When I think of the dramatic story of Scripture in terms of divine presence (as I did in my previous post on theological hermeneutics), my mind always turns toward the absence of those whom I have loved and lost. This may seem a strange twist, but it is a natural flow for me because divine presence is God’s response to our experience of loss.
In Christ, grievers may experience this divine presence in several ways.
We experience the special providence of God who cares for us even in our darkness, even in our lament. We are encouraged to live one day at a time because not only is the trouble of that day sufficient but also because God cares for us just as he cares for the lillies of the field and the birds of the air (Matthew 6).
We experience the hope of the eschatological presence of God. This is an anchor for the soul as we trust in God’s ultimate victory. Death will not win; the graves will open. God will renew his cosmos, including our bodies and provide a place where we may see God’s face and dwell with the Triune God forever (Revelation 21-22).
We experience the comforting pneumatological presence of God. The indwelling Spirit groans with us in our laments, intercedes for us in our hurts, and gives peace to our hearts in the midst of our pains. This is no mere external word of promise but the internal work of God who fills us with “joy and peace” through faith by the “power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). It is the daily presence of God in our lives to walk with us, at times carry us and at all times actively transforming us into the image of Christ.
We experience the presence of God in the heavenly sanctuary when we assemble with other disciples of Jesus to pray and praise God. This presence is, most significantly for those who grieve, a presence with not only God but with all those gathered around the throne of God. We who are the earthly sanctuary of God by the indwelling Spirit join the all the saints in the heavenly sanctuary when we gather as a community. The earthly community is united with the heavenly community. This foretaste of the eschatological community–this foretaste of eschatological presence–is a communion with all the saints, including not only those from whom we are separated by geography here upon the earth but those from whom we are separated by death (Hebrews 12:22-24).
I find comfort in each of mode of divine presence, sometimes more one than another, and sometimes my lament forgets all of them and the fog only permits me to sense–and then protest–God’s absence. But ultimately God is never absent; he is always present. And his presence is no mere passivity–it is an active, loving, communing, engaging, transforming presence. God is no spectator; he is a participant. He loves me and is at work for me, in me and through me. This is what I trust and remembering these modes of presence helps me interpret the meaning and significance of my life. It provides a means by which I can understand my own participaton in the story of God.
At times the most important of these to me is the last one–the presence of God in the heavenly sanctuary when heaven and earth are joined in assembly. To experience assembly as the presence of God is one of the most comforting of all experiences for me.
Bobby, Johnny and I dedicated our book, A Gathered People, in this way: “To those whom we love but cannot see except as we meet them around God’s throne every Lord’s Day.”
That is comforting to me. This past Lord’s Day, as I worshipped with my community at Woodmont Hills with my wife and daughter, I again enjoyed with smiles and tears the presence of Sheila, Joshua, Barry, and Dad along with many others who crossed my mind. It was a deeply moving emotional experience as well as Spiritually (note the capital S!) therapeutic.
“Holy, Holy, Holy” (the sanctus) is sung not only by the saints upon the earth, but the angelic hosts and departed saints around the throne. In assembly, we become one voice–angelic, human and all creation–of praise to the one who created us and has loved us beyond our imagination.