More Editorials from past issues of the Presbyterian Standard are available online here.
T HERE are many things concerning our most holy faith which may appear paradoxical or mysterious to us in our present state. We are finite creatures and moreover our natures have been thoroughly corrupted by the effects of the fall into sin. Regeneration is merely the beginning of the great work of restoring our souls, and until heaven our minds will have to wrestle with such matters as the origin of sin, election, and the relation between God's sovereignty and man's responsibility. Perhaps even in glory these things will remain "a great deep".
In this life the precious Word of God gives abundant light in our spiritual darkness. Its meaning is simple and plain enough for even the ploughboy and his modern equivalent to grasp. Earnest prayer and diligent study will unlock the secrets of the Scriptures. Do we cry after knowledge? Do we search for understanding as for hid treasures (Prov. 2:4, 5)? This is our duty here – though even then there may remain "some things hard to be understood" (2 Pet. 3:16). In heaven we shall be able to lay aside our Bibles forever, for there we shall see our blessed Lord face to face and our minds, as our souls, shall be at rest and fully satisfied.
An example of such a puzzle to our minds is the question of the presence of God. We know from Scripture that God is infinite in being, without any limit or bounds. A king on earth said of the Great Sovereign: "behold, the heaven, and heaven of heavens, cannot contain thee" (1 Kings 8:27). On this account God is incomprehensible to us, in the sense that we cannot have a complete understanding of Him. Zophar asked rhetorically: "Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? (Job 11:7). Only infinity can fully know infinity. God's being is immense: He is both "a God at hand" and "a God afar off", filling all created space at once with His presence (Jer. 23:23, 24).
When we consider this truth in relation to the creation we speak of God's omnipresence. The Lord is intimately aware of and present with the creatures which He has made. This is a fact often confirmed by our experience, at times overwhelming us. We find that we simply cannot flee away from the Lord's presence. Adam and Eve sought to do so when they sinned (Gen. 3:8); Jonah made the same bid in his disobedience (Jon. 1:3). The psalmist knew that whether he should go to heaven or hell, dwell on land or sea, in darkness or in light, God would be there (Psa. 139:7-12).
Given this 'inescapable' truth how are we to explain our soul's experience? Are we not all conscious at times, not of the Lord's presence, but of his absence? Many a child on earth has wept because a loved father or mother has been out of sight for a while. Have not we, the children of God, also felt spiritual isolation and desolation and longed for the return of our Father above? Believers in Jesus have often lamented, "I sought him, but I found him not" (Song of Sol. 3:1); in their grief and trouble they have cried, "Oh that I knew where I might find him!" (Job 23:3). These are the lowest points in all their pilgrimage. They feel that God has forsaken and forgotten them and their enemies begin to mock cruelly, saying, "Where is thy God?" (Psa. 42:10). Having tasted that the Lord is gracious believers cannot be content while He is absent. What then is happening at such times?
We must make a clear distinction between God's essential presence and what we may term His particular presence. With the former there is no variableness or shadow of turning, but with the latter there is considerable variety. The Bible distinguishes basically between God's favourable or gracious presence and His wrathful presence. From the former the ungodly shall be cast out at the day of judgment into everlasting destruction (1 Thess. 1:9). One of the most sobering passages in the whole of Scripture tells us that in eternity the wicked shall be tormented with fire and brimstone "in the presence of the Lamb" (Rev. 14:10). Oh, how blessed we are if we enjoy His comfortable presence now and may look forward to His nearer presence then!
There is no real change possible in God's attributes, only in the manifestation of them to us and in the perception of them by us. Believers know a heavenly Father's frown on occasion as well as His smile, though He continues to love them with the same everlasting love. We may be more powerfully aware of the Lord at some times as compared with others. There have been periods in the church's history when the earth shook at God's presence and He sent "a plentiful rain" (Psa. 68:8, 9); yet often the heavens have been as brass and the showers withheld (Jer. 3:3). There are seasons to the showers of blessing (Ezek. 34:26) as the Holy Spirit is either poured upon the church or withdrawn from her in the will of her glorious Head.
In her best days the church has known that the presence of God in her midst is her true glory. In the Old Testament she had a visible token in the glorious cloud which filled the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34; Lev. 16:2) and the temple( 1 Kings 8:10, 11; Psa. 63:2). In the New Testament the cloud gives way to Christ in the midst (Matt. 18:20; 28:20). Like Moses, life for the believer is not worth living without the Lord's companionship (Exod. 33:14, 15). God's gracious presence alone brings honour, joy and victory to His people. Any church or Christian having regard to respectability, popularity or even carnality rather than true spirituality is only to be pitied and certainly not to be admired.
Scripture shows us that the presence of God may depart out of any church. The result is always the same. "Ichabod". "No glory" (1 Sam. 4:21). The structure and form of a church may remain: worship may be conducted, sermons preached and prayers offered just as before; but it is now only an empty shell. The Spirit has gone.
Serious, repeated, unchecked sin will always cause the Lord to move elsewhere, for "the upright shall dwell in thy presence" (Psa. 140:13). There are moral and doctrinal requirements which God's people must fulfil to enjoy His favour. Christ threatened the backslidden church at Ephesus that He would quickly remove its candlestick if there was no true repentance (Rev. 2:5). Let us beware then of formality, a lukewarm heart, lack of spiritual fruit and a neglect of ordinances – all these are reasons provoking the Lord to turn from us.
For the Lord to withdraw His presence is the greatest calamity that can befall any church. It broke the heart of Eli and his daughter in law, that the ark of God, symbol of His presence, was taken by the Philistines. God's cause was more dear to them than the dearest of family. Do we say that we love the Lord more than anything else in this world? Are we zealous then to oppose anything that might lead to the departing of His presence? "Let us search and try our ways, and turn again to the Lord" (Lam. 3:40).
The barrenness and powerlessness of today's church can be restored, but only if we put away our idols and seek the Lord with all our heart and soul (Deut. 4:28, 29). The honour of Jesus Christ, not our own, must become the great concern once again. Let us pray earnestly for times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.