A few weeks ago a friend and I were glancing through a Christian magazine and noticed how often people referred to “God’s presence.” It’s a hot topic these days.
In his kindness and mercy, God often reveals his active presence to us. By “active” presence I mean God’s presence as distinct from his omnipresence and his promised presence, both of which we accept by faith. Whether we “feel” it or not, God is present when his Word is faithfully preached, when his people meet in Jesus’ name, when we celebrate the Lord’s supper, when we sing, and we were serve in his power (1 Tim. 6:13; 1 Cor. 5:4; Mt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 11:27-32; Acts 10:33; Eph. 5:18-19; 1 Pet. 4:10-11). At those times and others we can know that God is with us, empowering what we do.
But there are times when God makes his presence known more clearly, more tangibly. Like in 1 Cor. 14:25, when the secrets of a man’s heart are revealed by prophetic words and he declares, “God is really among you” (1 Cor. 14:25). We experience it when our hearts are flooded with peace, or we are suddenly aware of God’s greatness and majesty, or when someone is healed. It might come as well when God’s preached Word pierces to our heart and we find ourselves weeping at the Holy Spirit’s conviction or God’s mercy in Christ. We think, “God is really here.”
While God’s active, or manifest, presence is to be treasured and even sought after (Ps. 27:4; Ps. 105:4), there are some unhelpful perspectives about God’s presence we want to avoid.
1. We can’t manufacture God’s active presence.
Good intentions notwithstanding, no one can consistently and meaningfully “bring God’s manifest presence” to a group of people. No musician, no pastor, no singer, no preacher, no leader – nobody. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit and he functions on his own terms, not ours (John 3:8; 1 Cor. 12:11).
Of course, the Spirit uses means. When God’s Word is preached in an engaging, faithful, Christ-exalting way, people will often experience a greater awareness of God’s presence. When we sing biblical truths together, God will often make his presence known among us in a tangible way. It’s the rare Christian who hasn’t at some time experienced the nearness of God at a Sunday meeting.
The richness of those experiences can tempt leaders to think our ultimate goal is helping people experience the presence of God. Well, yes and no. If “helping people” means doing everything I can to exalt the glory of Jesus in their minds, hearts, and wills through biblically informed words and actions, then yes. But if my goal is to have people “feel something,” and if the measure of my success is the degree of emotional fervor in the room, I’ll tend to use what ever means I can to produce that emotional response. I may start to believe my song, my leadership, my voice, my set list, or my playing will bring God’s presence. And it’s possible I’ll begin to view every experience, regardless of its source, as the result of an encounter with God.
One year John Piper spoke at our WorshipGod conference. Before his message I told him that while the conference was going great, it was going to be even better because he was speaking. In inimitable Piper fashion, he challenged my perception that any man, even John Piper, could insure that “God was going to show up.” To be clear, God did “show up” and we were greatly encouraged. But John’s point is true – no man can guarantee the active presence of God. And we shouldn’t try to manufacture it.
2. We can’t market God’s active presence.
Marketing God’s presence refers to promoting my ministry, song, book, or concert on the basis of how consistently people experience God’s presence as a result.
I recently received a promo for a Christian artist who said his ministry goal is to “take people into the presence of Jesus Christ where there, they are forever changed by His amazing love!” Actually, I can’t take people into the presence of Christ. But I can proclaim the gospel that assures us we have been brought near to the Father through the finished atoning work of Christ (Heb. 10:19-22). I leave it to the Holy Spirit to apply that to people’s hearts.
I’ve been invited to attend conferences, download songs, attend concerts, buy books, and listen to preachers who all claim they will bring me into God’s presence – for a price. But we can’t buy the presence of God. Simon the Magician realized that when he saw the disciples laying their hands on people with dramatic effect. He offered them cold cash, saying, “Give me this power.” Peter rebuked him.
God’s power, like God’s presence, can’t be bought or sold. God doesn’t call us so much to be facilitators of his glory as faithful to the gospel. Our job isn’t to create an “environment of excitement” but an environment of response to the true God through the gospel in the power of the Spirit.
If I want people to spend money for something related to my ministry, I want to be clear that it’s for production costs, salaries, resources, and a commitment to be faithful to God’s Word – not because it will bring them into the presence of God.
Tomorrow, I want to take a more positive tone and share some thoughts on the dangers of minimizing God’s presence.