I recently read the story of an Irish Methodist Chaplain, whose 90-year-old father texted him one day saying he needed his son “to find me a book on your magic box [iphone].”
As Julian Hamilton tells it on Facebook, when he asked for the name of the book, his dad said he couldn’t remember exactly, but it was something like, “Where is God in Coronavirus?” The 90-year-old went on to say he wanted to see the 60-page book because if he’d been asked to answer the question it would have taken him just one word. When Hamilton asked what the word was, his dad simply replied, “Here.”
Among the many scandals of the Christian faith, one of the greatest may be that God took on flesh, came to live among us, and through his Spirit remains with us even now. Regardless of our circumstances, whenever we ask the question, where is God in [cancer, divorce, recession, pandemic, hurricane, systemic racism, terrorism]?, the answer is always here. God’s enduring presence is a promise I’ve clung to again and again.
But there’s another side of God’s presence that can be hard for people, that can be hard for me. If God is with us in [cancer, divorce, recession, pandemic, hurricane, systemic racism, terrorism], then why isn’t he doing anything about it? Why doesn’t he heal and bind, calm and carry, make whole and make well and make right? If God is present, couldn’t He unleash his power? And when he doesn’t, it raises all kinds of questions about the character and nature of God. Maybe he’s not powerful enough to bring about change, or maybe he doesn’t understand our plight. Or worse, what if God simply doesn’t love us enough and his presence reveals more about his complicity in suffering than his lack of compassion?
In the Old Testament, God often revealed His presence to his people tangibly, or at least that’s how they understood it; he showed up in burning bushes, as weary travelers, and in gentle winds. When God was leading the people out of Egypt and into the promised land, He made his presence constant and conspicuous through a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. And when the people made room for God–in their midst but also in their minds and hearts–His presence resulted in his favorable work on their behalf. As long as they remained close to him, they were provided for and protected. But without his presence, they were lost.
“If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here,” Moses told God. “How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:15-16).
While the Promised Land in general represented a place where God would be present with his people, the Israelites built the tabernacle as a specific place where God’s Presence would dwell as they made their way there. Important decisions, like the division of the land among Israel’s 12 tribes, were made in God’s presence, and even in the face of death, David asked his men to bury him close to the presence of the Lord. Eventually, when the people had settled and David’s son, Solomon, built the temple, the Israelites believed God and his presence had arrived at a forever home.
Fast forward a millennium, and we find Jesus in the temple turning over tables and scattering change. “To those who sold doves he said, ‘Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!’” The Jews asked for a sign to prove he had the “authority to do all this” and Jesus offered this: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:16-19).
John tells us that Jesus was talking about his body as the temple, and after his death and resurrection, the disciples would remember his comment and be strengthened in their faith. But at the time, the most pressing question the Jews must surely have been asking themselves is this: if the temple is destroyed, where will God’s presence live? They didn’t understand that God, in the form of his son Jesus, was standing in their presence at that very moment. They failed to see that from that point on, we would never be without His presence, temple or not, because God, in the form of his Spirit, would be with us forever. And not just with us, but in us. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
But back to the question we asked early on: why doesn’t God’s presence make a difference in the circumstances of our lives? If God is with us in life’s struggles, why doesn’t he make them better?
The answer is simple: Because he wants to make us better. HIs presence offers us something better than pleasure and prosperity. In Christ, we can have peace and confidence regardless of what’s happening around us.
Jesus said to the disciples: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. … When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come” (John 14:26-27; 16:13).
When I think about what God’s presence means to me, especially during the dark and difficult moments of life, I think of Jesus on the cross, praying to His Father, who was as close to him as his own heavy human heart. When I remember Jesus’s desperate prayer, uttered just before he died, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” I know I’ll never have to utter those same words myself. Jesus was willing to be separated from God’s presence for those few hours so that I’d never have to be.
Where is God when the world around us seems to be falling to pieces? He’s right here, right now. Peace be with you.