Our Proximity To God
The task of forming a concept involving all the excellencies of an infinite God is too great for the mind of a finite man. At our best we think of Him in limited mold, although it is our earnest desire to be balanced and true to the best our intellects and hearts can do. Words like immanence, transcendence, and all others that even the scholars employ are used more effectively in concealing than in revealing the true nature and being of God.
But it is always best for us to take some essential concept as our touchstone and allow adjustments in other phases. Take personality and omnipresence as examples. God is a person. That is essential to any sense of responsibility we may hold, and to any hope of help through prayer and the exercise of the means recommended by any experienced people. We may not be able to give a definition of personality, but we know something of what we mean by the term. We mean that God is of the highest order of being — that He is not an abstraction, a thing, but that He knows, cares, and wills. Whatever it is in us that distinguishes us from the stones at our feet and the animals and birds about us, we ascribe that to God in highest degree. Unless God is this, He is, to us, something less than He would be if He were that. Hence He must be that. And it is on the basis of this concept of Him that we conclude He knows us, cares what attitude we take toward Him, and is able to change both things and ourselves. Omnipresence means that God is everywhere. But how can God be everywhere and yet be a person? If we cannot answer this question to our own satisfaction, for our own good, we better stick to the idea that He is a person, even if we must think of Him as not everywhere present.
But I have thought of an illustration that has sometimes been a help to me. I have thought of myself as being “like God,” as the Genesis account gives me the right to do. And I have thought of myself as possessing the predicables of personality — intellect, sensibility and will — even though on a very limited and finite plane. Then I have thought of “presence” and what it means with me. I sit here at this little table in a very small room — a person, and hence (as is necessary to my mode of thought), here in a sense that I am not in the corner of the room ten feet away. That is, I am present here in a very limited space in essence. And yet I am, through the outreach of my powers of apprehension (my attributes), present even over there in the corner of the room, ten feet away. I am present there in such a sense that if anything worthy of note should happen there, and I were asked about it, I would say, I was there, and know what took place. It is therefore evident that I am present right here where I sit in a sense in which I am not present in the corner of the room, and yet I am also present there, since I am capable of knowing what takes place there, of caring what takes place, and under certain circumstances of making impression on what takes place there.
Now I have expanded these ideas in the direction of the Infinite. I have prayed, saying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” and then I have gone out to say to my fellows, “God is here beholding us, He cares what we think and do and say, and He is able now to do things to effect changes in us and in the circumstances that surround us.” This helps me to think of God as a person, in heaven as to His essence, and because of His infinite attributes, present everywhere, so that no place is beyond His ken, His love, or His power. The skeptic did not really miss the mark when he thought to write, “God is nowhere,” but by a slight fault in the spacing of his letters led his little niece to read it, “God is now here.”
When men have forsaken the concept of a personal God and gone too far in seeking to apprehend the meaning of His omnipresence, they have often ended up by concluding that since God is everywhere in general, He is nowhere in particular. One writer put it this way, “Men set in to make God so present in everything that they ended up by bowing Him politely out of His own universe.
It is also important that we do not accredit God with a relationship to the universe that practically identifies Him with the universe. God made the universe, and He preserves it every moment, but He is not the universe, but is above it, even as the inventor is above his invention.
But there is yet another sense of “presence” besides essence and attribute. It is that presence that Jesus spoke of when He said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). This refers to His presence in the sense of approval. Our fathers used to add to the scriptural promise the phrase, “and that to own and bless.” And although the words are not in the text, our fathers showed themselves to be good interpreters of God’s message by the use of them. In this sense, to say that “God is near,” is to affirm His willingness to visit and bless those who call upon His name in penitence, consecration, and faith.
It is always easier for men to think of God as Lawgiver and Judge than to think of Him as Saviour and Friend. Atheists are relatively scarce, but unbelievers are too many to count. To the question, “Do you believe there is a God?” the great majority will answer, “I do.” But to the question, “Do you believe that God saves you and fellowships you along life’s way?” not many can answer with an emphatic “Yes.” And yet it is in this last sense that God is truly near. That is to say, He “stands at the door and knocks.” He is willing and waiting to be found of those who seek Him. The barriers between himself and us were not only not made by Him, but He has done all He can do without our co-operation to remove those barriers, and to come to an understanding with us. He is not willing that any should parish. There is room in His love for everyone. The “great God” seeks to become “our own God” (Psalms 67:6).