O Lord, why do you stand far off? Why do you hide in times of trouble?
We’ve all wrestled with it: the feeling that God is far off, that the heavens are made of brass, that the room, the church, and the world itself are destitute of his comforting presence.
Here are two thoughts, anchored in the New Testament, that have helped me cope with it.
First, in Old Testament times, God really was far off. I do not mean to deny that his Spirit was omnipresent, or that he took a constant and active interest in his covenant children, or that he occasionally graced his saints with mighty demonstrations of his Spirit’s presence, power and gifts. But I certainly do mean to deny that God’s Old Covenant people were privileged to live as we do under the New Covenant: In constant spiritual union with the Holy Trinity.
That brings me to my second point: In NT times, not only is God not far off, he is so near that he couldn’t possibly be any nearer! The NT bends over backwards to make this point, using rich, diverse, and highly comforting words and images, so the saints will never forget it.
For example, when Gabriel came to Joseph, he said of the coming One, “And they shall call his name Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’”. Sounds pretty near, does it not?
When our Lord promised his disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, he said, “I will petition the Father, and he will give you another Helper, so that he may be with you forever.” How is it that we so often ask God to come to us, when Jesus tells us here that he already has, and that he plans to stay forever!
In this same discourse, the Lord went on to reveal a stupendous implication of the gift of the Spirit: Henceforth there will be a “mutual indwelling” of God and his people, a mutual indwelling much like that of the Persons of the Holy Trinity itself. He said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you . . . On that day you will realize I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (John 14)
And in his high priestly prayer the Lord again speaks of this same thing: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity . . . I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known, in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.” (John 17)
Now, can we honestly think of God as far off when Christ says that he is in us, and we in him, with the result that we are now at home forever in the Holy Trinity?
But there is more.
Paul, for example, tells us that because the saints are now sealed with the Holy Spirit, they are also seated with Christ in the heavenly places. It’s pretty hard to think of God as far off when you’re sitting with him in heaven! (Ephesians 1, 2)
Finally, and in some ways best of all, we have the NT letter to the Hebrew Christians. There we learn that while our OT brothers and sisters had no access to the Holiest Place of the tabernacle, we do, since Christ, our High Priest, has entered it once and for all in our behalf. Here is a miscellany of texts, revolving around this crucial point:
The Holy Spirit was showing by this (i.e., by limited access to God’s presence in OT times) that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed so long as the first tabernacle was still standing. But when Christ appeared as the high priest of the good things that now have come, he entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, a tabernacle not made with human hands (that is, not belonging to this creation). He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; rather, by means of his own blood he entered the Most Holy Place once for all, thus obtaining eternal redemption . . . We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus, our forerunner, has entered on our behalf, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek . . . Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven—Jesus, the Son of God—let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are, and yet did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4, 6, 9)
Do you see the thrust of these rich texts? It is really quite astounding: On the basis of his righteous life and atoning death, Jesus Christ, our great High Priest, has entered the (heavenly) presence of God once and for all—and he has brought us in with him once and for all!
So then, how do we handle “that far off feeling” when it comes? Here’s my best thought: We handle it by meeting it with a strong, determined NT faith. Unlike our OT predecessors, we refuse to allow ourselves to think of God—or to speak to God—as though he were far off. No, clinging to NT truth, and averting our eyes from every contrary feeling (or lack of feeling), we boldly say, “Lord, you are here. You are nearer than hands and feet. Like all your kids, I live and move have my being in you. I am in you, and you are in me. Together, even now, we are seated in heavenly places. My new and eternal home is right here with you, in the Holy Trinity, in the Holiest Place of All!”
Will such affirmations shake off all your spiritual doldrums? Will they ignite a mighty stirring of the Spirit in your emotions? Will your days of spiritual longing and struggle be over forever?
How I wish I could answer yes to all of the above! But from my own experience I can honestly say this: The Spirit of Truth likes it very much when God’s kids persistently affirm the truth that their triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is not a God far off, but a God who is near. And I can further say that those who boldly do so will surely grow in the assurance and joy that he really is.