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Where Is God?

July 29, 2014

If one wants to know about God, where should they look? Most would say to the Bible, of course. And I would wholeheartedly agree, but with a reservation. (That statement may seem to be self-contradictory until one throws off the fetters of dualistic thinking.)

Language is wholly inadequate to even verge on definitively describing God. We have to bring God down to our level to even speak of him. As A. W. Tozer puts it in his book The Knowledge of the Holy, “Left to ourselves we tend immediately to reduce God to manageable terms.” We have no other choice but to use the same language and understandings we use to describe ourselves and the world around us; thus we are limited to describing God in terms of things that are not God. Having no other language available, that is the best we can do. But when we do that, in a sense he is no longer God. No matter how hard we try, the true nature of God eludes us. It is simply beyond us. We end up with but a shadow of God, a God seen through a glass darkly.

Yet God is not totally inscrutable. The tangible and the physical do point us toward the imperceptible and the spiritual. Like Moses, we cannot look at him directly, but we can catch glimpses of God through our senses and through our relationships. We can see proofs of his existence in every aspect of life and nature around us. By extrapolating our experience of Creation and our rich and varied descriptions of it to the Creator, we can develop a deep and beautiful understanding of the divine.

That understanding serves us well so long as we always remember that our best efforts to make sense of God are but rudimentary sketches that barely touch upon his eternal and transcendent reality. Our language does carry a deal of truth, yet God remains beyond its furthest limits. We must never lose sight of the fact that God cannot be logically understood, that he is beyond the grasp of all human reason. All of the wonder and grandeur of Creation, all the beauty and intimacy of human relationship, are but the faintest whispers of the full measure of his power and his glory, his majesty and his splendor. When it comes to describing his otherness, his mystery, we are speechless.

I recently downloaded The Cloud of Unknowing, an anonymous work of Christian mysticism from the latter half of the 14th century. Perhaps a line from that work sums it up best:

He may be well loved, but not thought. By love he can be caught and held but by thinking never.

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One of the most difficult attributes of God to get one’s head around, I believe, is his omnipresence. Many Christians will readily admit they don’t really understand it, while it is obvious to me that many of those who think they do obviously do not. Often they have memorized what they have heard and read well enough to regurgitate the normative explanations with some accuracy, but they seem unable to integrate those explanations into the rest of their beliefs. I hold no allusions that within my own semi-digested theology I come even close to appreciating the implications of God’s omnipresence.

We simply have nothing to relate it to, no familiarity with anything remotely similar. In our experience things exist in a defined space and can only be at one place at any given moment. Even something that is generally present everywhere in our experience, like air, provides only a weak metaphor, as it is spread thinly throughout the space it occupies. But all of God is completely present in all places at all times. His presence extends to all three persons of the Godhead.

There is no such thing as “partial omnipresence.” It’s all or nothing. If God is not constantly present everywhere in the bewildering, almost absurd, enormity of the universe, then he is not the God of the Bible.

Where can I go [to get away] from your Spirit? Where can I run [to get away] from you? If I go up to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in hell, you are there. If I climb upward on the rays of the morning sun [or] land on the most distant shore of the sea where the sun sets, even there your hand would guide me and your right hand would hold on to me. If I say, “Let the darkness hide me and let the light around me turn into night,” even the darkness is not too dark for you. Night is as bright as day. Darkness and light are the same [to you]. (Psalm 139:7-12 GW)

Time and space are human perceptions; God knows no such limitations. Heaven, hell, east, west, the far side of the universe—it doesn’t matter, for the Lord is already there. Yesterday, today, tomorrow—he is there. He is always present even though we do not realize it. He is always present whether we believe it or not.

“I am a God who is near. I am also a God who is far away,” declares the LORD. “No one can hide so that I can’t see him,” declares the LORD. “I fill heaven and earth!” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 23:23-24 GW)

If we believe what the Bible says about God’s omnipresence, then the idea that God is only with believers cannot be true. God has said, “I will never abandon you or leave you.” (Hebrews 13:5b GW) (Most other translations use the word forsake rather than abandon.)

There is no question that one can forsake God. I have often heard it suggested that when one does, if they repent, God will not forsake them. But let’s pause and think about that for a minute. The Bible makes no such qualification. It repeatedly suggests, and in places flatly states, that God is with everyone always. By the very definition of omnipresence it cannot be otherwise. So the italicized qualifier cannot be true. It is true, however, that if a person does not accept God’s presence, does not acknowledge it, does not embrace it, his presence is of no value to them; it has no power in their life. As Jeremiah 17:13 says, they will be put to shame. But God will not abandon them. He remains present with them always.

What if we fully apprehended the idea of God’s omnipresence and assimilate it into our very being? What if we truly believed (not just gave intellectual assent) that God is our ever-present audience, occupying every corner of our hearts and minds? What if we were fully and constantly aware that as the Bible makes clear, our every thought, our every attitude, every word, every action is visible to God? If we were convinced God was with us always, wouldn’t we think and behave differently? Wouldn’t we be less quick to, as Charles H. Spurgeon put it in The Treasury of David, to “offend the Almighty to his face, and commit acts of treason at the very foot of his throne”?

Perhaps, but although Jesus through the Cross provided forgiveness for every single person, our full deliver­ance awaits glorification. We are not completely free of our flesh (read our ego).

Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matthew 26:41 ESV)

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I do not pretend to have all the answers. My understanding of God is fragile and imperfect, always evolving, not toward complexity, but rather away from it, toward simplicity. To some that admission may itself raise red flags. To those from more conservative orientations, some of the ideas I express may seem those of a non-believer, my uncertainties evidence of lack of faith. I would suggest rather they arise from a profound faith, a faith that doubts and questions in its constant search for the truth. I have spent the better part of my life searching for that truth, a truth that satisfies me both intellectually and spiritually. I have been blessed with many mentors, most of whom I will never meet, and friends who share in my quest for meaningful understandings of the mystery of God.

To me, the most miraculous thing about all this is that even though God knows every minute detail about me, even though he sees my every weakness, my every failing, my every misunderstanding of him, even though I offend him to his face, he loves me. It gives me great comfort to be able to say, “Even though I walk through the dark valley of death, because you are with me, I fear no harm.”   God is with me. I am safe in his embrace. Always.

That is grace.

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