Monday, 8 October 2012

Come and Go

"Where can I go to get away from your Spirit? Where can I run from you? If I go up to the heavens, you are there. If I lie down in the grave, you are there." Psalm 139:7-8

How often have you been in a church service where someone's asked God "to come"? In other words, to arrive? I've been musing on what's become a part of the Christian consciousness - the idea that God turns up for a moment only to then leave us again. It's what I call the Lucozade God - the God who comes, gives us a temporary boost and then says "See you next Sunday". The problem is that it simply doesn't register with my concept of the Biblical God - with His character as much as with any specific Biblical statement. I doubt that many Christians would specifically agree with the idea that God abandons us (they'd probably crack out the footprints story or Hebrews 13:5). But it's something that seeps into the way we talk about God, and particularly His presence.

Hang on. Isn't there a Biblical precedent for God being particularly present in one particular place? Like the famous Shekhinah overwhelming the priests in 1 Kings 8:10-11? There's an aspect of that question that's too big for me to consider in a single post and so I may return to this later. For now, let me say that God certainly did dwell with His people in the Jerusalem Temple (and elsewhere) in a unique way. That doesn't mean that He was isolated there. Put simply, you can't lock God in a church, or a Temple (1 Kings 8:27).

Or, to say it a different way: how many atoms in the room that you're in right now do you think God is absent from?

I don't think there's a single place where you could say, 'God is not there'. Like the Psalm says, there's nowhere where we could run away from Him. God is everywhere, the definition of a God immersed and dwelling in His creation (whilst still remaining distinct from it). If that thought is mind-blowing let's not write it off for seeming too incredible.

There are two important caveats to this. Firstly, there is certainly a distinction between a Christian's experience of God's presence and a non-Christian's. As a Christian, I have the indwelling presence of God's Spirit that marks me out as His in a way that is distinct from a non-Christian (Ephesians 1:13-14). I don't think that means that when someone becomes a Christian God 'turns up' for the first time. Rather, it's like a jumbled TV signal that was always there that gets suddenly sharpened. I particularly love Rob Bell's idea (from his video, called 'Breathe') that God's name is written into our very breathing, even if we don't know Him. Secondly, God's being omnipresent (everywhere) doesn't mean that spiritual warfare isn't a reality. We won't always feel or experience God in the same way. We won't always have the 'high' of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes God feels pretty far away. That doesn't detract from His very real constant presence in our lives - whether we notice Him or not. Perhaps our prayer in the place of spiritual barrenness shouldn't be that God comes into our emptiness but that we become aware of just how present He already is.

A large part of this problem is that as humans we're limited - we're only in one place at a time and therefore think in terms of 'coming' and 'going' all the time. But God is Spirit (John 4:24) and doesn't follow the same rules as us.* I don't want to outlaw the language of God 'coming'. Sometimes all that we mean by it in our own minds is that we want God to be more sovereign. But we shouldn't let that convince us that God isn't there.

Because He always, always is.

As ever, let me know what you think...

* Of course, in taking on flesh, Jesus certainly did follow the same rules as us with regards to physical limitations (only being in one place at one time). That doesn't really affect the point I'm making, though.

2 comments:

  1. First of all, thanks for using Facebook to help readers keep up with updates here. I’m sure others appreciate this measure as well.

    You have, I think, an astute observation about what people’s speech may reveal. Even if it doesn’t unmask an otherwise hidden Pelagianism (or the like), it does tend, unless properly qualified somewhere, to conceal the fact that God is not at all limited by location, nor ever stopping his abundance, but that he is instead everywhere present to bless us with his love.

    The presence of God is, as you imply, rather a matter of relation than one of location. Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the Temple carefully records the doctrine that YHWH hears not from inside the Temple but from heaven, from which we can easily deduce that the Temple, important as it is, has never had anything to do with God’s physical location. Today the new Temple is Christ’s body, as we learn from St John (2.21), and anyone who rightly receives the Lord’s Supper is a thousand times more intimately connected to God than any of the Old Testament saints, even though Christ’s physical body is in heaven and not literally on earth. Like you, Jeremy Taylor explaining Holy Communion stresses not location but relation:

    ‘But now a fourth word must be invented, and that is, sacramentaliter. Christ’s body is sacramentally in more places than one; which is very true, that is, the sacrament of Christ’s body is; and so is His Body figuratively, tropically, representatively in being, and really in effect and blessing; but this is not a natural, real being in a place, but a relation to a person.’

    Because God is always and everywhere present (insofar as we can say this of a spirit), his presence in the Holy Communion cannot be equated with a physical object to be lifted up, carried about and adored, but rather must be taken as a gift that seals us to him when with faith we receive him as he presents himself to us. Thus St Paul even says we are the Body of Christ, when by the work of the Holy Ghost we abide in Christ and he in us.

    What the Lord’s Supper objectively tells us, and actually accomplishes when taken with faith, is that Christ is with us, by his Holy Spirit dwelling within us, whereby the Father also loves us as he loves his own Son. Therefore, whatever Christ had (and has) as a man in his relationship with God (though we cannot be God), we have the same as members of his Body.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Lue-Yee! I agree with you that the presence of Jesus in Holy Communion is relational rather than locational ('literal'). I'm not sure about applying that in general, though. I'm saying that God was locationally present in the Temple, but that He was also (and continues to be) locationally present everywhere else too. Part of that, as you mention, is the Holy Spirit in us.

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