‘O the difference, the inexpressible difference, between enjoying God’s presence, and pining in its absence!’ These are the words of Augustus Toplady, the famous hymn writer and preacher.
On numerous occasions he was able to write in his journal after the Sunday services: ‘the presence and power of God was among us’.
Sadly, such expressions are rarely heard on our lips. What do we know of the presence of God among us? Do we desire experiences of God?
Is it something we pray for and look for in our own private devotions and as we meet together at our Sunday gatherings and mid-week meetings?
Some ministers of the gospel have never thought about the matter and feel rather uncomfortable when it is raised. A subject which to a former generation was considered of vital importance is now treated with some degree of suspicion if not scepticism.
There may be a number of reasons for this neglect of the theme of God’s presence. The renewed interest in all things ‘spiritual’, from Celtic crosses to New Age experiences, makes Bible-believing people wary of something that is not, to their way of thinking, clearly definable.
There may also be an overreaction to charismatic excesses so that anything out of the ordinary, or which arouses the passions and moves the emotions, is discounted as ‘enthusiasm’.
Others may be put off considering this subject because of the contrived atmospheres that are often produced by the ‘worship leader’.
That some view the subject of God’s presence as purely a matter of personal feeling is understandable. I well remember being in one of London’s football stadiums where a well-known evangelist was to preach.
At one point during the meeting the chairman asked us to raise our hand to indicate if we felt the Lord was present. In all honesty I could not join the vast array of arm-waving.
Some people enter a lofty church or cathedral and are convinced that they have felt God come close to them.
It is also a sad fact that in recent years a number from evangelical backgrounds have been drawn into eastern Orthodoxy. From belonging to churches where the worship was very informal and relaxed, they have moved to an idolatrous and anti-evangelical religion in order to experience (as they would put it) a sense of the reality of God.
Are we wrong, then, to expect any kind of felt divine presence in our meetings? Is it enough to believe that if we have prayed to God for help and meet in the name of Jesus then he will be there by his Spirit to speak to people as the Bible is taught?
Are we to be content with a take-it-by-faith, non-experimental religion?
Was Toplady deluding himself when he noted in his journal some of the intense experiences of God he felt on Saturday evenings, assuring him of divine blessing as he preached the following Lord’s Day?
Though God is infinite and present everywhere and at all times, he has ordained to reveal his presence and to cause it to be felt in different places, at different times and in varying degrees of intensity.
God reveals his presence in heaven in a way he does so nowhere else, and it is where the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is at the moment. It is the place God has chosen to call home.
God also made his ‘home’ in an earthly tent set up by Moses in the centre of the Israelite camp. In the days of Solomon, the tent gave way to a splendid temple – ‘the house of the Lord’. In both cases the glory of the Lord so filled these earthly representations of heaven that God’s ministers were not able to enter.
Though God is the high and lofty one, he has also ordained to dwell with the person who has a contrite and humble spirit.
These Old Testament texts are filled out in the New Testament. God, in the person of his Son, lived on earth in the tent of his human nature as the man Christ Jesus. And the disciples saw his glory.
The church meeting locally is God’s temple where the Spirit of God dwells (Ephesians 2:19-22). And the individual believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
Jesus speaks of the Father and the Son making their home with the person who loves him and keeps his Word.
Paul speaks of the love of God being ‘poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’. The Jerusalem church felt the divine presence (Acts 4:31).
The Bible also witnesses to God’s absences from his people. Expressions used to describe this include God ‘hiding his face’ and ‘the glory has departed’.
Israel’s experience, in the days of Eli and Ezekiel, show that it is possible for
people to think they have God with them when that is not the case.
The New Testament can speak of the Spirit being ‘quenched’ and of the Lord standing outside the local church (1 Thessalonians 5:19; Revelation 3:20).
The divine absence was most keenly felt by Jesus Christ during those three dark hours on the cross, when he experienced the cup of God’s fury to the full. If we belong to Jesus Christ we shall never have to endure that kind of absence.
The biblical evidence suggests it is possible to be conscious of the objective reality both of the Lord’s absence and his presence. There are also degrees of that presence and absence.
What do we know of the gospel coming ‘in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance’? Is Isaiah’s cry our own: ‘Oh that you would rend the heavens! That you would come down! That the mountains might shake at your presence’?