heard from God? You prove it properly.

Yeah, there’s a book on it. Give it a read.