Chapter 5 – The Universal Presence
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?
In all Christian teaching, certain basic truths are found, hidden at times, but still there. Such a truth is divine immanence. God dwells in His creation and is everywhere indivisibly present in all His works. This is boldly taught by prophet and apostle and is accepted by Christian theology generally; that is, it appears in the books, but for some reason, it has not sunk into the average Christian’s heart so as to become a part of his believing self. The truth is that while God dwells in His world, He is separated from it by a gulf forever impassable. However closely He may be identified with the work of His hands, they are and must eternally be other than He, and He is and must be antecedent to and independent of them. He is transcendent above all His works even while He is immanent within them. What now does the divine immanence mean in direct Christian experience? It means simply that God is here. Wherever we are, God is here. There is no place, there can be no place, where He is not. Ten million intelligences standing at as many points in space and separated by incomprehensible distances can each one say with equal truth, God is here. No point is nearer to God than any other point. It is exactly as near to God from any place as it is from any other place. No one is in mere distance any farther from or any nearer to God than any other person is. These are truths believed by every instructed Christian. It remains for us to think on them and pray over them until they begin to glow within us. In the beginning God. Not “In the beginning matter,” for matter is not self-causing. It requires an antecedent cause, and God is that cause. Not “In the beginning law,” for law is but a name for the course which all creation follows. That course had to be planned, and the planner is God. Not “In the beginning mind,” for mind also is a created thing and must have a creator behind it. But In the beginning God, the uncaused cause of matter, mind, and law. There we must begin. Adam sinned and, in his panic, frantically tried to do the impossible: He tried to hide from the presence of God. David also must have had wild thoughts of trying to escape from God’s presence, for he wrote: Psalm 139:7 – 10, Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? Then he proceeded through one of his most beautiful psalms to celebrate the glory of the divine immanence. If I ascend to heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Your hand will lead me, and Your right hand will lay hold of me. And he knew that God’s being and God’s seeing are the same, that the seeing “Presence” had been with him even before he was born, watching the mystery of unfolding life. Solomon exclaimed, 1 Kings 8:27-29, But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built? Paul assured the Athenians that God is not far from each one of us; Acts 17:28, for in him we live and move and exist. If God is present at every point in space, if we cannot go where He is not, cannot even conceive of a place where He is not, why then has not that presence become the one universally celebrated fact of the world? The patriarch Jacob, in the howling waste of a wilderness, gave the answer to that question. He saw a vision of God and cried out in wonder, Gen 28:16, Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it. Jacob had never been for one small division of a moment outside the circle of that all-pervading presence. But he knew it not. That was his trouble, and it is ours. Men do not know that God is here. What a difference it would make if they knew. The presence and the manifestation of the presence are not the same. There can be the 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. On our part there must be surrender to the Spirit of God, for His work it is to show us the Father and the Son. If we cooperate with Him in loving obedience, God will manifest Himself to us, and that manifestation will be the difference between a nominal Christian life and a life radiant with the light of His face. Always, everywhere, God is present, and always He seeks to reveal Himself. He did not have to be persuaded to reveal Himself to Moses. The LORD descended in the cloud and stood there with him as he called upon the name of the LORD. He not only made a verbal proclamation of His nature, but He also revealed His very self to Moses so that the skin of Moses’ face shone with the supernatural light. Our pursuit of God is successful just because He is forever seeking to manifest Himself to us. To speak of being near to or far from God is to use language in a sense always understood when applied to our ordinary human relationships. A man may say, “I feel that my son is coming nearer to me as he gets older,” and yet that son has lived by his father’s side since he was born and has never been away from home more than a day or so in his entire life. What then can the father mean? Obviously, he is speaking of experience. He means that the boy is coming to know him more intimately and with deeper understanding, that the barriers of thought and feeling between the two are disappearing, that father and son are becoming more closely united in mind and heart. So, when we sing, “Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord,” we are not thinking of the nearness of place, but of the nearness of relationship. It is for increasing degrees of awareness that we pray, for a more perfect consciousness of the divine presence. We need never shout across the spaces to an absent God. He is nearer than our own soul, closer than our most secret thoughts. Why do some people “find” God in a way that others do not? Why does God manifest His presence to some and let multitudes of others struggle along in the half-light of imperfect Christian experience? Of course, the will of God is the same for all. He has no favourites within His household. All He has ever done for any of His children He will do for all of His children. The difference lies not with God but with us. Pick at random a score of great saints whose lives and testimonies are widely known. Let them be Bible characters or well-known Christians of post-biblical times. You will be struck instantly with the fact that the saints were not alike. Sometimes the unlikeness’s were so great as to be positively glaring. How different, for example, was Moses from Isaiah; how different was Elijah from David; how unlike each other were John and Paul, Saint Francis and Luther, Finney and Thomas à Kempis. The differences are as wide as human life itself: differences of race, nationality, education, temperament, habit, and personal qualities. Yet they all walked, each in his day, upon a high road of spiritual living far above the common way. Their differences must have been incidental and in the eyes of God of no significance. In some vital quality they must have been alike. What was it? I venture to suggest that the one vital quality which they had in common was spiritual receptivity. Something in them was open to heaven, something which urged them Godward. I shall say simply that they had spiritual awareness and that they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives. They differed from the average person in that when they felt the inward longing, they did something about it. They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response. They were not disobedient to the heavenly vision. As David put it neatly, Psalm 27:8, When You said, Seek My face, my heart said to You, Your face, O LORD, I shall seek. As with everything good in human life, behind this receptivity is God. The sovereignty of God is here, and is felt even by those who have not placed particular stress upon it theologically. Important as it is that we recognize God working in us, I would yet warn against a too-great preoccupation with the thought. It is a sure road to sterile passivity. God will not hold us responsible to understand the mysteries of election, predestination, and the divine sovereignty. The best and safest way to deal with these truths is to raise our eyes to God and in deepest reverence say, O LORD, You know. Those things belong to the deep and mysterious profoundness of God’s omniscience. Prying into them may make theologians, but it will rarely make saints. Receptivity is not a single thing; rather, it is a compound, a blending of several elements within the soul. It is an affinity for, a bent toward, a sympathetic response to, a desire to have. From this it may be gathered that it can be present in degrees, that we may have little or more or less, depending upon the individual. It may be increased by exercise or destroyed by neglect. It is not a sovereign and irresistible force which comes upon us as a seizure from above. It is a gift of God, indeed, but one which must be recognized and cultivated as any other gift if it is to realize the purpose for which it was given. Failure to see this is the cause of a very serious breakdown in modern evangelicalism. The idea of cultivation and exercise, so dear to the saints of old, has now no place in our total religious picture. It is too slow, too common. We now demand glamour and fast-flowing dramatic action. A generation of Christians reared among push buttons and automatic machines is impatient with slower and less-direct methods of reaching their goals. We have been trying to apply machine-age methods to our relationships with God. We read our chapter, have our short devotions, and rush away, hoping to make up for our deep inward bankruptcy by attending another gospel meeting or listening to another thrilling story told by a religious adventurer lately returned from afar. The tragic results of this spirit are all about us. Shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit: These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul. For this great sickness that is upon us no one person is responsible, and no Christian is wholly free from blame. We have all contributed, directly or indirectly, to this sad state of affairs. We have been too blind to see, or too timid to speak out, or too self-satisfied to desire anything better than the poor, average diet with which others appear satisfied. To put it differently, we have accepted one another’s notions, copied one another’s lives, and made one another’s experiences the model for our own. And for a generation the trend has been downward. Now we have reached a low place of sand and burnt-wire grass, and, worst of all, we have made the Word of Truth conform to our experience and accepted this low plane as the very pasture of the blessed. It will require a determined heart and more than a little courage to wrench ourselves loose from the grip of our times and return to biblical ways. But it can be done. Every now and then in the past, Christians have had to do it. History has recorded several large-scale returns led by such men as Saint Francis, Martin Luther, and George Fox. Unfortunately, there seems to be no Luther or Fox on the horizon at present. Whether or not another such return may be expected before the coming of Christ is a question upon which Christians are not fully agreed, but that is not of too great importance to us now. What God in His sovereignty may yet do on a worldwide scale I do not claim to know; but what He will do for the plain man or woman who seeks His face I believe I do know and can tell others. Let any man turn to God in earnest, let him begin to exercise himself unto godliness, let him seek to develop his powers of spiritual receptivity by trust and obedience and humility, and the results will exceed anything he may have hoped in his leaner and weaker days. Any man who by repentance and a sincere return to God will break himself out of the mould in which he has been held, and will go to the Bible itself for his spiritual standards, will be delighted with what he finds there. Let us say it again: The universal presence is a fact. God is here. The whole universe is alive with His life. And He is no strange or foreign God, but the familiar Father of our Lord Jesus Christ whose love has for these thousands of years enfolded the sinful race of men. And always He is trying to get our attention, to reveal Himself to us, to communicate with us. We have within us the ability to know Him if we will but respond to His overtures. (And this we call pursuing God!) We will know Him an increasing degree as our receptivity becomes more perfect by faith and love and practice.
O God and Father, I repent of my sinful preoccupation with visible things. The world has been too much with me. Thou hast been here and I knew it not. I have been blind to thy presence. Open my eyes that I may behold thee in and around me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.