Does God’s Presence Go Missing? image

Does God’s Presence Go Missing?

I'll start this post with two disclaimers. One, I realise that Twitter is a notoriously bad medium for communicating with nuance, since it both forces brevity (through software) and encourages provocative remarks (through the peer pressure of gaining followers, retweets, and so on). Two, I also realise that I have a substantial hobby horse about the unbiblical use of "presence" language in charismatic circles - so substantial that I often hear it neighing and snorting behind me when I'm commuting, or talking to people, or doing the shopping. With those two caveats in place, I want to take issue with a comment I saw on Twitter recently: not primarily with the tweet itself, although I want to take issue with that too, but with the line of thinking it represents, which seems to be pretty widespread. It went like this: "Church leaders, are you as quick to notice when God's presence is missing from your meetings as you are when key families are missing?"

The person who wrote that is a serious thinker, and knows a lot of biblical theology, so I assume it doesn’t mean what it initially sounds like it means. I assume it is intended to refer to churches like some of those in Revelation 2-3: gatherings of people who have so lost their zeal for God that he has long since withdrawn his presence from them. But it sounds like it means something else, whether through being truncated, abruptly expressed, or whatever. It sounds like it means, hey, church leaders, watch out: God often appears in your meetings, but sometimes he doesn’t, like a key couple who are usually there but sometimes not, and you need to be aware that that can happen. The sensitive readers may even catch a hint of and when it does, it’s because you’re not leading them properly. But even if not, the impression it gives (particularly through the analogy of a key couple who are missing) is that sometimes God comes to your meetings, and sometimes he doesn’t. Yikes.

As I say, it’s not really the tweet, but the entire school of thought it appears to represent, which troubles me. 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. (If Paul could reassure the bungling Corinthians, with all their immorality and idolatry, that they were the place where God dwelt by his Spirit, then unless you’re denying the gospel, you can bet your boots it’s true of you). And I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people ask whether we would notice “if the Holy Spirit stopped coming to our meetings,” usually in the context of warning against insufficiently charismatic corporate gatherings. Quite why this bizarre scenario is being envisaged, or being used to motivate anybody to do anything, is not clear to me.

Paul, of course, reasons in precisely the opposite way. When challenging wayward, disobedient or divisive Christians, his approach is not to say, “hey guys, if you carry on like that, God will remove his presence”, but rather, “don’t you know that you are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?” As such, if we want to motivate people to pursue dynamic experiences of God in our meetings - which I’m sure we do! - we are better off reminding them that God is present, rather than warning them that he might not be. As Terry Virgo put it in a recent tweet: “if the church is a temple of the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t we expect to meet him there?” Spot on.

It may be that the tweet I’m responding to, and many of the similar-ish comments I’ve come across, have a somewhat different explanation: people may be talking about “the presence of God” when what they mean is “our awareness, or experience, of the presence of God”. That would account for quite a few quirks in the discussion, particularly the strangeness of huge crowds of temples of God’s presence singing about how they’re waiting for God’s presence. But surely, surely, we need to be more careful with our language here? When pastors, teachers and songwriters start talking about the Spirit as if he might or might not be there in meetings, doesn’t that lead to a lower expectation for encounter, rather than a greater one? And even if it didn’t, wouldn’t the fact that it is unbiblical preclude us from talking that way?

Perhaps everyone who says things like that, and sings things like that, knows that it’s code for something else. But my guess is that an awful lot of people don’t. So I think it’s incumbent on those of us who teach, and lead, to be a bit more careful with our words. There was a time when God’s people had to go somewhere, or wait a while, to experience his presence. Not since Pentecost, though.

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