Why I’m Wary of ‘the Presence of God’
The Unbiblical Presence of God
Many of the ways we use the language of the presence of God suggest that it is an item that can be met, held, contained or carried, but in the Bible, God’s presence is the place where he is. The presence of God results from God being present. It is a state or a place, not an item.
So, for example, in the garden Adam and Eve tried to hide from God’s presence when he came for a walk (Gen. 3:8); they were hiding from the place where he was. Later, God was present in the tabernacle and the temple, and therefore priests who were barred from the tabernacle or temple for ministering while in a state of uncleanness were cut off from God’s presence (Lev. 22:3). When Hannah took Samuel to serve in the tabernacle at Shiloh, she took him ‘that he may appear in the presence of the LORD’ (1 Sam. 1:22), that is, where God was. When Jerusalem was captured by Nebuchadnezzar and the king and high-ranking officials were taken off to Babylon, they had been cast out from God’s presence (2 Kings 24:20). The prophets understood the Exile in the same way: to be taken from Jerusalem, was to be taken away from God’s presence (Jer. 52:3).
God’s presence is not just where he dwells on earth, but also where he sits enthroned in heaven. In Job, when Satan left God’s throne room, he ‘went out from the presence of the LORD’ (Job 1:12; 2:7). The Psalms are probably helping us see that the temple is God’s throne room on earth when they speak of entering God’s presence with thanksgiving and singing (Psalm 95:2; 100:2) and when they declare to God that ‘in your presence there is fullness of joy’ (Psalm 16:11).
The same conception of the presence of God is found in the New Testament. The presence of God is the heavenly throne room from where the angel Gabriel is sent (Luke 1:19) and where Jesus asks to be glorified with the glory which has been his for all eternity (John 17:5). It’s also where Jesus sits currently, awaiting the day of his return (Acts 3:20). At the end of this age, those who do not know God or obey the gospel will ‘suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord’ (2 Thess. 1:9) and be tormented ‘in the presence of the Lamb’ (Rev. 14:10). In a broader sense, since God is present with his people, important pronouncements and judgments can be made in his presence, that is, with God as a witness (e.g. Acts 10:33; 1 Tim. 5:21; 6:13; 2 Tim. 4:1).
So biblically speaking the presence of God is a place where God is present. It’s a location, not an item that can be carried or a person to be encountered.
I’m sure at this point you’re thinking about Exodus 33:14-15 where not only does Moses request that God’s presence go with him, but God promises that it will. It certainly looks like Moses was going to carry the presence.
But here the limitations of language are confusing things. Both Moses and God use the standard Hebrew term for ‘presence’ paneh.1 Paneh can have a variety of meanings including the sense ‘person’, as in ‘I myself, in person’. This is how it is used in 2 Samuel 17:11 (‘and that you may go to battle in person [paneh]’) and Lamentations 4:16 (‘The LORD himself [paneh] has scattered them’), and this is the sense it has in Exodus 33: ‘I myself [paneh] will go with you’ (v.14); ‘If you yourself [paneh] will not go with me’ (v.15).2 The promise wasn’t that some item or force – God’s presence – would go with Moses, but that God himself would go with him, and that is surely a far better promise!
The Unhelpful Presence of God
So perhaps we’re not always using the language in the same way the Bible does, but does it really matter? Isn’t this just being a bit pedantic about words? Well, maybe, but words matter. Words shape our thinking, and I worry that our misuse of this language could cause us to miss the incredible truth of what God offers us.
When we talk about the presence of God as if it’s an item, it’s impersonal; it sounds like a force or a power. Therefore, when we speak of ‘encountering the presence’ or ‘being filled with the presence’ we are encouraging ourselves to seek an experience of something when actually the invitation is to a relationship with someone. We get to ‘encounter God’ and ‘be filled with God’s Spirit’. The reality is, you can’t carry someone’s presence with you, but they can come with you. And that is far better!
I think it’s significant that in contrast to the Old Testament (e.g. Lev. 22:3; 1 Sam. 1:22; 2 Kings 24:20), the New Testament doesn’t use the language of the presence of God when talking about temple theology and how humans encounter God. Instead, the New Testament uses the language of the Holy Spirit. We don’t just get to come to a place where God dwells, we get to be the place where God dwells by the person of the Holy Spirit.
You will look in vain for references to coming into, encountering, carrying, ministering in or living in the presence of God in the New Testament, but you’ll find constant references to being full of (Acts 6:5; 7:55; 11:24), filled with (Acts 2:4; 4:31; 9:17; 13:52; Eph. 5:18), serving in (Rom. 7:6), led by (Rom 8:14; Gal. 5:18) living in (Rom. 8:5, 9), being dwelled in by (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), and walking by (Gal. 5:16, 25) the Holy Spirit. This is where the focus lies for the new covenant people of God. It seems that often we’re longing for an encounter with the presence of God, when God has invited us to encounter him personally. And that has got to be something far better!
None of this means we can’t use the language of the presence of God, it just means that if we do use it, we should be careful to make sure our use is biblical and (therefore) helpful, and we should use language to communicate about and build faith and anticipation for the wonderful reality into which we’ve been brought: an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit, with God himself.
So, it’s true to say that Jesus has ascended to be ‘in the presence of God’. It’s true that as believers when we die we will immediately be ‘in God’s presence’. It is true that we love God’s presence (that is, where God is), but I fear that many people in our churches are thinking of an impersonal force when we say that, not a relational encounter with the living God. Perhaps, ‘we love encountering God’ is a better way of expressing the same sentiment.
When we gather to worship, let’s not fall short of what is offered and settle for encountering ‘the presence’, let’s encounter God himself. When we’re going out into the world and interacting with those who don’t know Jesus, let’s not go with an impersonal force, ‘the presence’, let’s go with the Holy Spirit living inside of us. Let’s follow the lead of the New Testament authors and revel in the wonder that we get to have intimate communion with the living God himself.
Explaining the Presence
One other point on this topic is worth highlighting. I didn’t think of it until it was raised by a friend with whom I was discussing these musings. It’s the question, ‘Why?’ Why has the unbiblical use of the language of the presence of God become so prominent? Why are people so eager to talk about ‘encountering the presence’ and creating a ‘presence culture’? As my friend expressed it, ‘There is a difference between looking at fruits and looking at roots.’
The New Testament shows us that we have access to a wonderful, intimate communion with God. It shows us that we should expect to experience this when we gather as his people. So perhaps the popularity of this language is actually highlighting that we’re longing for something that’s available to us but which, we feel at least, we’re not currently experiencing. Perhaps we need more than just a change of language. Maybe our expectation of what the work of the Spirit looks like is wrong, or maybe there’s something lacking in how we are approaching Christian life and church which means we’re not experiencing what’s available. I’m not yet sure what the answer to the ‘Why?’ question is, but I’m sure we need to wrestle with it.
So that’s why I’m wary of ‘the presence of God’ and why I think we need to ask why it’s become so prominent; not because it’s not good, but because the reality on offer is someone far better.
1 As it happens the word actually always appears in its plural form: pānîm.
2 The NLT reflects this understanding. See especially F.W. Gesenius, Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, פָּנֶה 2 and Brown-Driver-Briggs, פָּנֶה 7.2 a.