Presence: Something More Than God With Us
Think about the presence of God in your life. Think about how you might encourage others who are going through a hard time to feel the presence of God in their life. We often turn to the presence of God, pray for the presence of God, long for the presence of God when experiencing hard or difficult times.
At Christmas we speak about the promise of God’s presence through the coming of the Christ Child. We call him: Emmanuel – God with us. This name is about incarnation, that is, the physical manifestation of God on earth. The Hebrew people witnessed the manifestation of God on earth before Jesus. Think of the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness or the still small voice that passed by Elijah. The idea is that God comes down to earth to be with us. And idea captured in their name Emmanuel.
But I believe we have taken this idea too far. That we have conceived of God only in this showing up way. For example, have you ever heard someone telling a story of struggle and then they get to the climactic moment and say something like this:
And then God showed up…
In my head, when I hear stuff like this, I am usually pulled in because I want to know how and why and in what way God showed up. But pretty quickly I think to myself: Wait, what ? Really? Then God showed up…? Where was God before?
You see, “then God showed up” implies God wasn’t previously present. The statement assumes a belief that God is somewhere else, over there. And then God comes over here sometimes to do some God things. The focus isn’t on WHO God is but on WHEN and WHERE God is and that leaves us trying to figure out WHY God is HERE with these people at this time and this place but not THERE with those people in that time and that place.
You follow me? Why did God show up in your case, but not for that other person going through the same situation?
You end up struggling to explain why God chose to show up in one instance and not in another. There is a big underlying assumption (a presupposition) here that I think we all probably disagree with. It’s this: If God is here and not there, then that means there are people and places, times and situations that are perfectly capable of existing without God. That is, God might be helpful for life to go on, but God is not needed for life to go on, God is not necessary for existence.
I don’t know how you feel about that and what you believe scripture says about that, but as I study the Bible and try to understand WHO God is, that answer that the world can go on without God just doesn’t hold water. God is not some physical being that zooms in and out of the world zapping “God’s things” into people’s lives.
Scripture says that in God we live and move and have our being. That is, we do not exist apart from God. I love this statement, but I have given it to you completely out of context. So let’s look at it closer. These words come from Acts 17:22-28.
Paul is hanging out in Athens trying to show that he can hang with the best of the scholars who had spoken there – folks like Plato and Socrates and Aristotle. Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said,
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
Paul appeals to the Athenians by lifting up their piety. He says, “you are so spiritual you worship the gods you do know and even the gods you do not know!”
But then Paul makes an important evangelical turn.
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.
In other words, Paul says he’ll tell them all about this unknown god
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
God does not require a human dwelling (shrine) because God does not live like humans live, is not served as humans serve, does not need as humans need. God is creator, not created. And the creator cannot be domesticated like the created.
Instead, God is the source, the source of everything – life, breath, all things. The very source of existence itself.
The Point: This unknown God the Athenians talk about is something more than you conceive of. The creator is beyond the categories of spirit or flesh, big or small, hard or soft, tall or short, young or old, or even here or there. God’s presence is not describe by any of these categories. You cannot associate the attributes of the created with the creator. God’s presence is something more.
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
This image is great, right? Groping for God. Sounds like a book title!
But there is more going on here that what we read. Humans grope for God, according to verse 27, and the words speak not simply of finding God, but more precisely of this uncertain chance of finding God. The Greek language might be better paraphrased this way – “humans blindly groping with little chance of success.”
And this groping happens despite the fact that God is not far off (that is, God is near and close by). When someone is really close by, how can you miss them if you are groping for them? Groping is exactly how you find things close by when you cannot see clearly!
I think this is best explained when you consider the categories Paul has set up for his audience: God is creator; humans are created. God is beyond the categories of the created. So as we search for God through the ideas of the created, we will struggle to find God. In reality, God cannot be found – not because God is elusive, but because we humans fail to understand that God is not here or there, or in a particular place or particular time, but that God is source of everything.
God is. God is not finite. God is infinite. God does not exist. God is existence itself. God is not a being. God is being itself, the very ground of being. For as Paul concludes, in God we live and move and have our being. God is not a being, but the very presence in which we have our being.
Paul does not try to prove the existence of God to the Athenians. Paul acknowledges what they have already expressed through the idea of the unknown god. This unknown god is the something more that is beneath the surface of what we can and cannot comprehend. Paul does not assert the existence of God. Paul says that this something more we all are searching for is God for God is the source of all that is.
The OT speaks of this idea through the image of the ruach of God – the wind/spirit/breath of God. Ruah is the creative force behind all that is, the source of the word which brought everything into existence, the breath that gave humans life, the wind which blows chaos into order.
When the Hebrews talked about the world, they didn’t talk about a world that went on day after day doing its thing while they discussed whether or not there was a God out there somewhere who might or might not exist. They talked about God as SOURCE. All of it, everything came from God. It’s wasn’t God showing up or not. It was all God. God was and is and will be. Not in or out of our lives. But life itself. This is why ruach mean breath, spirit and genesis describes God as breathing life into the human. God is the source of our life.
We can this this really clearly in Psalm 139 where after God has been described as a all knowing all seeing creator, the psalmist proclaims:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
The question is rhetorical. The answer is nowhere! Because God is everywhere. God doesn’t exist like we exist. God is existence itself and as such we cannot escape God for God is all around us, everywhere, God is everything, all in all, being itself.
Despite the way we talk about a “God moment” or “God showing up”, God doesn’t show up. You may happen to recognize God sometimes and not at other times. But God is always here and there and everywhere.
Let me offer an example of how this works in another area of life. Though my Dad passed away a year ago, he is always with me. Sometimes I am aware and sometimes not. But his presence in my life never changes. The memories, the lessons, they are always with me ready for me to recall at any time, ready for me to pay attention to, ready for me to appreciate, ready for me to follow.
When I heed my dad’s advice, it’s not because dad showed up and reminded me. No the lesson is already there. It is a part of me. It cannot come or go. It just is. Sometimes I am more aware of it than others. But it is always there. This isn’t a perfect analogy, but about as close as I can get.
The point? Well, Rob Bell summarizes it really well:
The question, then, the art, the task, the search, the challenge, the invitation is for you and me to become more and more the kind of people who are aware of the divine presence, attuned to the ruach, present to the depths of each and every moment, seeing God in more and more and more people, places, and events, each and every day.
As Richard Rohr also summaries it really well:
We are already in the presence of God
What’s absent is awareness
We cannot escape God presence because to exist is to be in God’s presence. Awareness of God. Awareness of the presence of something more, that is not a being but being itself.
And this is what is meant by the Christmas phrase that is also a name: Immanuel. God with us. It’s not about a being who is physically or spiritually present with us. It’s about a God who cannot be anything but with us. To be alive is to be with the one who gave you life. To exist is to be part of existence itself.