This article was written to accompany the ‘Enjoying God’s Presence’ hangout.
- What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘the presence of God’?
- What experiences have you had of the presence of God?
God is omnipresent. This means that he is always present in every place. Omnipresence is part of what it means for God to be God.
God’s omnipresence is affirmed in Psalm 139, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” (Psalm 139: 7-10) and in Jeremiah, “’Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 23:24)
God’s omnipresence raises a question about what we mean when we talk about the presence of God. How can we talk about being in the presence of God when we are all in God’s presence all the time?
God’s Indwelling Presence
This problem can become even more acute for Christians. Not only is God omnipresent, but he indwells us by his Holy Spirit. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20). Additionally, Jesus has promised never to leave us. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
As followers of Jesus, the presence of God is with us always. This is true in a deeper sense than simply by virtue of God’s omnipresence. The Lord is actively dwelling within every believer, and he will never withdraw from us.
In his excellent blog post, ‘Does God’s presence go missing?’, Andrew Wilson urges caution in how we speak of the presence of God:
“People sometimes sing, ‘Waiting here for you… we’re desperate for your presence’, without regard for the fact that the presence of God has already come to them in an irrevocable way, both individually and corporately, and Jesus has promised never to leave them nor forsake them. They talk about ‘seeking the presence’, and quote Moses’ famous prayer, ‘if your presence doesn’t go with us, don’t send us up from here’ – again, without reference to the vital points that even then, God had already promised to go with Israel, and that, since Pentecost, it is simply impossible for a church who believes and preaches the gospel to somehow ‘lose’ the presence of God.” (Andrew Wilson)
THINK IT THROUGH
- Given that God is omnipresent, and that he is present in believers by his Spirit, is there still a place to talk about specific experiences of God’s presence?
- If so, how can we be careful to guard against minimising God’s presence with us all the time?
God’s Manifest Presence
There is a way to speak about experiences of God’s presence that is both meaningful and Biblical.
God is with us always, but there are certain moments where we are particularly aware of that presence and moved by it. This is known as the manifestation of God’s presence, or simply God’s manifest presence. Often, when people talk about the presence of God, they are referring to his manifest presence. This distinction is clearly made by A.W. Tozer and elaborated on by John Piper:
“The presence and the manifestation of the presence are not the same. There can be one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His Presence.” (A.W. Tozer)
“There is a sense in which God’s presence is not with us always. For this reason, the Bible repeatedly calls us to ‘seek the Lord… seek his presence continually’. God’s manifest, trusted, conscious presence is not our constant experience.” (John Piper)
Piper doesn’t deny that God is with us all the time, but he does help us see that there is a sense of God’s presence that goes beyond our day-to-day experience. He describes this as the manifest, trusted, conscious presence of God. It is to this we refer when we talk about experiencing the presence of God.
Such experiences of God’s manifest presence can be seen clearly in the narrative of the New Testament.
At Pentecost, the disciples powerfully experienced God’s manifest presence. It is true that this brought in the dawn of a new era in salvation history, but that doesn’t invalidate its power to illustrate such experiences. After Pentecost, the Spirit remained with the disciples but what they had been a part of that day was not their continual experience.
Through the remainder of the book of Acts, we see numerous examples of people experiencing God’s manifest presence as they are filled with his Spirit. Sometimes this is the same believers that were at Pentecost experiencing God’s presence again. Other times, it was people experiencing it for the first time. It is presented as a normal part of what it means to follow Jesus that there will be times of experientially encountering God’s presence.
This theme continues into the epistles, as Paul both describes experiences of God’s manifest presence, “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” (2 Corinthians 12:2) and expressed a desire that his readers would have such an experience, “May the God of peace be with you all.” (Romans 15:33) (a redundant statement if Paul meant nothing more than the sense in which God is always with them).
It is likely that John is referring to such an experience of God’s manifest presence when he writes in his introduction to the book of Revelation: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day.” (Revelation 1:10)
God’s presence is with his people always, but conscious experiences of his manifest presence are a normal part of the life of New Testament Christians.
THINK IT THROUGH
- What Bible verses can you think of that talk about the ‘face’ of God?
- What ideas do such verses bring to mind?
The Face of God
In the Hebrew Old Testament, the same word (panim) is used to talk about the presence of God and the face of God.
On one occasion, Moses asked God that he may see his glory. God responded by offering that Moses may see his back, but would not see his face. “And the Lord said, ‘Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” (Exodus 33:21-23)
Though Moses had in some sense experienced God’s presence by seeing his back, he had not enjoyed the manifestation of God’s presence as he had requested by seeing God face to face. It could be argued that Moses did not have this experience for 2000 years, until he eventually was in the manifest presence of God as he met with Jesus on the mountain of transfiguration.
The experience of the manifest presence of God is a great privilege, and one that has been sought after by the great saints of the past, such as Moses and David. In fact, God himself actually encouraged David to seek his manifest presence (his face) in Psalm 27. “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’” (Psalm 27:8)
One of the best-known prayers of the Old Testament is Aaron’s High Priestly Blessing in Numbers 6, where he prays, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26). At the heart of this great prayer is the petition for God to make his face shine upon his people. Remembering that the words for face and presence are synonymous in Hebrew, this could equally be translated as God making his presence shine upon us, or even God giving us the experience of his manifest presence.
The face of God is seen in the Old Testament as the ultimate high point of what a human can experience. Prophets like Moses are denied the experience. Kings like David had it as their hearts’ desire, and Prophets like Aaron sought it for the people. In the New Testament, we see that the veil has been torn back and the experience of God’s face shining on us is available to all believers. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in out hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
- God encourages us to ‘seek his face’. What would this involve?
- Spend some time praying the High Priestly blessing for some people you know.
Experiencing the Presence
The church is a temple of God (for more on this see ‘The Story Of The Heavens & The Earth’). This means that the focal point of God’s manifest presence on the earth is with his people. It is right for us to expect experiences of God’s presence, both in our individual lives and in our gatherings with other believers. As Terry Virgo writes, “If the church is a temple of the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t we expect to meet him there?”
Though God is present with us all the time, we expect to experience his presence in ways that we are particularly aware of him being with us.
That God is always with us should not lead us to draw the conclusion that our experience of his presence is always constant. A child who knows the love of their Father still cherishes those moments of particular embrace. Just because we do not sense God’s presence at a particular moment in time does not mean that he has abandoned us.
- In your experience, how do people tend to respond when they experience the manifest presence of God?
- What examples can you think of in Scripture of how people respond to the manifest presence of God?
There is no cookie-cutter response to the presence of God. Sometimes peoples’ emotions are stirred. Sometimes people are filled with great joy or fear. People repent of sin, are frequently overwhelmed, and at times drop to the floor as though dead.
The warm fuzzy feelings that are commonly associated with God’s presence today are not highlighted in Scripture. It is not impossible that God’s manifest presence may produce such a response (he is the comforter after all), but it is important for us to realise that the effects of meeting with God go way beyond this.
What is consistent in the experience of those who meet with God’s manifest presence is that they are never the same again.
When Moses experienced God in a burning bush, the encounter shaped the direction of Moses’ life from that point forward. The same is true for Isaiah when he was given a vision of the Lord sitting on his throne. It is impossible to truly experience God’s presence and not be changed by it.
The apostles, who had spent time in the presence of Jesus, saw that experience as something that formed the foundation for everything that followed. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life – the life was made manifest.” (1 John 1:1-2)
Drawing Near to God
It is right that we expect to experience God’s manifest presence, and that we realise that when we do we will never be the same again. Moreover, just as the Old Testament encouraged us to seek God’s face, the New Testament instructs us to ‘draw near to God’.
“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Because of the gospel, we have access to draw near to God. Christ has opened up the way and has freely given us a relationship with the Father. As believers, we are free to draw near to God, and James points out that as we do, we will find God reciprocating. “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8)
We have seen that it is good to desire, expect and seek the manifest presence of God. James shows us how we can seek this presence. If we want God to draw near to us, we can begin by drawing near to him. We show our hunger for God’s presence by giving God our presence, and as we do we can claim this promise of Scripture that he will draw near to us.
THINK IT THROUGH
- Do you think it is possible for somebody to draw near to God and not have God draw near to them? Why/why not?
When God has made a promise, we can take it to the bank. God’s word never fails. God has said that when we draw near to him, he will draw near to us. If we want to experience God’s manifest presence, that way to do it is to draw near to God. Tozer helpfully points out that drawing near to God is not about specific locations, but about the heart:
“We are not thinking of the nearness of place, but of nearness of relationship.” (A.W. Tower)
There are many forms this nearness may take. What unites them is the motivating desire to incline your heart to God. This could include repenting of sin, singing praise, humbling ourselves, serving the poor, praying, fasting, studying the Bible, breaking bread, coming together with other believers in unity, giving, waiting in God’s presence, and listening.
The list above is not exhaustive and none of the things listed would automatically constitute drawing near to God. Performing the tasks alone is insufficient, as it is possible to do many of those things with other motivations. We shouldn’t see drawing near to God as an automatic pursuit. The key is to deliberately set our hearts on drawing close to God, and allow what we do to give expression to this. As we draw near to God from the heart, we will see God drawing near to us as he promised, and we will experience his manifest presence in our lives.
- In what ways do you tend to draw near to God?
- What testimonies can you share of God drawing near to you as a result?
The prophet Ezekiel was shown a vision by God of a temple. The temple he described was not a replica of the Temple in Jerusalem, but was symbolic of the place of the presence of God. He describes the vision in Ezekiel 47.
“Then he brought me back to the door of the temple, and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east.” (Ezekiel 47:1)
This water represents God’s presence flowing out, and brings to mind parallels with other temples of God’s presence, such as the rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden, and the streams of living water that flow from the hearts of believers.
“Going on eastward with a measuring line in his hand, the man measured a thousand cubits, and then led me through the water, and it was ankle-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and led me through the water and it was knee-deep. Again, he measured a thousand and it was waist-deep. Again he measured a thousand, and it was a river that I could not pass through, for the water had risen.” (Ezekiel 47:3-5)
As the description progresses, the river of God’s presence deepens. This is the experience of knowing God. We are always in the river, and his presence is always with us, yet we are drawn to an ever deepening experience of that presence.
The river gets deeper the further from the temple it goes. The idea of experiencing God’s presence is not to bunker down, disengage from the world, and spend our lives seeking spiritual experiences, but to follow the river out into the world.
Mission and the presence of God are not rivals. They belong together.
It is as we step out with God on mission that we will have a greater experience of his presence.
It is as we experience and enjoy the manifest presence of God that we will see our mission bearing fruit.
God’s presence is the real deal. Whatever you have experienced of God’s manifest presence so far, there is more to experience and to enjoy. The river gets deeper. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.
- What do you think it would take to go deeper in your experience of Gods’ presence?
- What lasting changes in your life can you attribute to experiences of God’s manifest presence?
- How would you explain the difference between God’s omnipresence, his indwelling presence and his manifest presence? In what ways is each of these important in our Christian lives?