Any honest person will admit that there are times when God seems absent from the events of this world. He doesn’t appear to hear our prayers, ease our pain, or grace us with the comfort of His presence. He allows genocide, injustice, war, and disease. He provides no immediate comfort for the lonely or oppressed. What is God doing while so much havoc is being wreaked on His creation? Why doesn’t He intervene? And why do some people never hear His Gospel?
God’s absence is not something that the Scriptures address all at once. There is no text-book answer to the question of God’s delay to bring justice. This perceived neglect of the Divine is felt in a few prominent ways and the first and most familiar way will be addressed here in the form of a question:
“Why isn’t God speaking to me?”
Young disciples speak this depressive statement during what is widely called the “wilderness season.” You can’t feel God. You can’t hear God. You don’t sense any kind of connection in prayer. God seems to run away the moment you get close. Perhaps this is the most common experience of the Divine withdraw. Interestingly, this feeling of abandonment is often accompanied by a failed attempt to attain an epiphany in Bible study or secure an answer in prayer. After we have worked so hard to communicate with God, He has seemingly ignored us.
If you’ve come from a Baptist, Holiness, or Pentecostal tradition you may understand this work in prayer as that of “taking hold of God” or “travail.” By these phrases I have spent many prayer meetings enjoying or longing for the presence of God. If you’ve come from a Catholic or Eastern tradition, you may understand this work to be a meditative centering of oneself on God. I’ve become more acquainted with this meditative model in recent years and have come to enjoy it very much. But I must say, it is not always an enrapturing and beautiful experience. It is actually often far from it. It can easily contain all the dry mouthed supplications of the former model. Indeed, the dark night of the soul is a very real and lonely experience.
Through these prayerful pursuits I have experienced the ebb and flow of the “wilderness season” and have come out questioning whether such concentrated prayer and study is the only way that we can really experience God. A few years ago, I stumbled upon Brother Lawrence’s letters, compiled as the book, The Practice of the Presence of God. According to this poor French monk we are able to experience God in all things and do all things out of love for Him. Every area of life is sacred and to be walked through in meditative awareness of the Lord. But how do we do all things as prayer unto God? How can God be known, experienced, and heard in all things? If we truly affirm God’s attribute of omnipresence (existence everywhere), can we continue to measure our spiritual vitality only by attendance to the prayer closet?
I think that Brother Lawrence’s letters speak of something that we are all truly longing for; a relationship with the Divine that is not forced or obtained, but found in all the complexity and mystery of our daily experience. Perhaps that feeling that God is not speaking to us actually comes from the idea that he only speaks to us in one way; namely prayer and bible study. But the testimony of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and holy men throughout the ages is that God has eternally bound Himself to the created world in His son. Through this act of eternal incarnation, God has amplified His original decree of the goodness of creation. And through our work in and cultivation of this world, we come to know God more completely.
So the psalmist cries that he cannot escape God’s presence, even in Sheol.
And the apostle writes that whether one eats or drinks or does anything at all, it should be for the glory of God.
And the prophet protests that we can talk to God while our hearts are far from Him.
And Christ Himself encourages that even a cup of cold water given in His name will be rewarded.
Can we stomach that God has provided all things as means of experiencing Him? Can we see that God is present in all places; that he even asks to be glorified in our daily eating and drinking; desires a communion with us that transcends verbal prayer and rewards every practical task we do in His Name? We must come to know that God values our times of meditation and intercession, but he also values our work in the world as a form of prayer and intends to commune with us through both. I am not making light of the discipline of prayer. Far from it. God intends for us to find solitude and pray to our “Father who is in secret.” But indeed, God has also intended prayer to be something we do “without ceasing.” In every place we inhabit, we are to experience and know our Lord. The closet, the prairie, and the post office are all sanctuaries of God’s grandeur, meant for His worship.
As human beings, we must settle within ourselves that God has created all that we see and has established our place in the world as those who must do the hard work of cultivation and maintenance in daily routine. God did not give Adam a monastery in which to meditate, but a garden to cultivate. This was his original intention. Not that we lock ourselves up to find God, but that we get are hands in the dirt, and mimic His creative ordering of the world through our daily work, and in doing so realize a satisfying communion with Him. The earthiness and God-ordained goodness of Adam’s tasks should make us blush at our tendency to hide away and engage all our mental capacities toward understanding God internally. Adam’s internal formation came about through his external tasks, to tend the garden and multiply mankind.
It’s a strange thing, the way that we’ve reduced the knowing of God down to prayer, study, and “spiritual” disciplines, an even stranger thing that we’ve reversed the order in which God himself chose to reveal His beauty to mankind;
God opened Adams eyes to reveal Himself through creation.
We close our eyes and wait for God’s singularly spiritual revelation.
God placed Adam in a Garden, put a rake in His hand, and walked with Him in his work.
We set our work aside to find a dark and task-less place to pursue spiritual knowledge, ardently refusing our surroundings as though God can only be sought through their denial.
Is it any wonder that we are a frustrated people who don’t “hear God’s voice”?
Of course we are frustrated. We abandon the amphitheater of His majesty for the cellars of “prayer” and “bible study” and “spiritual” activities. We lock ourselves air-tight into sound-proof rooms while God is using His creation and our work in it as a megaphone to speak wonders to us. We are failing to see what is right in front of us. The spiritual has been intrinsically tied to the natural. God confirms this by His work in creation and most ultimately in the incarnation. God became a man and He dwelt among us! How much more can the God who is “spirit” reveal to us that He is found in the natural world! The spiritual and the physical cannot be separated. Our lonely solitude and our meditative daily labor are both delightful incense on the alter of the Almighty. Yes, in our most spiritual moments, we cannot change that we are in fact, flesh and bone. And this is God’s doing: His work. He calls it good.
If God really has placed man in a garden, and spoke to Him through burning bush, led him through clouds by day and fires by night, promised him a land flowing with milk and honey, and mysteriously entered into the created realm to take him to that land, and from that land claims to fill the whole earth with His beauty, then the implications for you and I are boundless.
Perhaps the most immediate implication is that can experience and know God at any moment. Divine Omnipresence means that the Divine can be experienced while you cook your breakfast, walk to the library, make love, or do the laundry. As a follower of Jesus you have entered into a Kingdom in which God uses and permeates all things to grow His people in love toward Him and one another. We can come out of the prayer closet and into the open. God is there too. He does not only hide in dark places but has infiltrated every nook and cranny of existence to be experienced and known by His people.
The omnipresence of God is as true for us now as it was for the apostles. Throughout the Scriptures we see a comprehensive picture of our relationship to the triune God, expressed in a few different ways.
- We experience God in Christian Community. Paul writes to the Corinthians as well as the Ephesians that God is experienced through service to our local Church. Through our involvement we are being continually built up together and matured in our interaction with the family of God. We can know Jesus better by learning from one another and growing up into Christ who is our head. Each member contributes to the good of the body. Christ speaks to us in the voices and actions of our brothers and sisters.
- Christ invites and implores us to experience Him in the Eucharist, saying in John’s Gospel, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” and Paul declares that the bread and wine at the Lord’s table are an actual “sharing” in the body and blood of Christ. We have an intimate, tangible fellowship with Christ when we partake of the elements in Holy Communion.
- We experience God in our daily work. And not only through our work, but through the work of others also. Again, whether we eat or drink, we are meant to do all to the glory of God. Our work is meant to be an act of spiritual encounter and formation, as it was for Adam and Eve. Perhaps this is why many monasteries have often included manual labor in their community rules, along with prayer and mass.
- We experience God in creation. Perhaps, this is the most obvious biblical truth, that stretches across the scriptures, from the Creation account of Genesis, to the promise of a new world in the prophets, to the incarnation and resurrection of Christ in the Gospels, and finally in Revelation where God enacts ultimate restoration of the created world to a state even more glorious than Eden.
May we move beyond merely confessing God’s omnipresence and begin to recognize God’s nearness in all of our
activity, even in the midst of sin and failure. Surely, it is a progressive work for fallen creatures to realize God’s nearness and sense His presence, especially in that which is monotonous and repetitive. But truly, God is present. He can be known, enjoyed and loved in the grit of daily life.
In conclusion, Brother Lawrence implores us concerning our daily work, “We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed”
and again, he says of his own experience
“The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things,
I posses God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.”