Saturday, June 16, 2018

Presence

The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.” (Exodus 33:14-15)

“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” (excerpt from Psalm 139)

There are numerous examples in the Bible where the curtain is pulled back, and the omnipresent God reveals His manifest presence to His people. In other words, the God who is always there draws nearer in some way, so that His presence is unmistakably felt. As some people describe it: “God showed up.”

The Israelites, for example, wandered through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land, led by the pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). When Solomon dedicated the temple, the presence of God was so tangible that the priests couldn’t even perform their duties (1 Kings 8:10-11).
Conversely, there is a chilling vision given to Ezekiel when God withdrew His presence from the same temple, years later, due to corruption (Ezekiel 10:4-18).
All that to say: the presence of God is a Big Deal.

When I was a fairly new believer, we tended to use different language to describe our experience of God’s presence. Terms like “on fire” versus “cold”, for example. ‘Cold’ was probably an allusion to Jesus’ warning: “the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12), while ‘on fire’ was mostly likely inspired by the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “were not our hearts burning?” (Luke 24:32).

I can recall a few times, as a teenager, when I would suddenly become aware that my heart had grown cold. I hadn’t ‘backslidden’ into a life of wanton debauchery or anything like that, nor was I defiantly shaking my fist at the Almighty. I was going through the usual motions of an average high school student who also attended church, but my heart had gradually grown cold.
The Spirit was always present, but my cold (distracted, inattentive) heart meant that I wasn’t aware of Him. Until I realized what had happened, and changed (repented).
There’s also those times where you have a sense of His presence being “on” something you are involved in. I recall instances in pastoral ministry where I was faced with a difficult meeting with difficult people, and would spend a lot of time leading up to said meeting in Scripture reading and prayer — for truth to be spoken with love and respect.

And yet despite the normal anxiety, I would enter the meeting with a definite sense of His presence going with me. There would inevitably be some level of fireworks before the meeting was over, but the resulting positive fruit was a testimony to His faithfulness to open and change hearts.

Conversely, like Ezekiel’s vision of God’s glory departing from the Temple, there are times where you sense the absence, or even the withdrawal of His presence — some people colloquially describe it as: “God’s not on this”.
That can usually be understood or interpreted as one way the Holy Spirit warns us to not get involved, or when it’s time to walk away.
There was a time when I was asked by a church to do something that — no matter how I tried to look at it from multiple angles and viewpoints — I knew wasn’t what the Spirit was directing me to do.

The direction the church leadership insisted that I follow wasn’t anything illegal, unethical, immoral or even unbiblical. They simply wanted me to strip out all elements of worship or overt discipleship from a ministry that I was leading, and to focus on ‘purely social events’.

There’s nothing wrong with social events, naturally. I love having fun with friends as much as anyone. ‘Community’ is one of our deepest desires, and social gatherings are a natural expression of relationships.

So, again: the leadership of the church was not asking me to do anything illegal, unethical, immoral, or unbiblical.
But from the moment the directive came down — the proverbial ‘line drawn in the sand’ — I sensed the immediate withdrawal of the Presence. As sharply as if a guillotine had dropped.
It’s one thing, as a teenager, to suddenly realize you’ve gradually cooled-off in your awareness of God’s presence. It’s another thing entirely to sense the withdrawal of the Spirit’s presence, and continue on as if nothing significant had changed. I resigned my position at the church not long afterward.
I am not suggesting or implying that the Presence was withdrawn from the entire church in question — far from it. God is clearly at work there. I am speaking only of my individual following of His leading in one specific situation.
As David wrote in Psalm 139, God’s presence is everywhere, which is a comforting and encouraging thought. I just need to stay spiritually alert. And Moses summed up the other side of the coin succinctly: “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.”

God’s presence — and our awareness and cooperation — is an integral part of what it means to be “led by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16-25). Whatever the cost may be, count me in.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, so often it's not about the illegal, unethical, etc., but about the gifts and calling we have received.
    Jesus' promise "I will be with you always" is preceded by the command to "Make Disciples." It is within this disciple-making work that we have the promise of the presence of the One who has been given all authority.

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