Coming Into the Presence of the Omnipresent God
One of the basic, fundamental claims of Christianity is that God is omnipresent. Psalm 139 is the greatest celebration of God’s omnipresence in the Bible. God’s omnipresence is the reality that wherever you go, God is there. The living God is present everywhere and everywhen. This means that, wherever you are, “God is here and now” is always a true statement. Always. There is no place in all of reality where you can say, “God is not here.” That’s the point of verses 7-10. If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol (Hades, the place of the dead), you are there. If I get up as early as possible and travel as far as possible to the other side of the planet, the solar system, the galaxy, the universe, even there your hand shall lead me, your right hand shall hold me fast. No matter how high you go, no matter how low you go, no matter how far you go, God is there. Which means, God is here. Now.
This is a basic, fundamental claim of Christianity. God is here and now. Which means, as one theologian puts it, we never speak about God behind his back. We always live in his presence, under his watchful eye. Lewis wrote, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” Now, we’re not pantheists. We don’t believe that the world is God or that God is the world, or that he is diffused in all things like a gas or liquid. He is totally present everywhere, and yet he is not identical to anything in his creation. He’s omnipresent in this world the way that an author is present with and in his story. Everything you see and hear and touch is sustained moment by moment by his word, by his imagination and attention. And yet he is not confined or constrained or limited by any of it. He is transcendent as well as immanent, high and lifted up as well as near and close at hand.
And this makes God incomprehensible to us. Our little minds cannot contain him. He is unimaginably different from everything he has made. He is absolute and ultimate. He is the ultimate Fact—Lewis calls him “the fountain of facthood,”—the absolute, rock-bottom reality, the thick center of the reality who pervades all of reality. As the prophet Isaiah says, “He is God and there is no other. He is God, and there is none like him.” And this ultimate God has unlimited attention for each of us individually. God’s thoughts are so vast that they outnumber the sand (139:17-18). Which means, that, if you attempt to contemplate the omnipresent God who has unlimited attention for each one of you, you’ll probably say, like the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (139:6).
So then, as we begin, we must keep ever in our minds these two truths: 1) you are here and now. 2) God—the Eternal, Omnipresent, Personal, Author of all—is also here and now.
But notice more in Psalm 139. God is not just here and now. He is here and now, pursuing us. This ever-present God is after us. He’s searching us. He’s knowing us. He’s discerning our thoughts, acquainting himself with everything about you. Before you speak, he knows your mind completely and totally.
And this God makes demands of us. And not just any demands. He is not a tax collector, asking for a percentage of your time and resources and leaving the rest to you. As your Creator, he demands all of you. He formed you in your mother’s womb (139:13). He knit you together, wove your body and soul into a unified whole (139:15). He is the Maker; you are the made. He is the Potter; you are the pot. He is the Author; you are his character. Therefore, he has all rights and claims to you and yours. As you sit here, the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth lays claim to your ultimate devotion and affection.
And this again makes Christianity different from pantheism. The popular god of pantheism is basically a mysterious Life-Force that flows through the whole universe. But a Life-Force makes no demands. The Life-Force will never interfere. This pantheistic Life-Force is a tame god, giving us all the thrills of religion with none of the cost. He is there if you wish for him, but he will not pursue you, because the Life-Force isn’t really even a “he” or a “she”, but an “it,” an impersonal reality that supposedly lies beneath everything.
Now Christianity is also different from other popular notions about God. Because some of us want more than a Life-force. We want a personal god, not a mere impersonal force. But we don’t go the whole way with Christianity. We want a personal God, but one who won’t interfere. We don’t want a Father in heaven so much as a grandfather in heaven—“a senile benevolence who, as they say, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’.”
But the God of Psalm 139, the God who is here and now is neither a tame Life-Force nor a senile grandfather in the sky. He is alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed. He’s coming for you—the hunter, the king, the husband. He is not indulgent or soft. He is the Great Interferer, insisting that because he has made us, he knows what is best for us. Look at verse 5: He hems us in. He boxes us in. He surrounds us. He lays his hand upon us. He pursues and interrupts. He confronts and challenges. He is a lion, and he is not tame.
So here are three basic facts about reality. You are here and now. God—your Maker—is here and now. And this God, the living God, is pursuing you. These three facts yield a fourth—every moment of every day, we are confronted with a Choice— either embrace and welcome this reality, surrendering ourselves to the eternal, omnipresent, and pursuing God, or we can vainly try to hide from him, to resist his advances, to reject his demands. Put it this way. Psalm 139 is true. Period. And you can either embrace it as good news, or you can resist it as bad news. God’s omnipresence and pursuit can either be life and joy to you—like eatable and drinkable gold. Or it can be death to you, and you can suffocate yourself by attempting to assert your own autonomy and independence in the face of his absolute presence. God’s omnipresence is a fact. It will either be life and light, or oppression and destruction. It will either be heaven, or it will be hell. And how you respond to it will make all the difference.
What this means is that, while it is true that we are always in God’s presence, it’s equally true that we are perpetually called to come into God’s presence, to unveil ourselves to his view, to embrace his searching and knowing and hemming in as good news, as life.
And we are often very reluctant to do this. We keep our guard up lest God’s voice become unmistakable. Lewis mentions the sort of fellow who prays quietly, lest God actually hear him, which he—poor man—never intended.
Often this is because we’re afraid. We know that, if we open the door too wide, who knows what God might show us about ourselves? We’re terrified of being known. We read “You have searched me and known me; you know everything about me, every word, every thought,” and it terrifies us. We look down into the recesses of our hearts, the dark caves, and we can’t see what’s down there, and it’s frightening. So if we come into God’s presence, and if we open the door to him, what if he goes down there? Worse, what if he brings something back up, something that we’ve tried very hard to bury? We resonate with verse 11. “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night.” In our shame, in our resistance and rebellion, we want to cover ourselves in darkness and hide from this all-seeing, all-knowing, omnipresent, and pursuing God.
And so instead of unveiling, instead of embracing the goodness of God’s omnipresence, we try to do things halfway. We try to dabble and splash at the edge of the ocean, but we will not dive in and go for a swim. We tell God he may live in our house, but it’s our house. He may come in, he may even live here, but he may not look in that closet. That is ours and ours alone. We want to preserve some area of our lives upon which God has no claim, some realm of “our own” which is none of his business.
But this is what I’m stressing to you right now from Psalm 139: there is no such area. God claims all, and while he is very merciful and will forgive many failures, he will accept no deliberate compromise. “There’s no bargaining with Him.” He is not claiming this much of our time or that much of our attention. He is not even claiming all of our time and all of our attention. He is claiming us, ourselves, the totality of who and what we are. That is his claim. And so we must come into his presence. We must unveil before him.
And this is where Lewis has been so helpful to me. For the remainder of our time, I want to give some practical help, inspired by Lewis, for coming into God’s ever-present presence. Think of this as basic counsel from Lewis about how to pray. Prayer is fundamentally the meeting of persons—personal contact between embryonic, incomplete half persons (that’s us; we’re still being formed and reformed), and the utterly concrete, real, full Person (God himself).
1. Come to God as you are, not as you ought to be.
Often we’re reluctant to come to God because we know that our desires are out of whack. There’s something we want, and we know we want it in the wrong way. We want it too much in comparison to other things. And so, when we come to God, we try to trick him. We pretend that we want other things more in hopes that he will be impressed and give us the thing that we really want. And Psalm 139 shows how foolish that is. You can’t fool God. He’s searched you and known you. He perceives your thoughts from afar. So come to him honestly as you are. Now that might mean that you have to come to him in confession for wanting something in the wrong way. That’s fine. Bring your desires to God as they are and allow his presence to moderate them or correct them or reorder them. The main thing is to be honest about where you are, not to try to pretend to be somewhere else.
2. Beware of vague guilt.
One of the main hindrances to unveiling before God is a vague cloud of guilt that often hangs over us. And vague guilt is particularly troublesome. For you can’t repent of vague sins; you can only repent of real ones. And all real sins are specific sins. This means that if you find yourself in the fog of vague guilt, begin by asking God to show you the details. Press through the smoke to see if there is really a fire in there somewhere.
If you do, and you find yourself unable to discover any real concrete sin underneath the vague sense of guilt, don’t feel compelled to go rummaging around until you do. Instead, treat the guilt like a vague buzzing noise in your ears—something to be endured as you continue to seek to unveil in God’s presence.
3. Confess your sins quickly and specifically.
Other times, our reluctance to unveil is driven by the fact that we are guilty and we know exactly why. We know what the guilt is about, and we’re trying to avoid the conviction. These are the moments where God is hemming us in, behind and before, and we’re hemming and hawing and dancing and making excuses, and God is looking at us and saying, “You know you’re only wasting time.”
In such cases, the best solution is the simple one. If there’s a specific sin in your life, confess it to God, clearly, honestly, and forthrightly, without using euphemisms. This means using the biblical words for sins. “I’ve lied,” not “I’ve not been quite honest.” “I’ve stolen,” not “I’ve used something without asking.” “I’ve lusted in my heart. I’ve committed sexual immorality. I’ve envied that person or coveted her gifts. I’m full of bitterness and hatred toward him. I’m puffed up and arrogant about this good thing in my life. I’m full of anxiety and fear about the future.” In the same way that you can’t really confess vague sins, you can’t vaguely confess real sins.
4. Ask God to forgive you, not to excuse you.
Often when we ask God to forgive us, we are really asking him to excuse us. But according to Lewis, forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites. Forgiveness says, “You have done an evil thing; nevertheless, I will not hold it against you.” Excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.” Therefore, to excuse someone is to let that person off the hook because he didn’t really belong on the hook in the first place. We refuse to blame someone for something that wasn’t his fault to begin with.
When it comes to God, Lewis notes, “What we call ‘asking God’s forgiveness’ very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.” We want him to remember the extenuating circumstances that led us to do what we did. We go away “imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves with our own excuses.” And so, when seeking God’s forgiveness, we must set aside the excuses and the blame-shifting. If there were extenuating circumstances, God is more aware of them than we are. What is required of us is to find what’s left over after every circumstance has been stripped away, the little ball of sin that is hardened like a cancer. That is what we are to bring to God. That is what he must (and will) forgive.
5. Don’t camp at the cesspool.
Some Christians have thought that one of the chief marks of Christian growth is a permanent and permanently horrified perception of one’s own internal corruption. The true Christian’s nostril is to be continually attentive to the inner stink. We feel that faithfulness demands pitching our tent by the dark caves and slimy bogs of our hearts.
Lewis thinks this is a bad idea. But it’s not a bad idea because we’re not that corrupt. We are that corrupt. All of us are worse than we think. Our hearts really are slimy. When you look in there, it’s true that there is depth upon depth of self-love and sin. But Lewis commended an imaginative glimpse of our sinfulness, not a permanent stare. The glimpse is enough to teach us sense, to humble us so that we don’t regard ourselves more highly than we ought. But the longer we stare, the more we run the risk of falling into despair. Or worse, we might even begin to develop a tolerance for the cesspool, even a perverse kind of pride in our hovel by the bog.
Thus, we must cultivate the practice of imaginative honesty about our sin. We must look at it clearly and acknowledge it. We must not try to hide it or make excuses for it. But, equally, we must not wallow in it either. We need to know sin is in our hearts, and we need to feel the ugliness of it. But then we must also remember that Jesus covers all of it.
6. Surrender self-examination to God.
In our attempts to lay ourselves open to God’s view, we must remember that self-examination is really God-examination. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24). Notice the movement here. The psalm begins with “You have searched me and known me.” And it ends with a request “Search me and know me.” The psalmist has embraced Reality, and found it to be life.
Now the fact that God is the one who examines us doesn’t make us passive, any more than the fact that self-control is a fruit of the Spirit means that it’s not self-control. We are active in self-examination, but our activity is mainly in opening ourselves up to divine inspection. Self-examination is only safe when God’s hands are on the reins, when, as the psalm says, God is discerning our thoughts, and God’s hand is leading us and holding us.
This is what this might look like. We surrender ourselves to God; we give Christ the keys to every room in our heart. No dark closet held back. No basement corner off limits. The whole house belongs to him (and he is free to demolish, if he deems it best). We lay ourselves open before him, and ask, “Give me just enough self-knowledge at the moment as is good for me. Give me enough self-knowledge that I can bear it and use it.” There may be deeper sins, down in the black caves, that we don’t yet see. But perhaps we don’t see them because God knows we’re not ready to face them yet. We must learn to crawl before we can walk. God wants us to complete boot camp before sending us off to war.
Then, having surrendered and having asked for our little daily dose of self-knowledge, we believe (and, for some, this is one of the greatest acts of faith that they ever do) that he is fully capable of drawing our sin and our sinfulness into the light, into our conscious attention where it can be confessed and killed. In the meantime, if we are daily surrendering ourselves to God in this way, we ought to forget about ourselves, and do our work.
I want to close with a story that Lewis tells about his wife, Joy, that captures what the omnipresent and pursuing God is really after. Why is he searching us and knowing us and hemming us in and laying his hand upon us? Why? What does he really want?
Long ago, before we were married, she was haunted all one morning as she went about her work with the obscure sense of God (so to speak) “at her elbow,” demanding her attention. And of course, not being a perfected saint, she had the feeling that it would be a question, as it usually is, of some unrepented sin or tedious duty. At last she gave in — I know how one puts it off — and faced Him. But the message was, “I want to give you something,” and instantly she entered into joy.
This is the great paradox we carry with us into God’s presence. God is here and now, and he demands all of us. But God is here and now, and he wants to give us everything. God is for us, not against us. He may not be safe, but he is most definitely good.
And he won’t settle for half-measures, because he loves us and wants to give us himself. And he can’t give us himself as long as we’re full of ourselves. But if we give up ourselves, if we die to ourselves, then he will give us himself, and, in giving us himself, he will give us back ourselves. In fact, when we unveil in God’s presence, we find that we become our true selves—stable, strong, full of life and joy, and conformed to the image of Christ, from one degree of glory to another.
Which brings us to the Table. Here God is especially present in the bread and wine, giving himself to us to be received by faith, in order to remind us that he is present everywhere. Christ focuses our attention here, at the this Table, and gives us himself here at this Table, so that we know in our bones that he is present everywhere, offering himself to us, as bread for our hunger and as wine for our thirst. Jesus is here and now. So come to him.