Today in our fast-paced, restless lives we can be seemingly present everywhere. We can be sitting face to face across from a client at work while simultaneously, with the help of today’s technology, maintain a “presence” on Instagram, Facebook, or other social media platforms, burnishing each with the latest postings of our experiences, interests, and dislikes as frequently as we like.
How do we keep our sanity when we transition from one appointment to the next? And what happens when our ability to be present almost any and everywhere today rubs up against our identity as Christians? Can the Bible teach us anything about being truly and fully present in any one place, at any given moment in time? Would the example of God being present among us remind and guide us as to how we can conduct our lives? My guess is that all of us would readily admit to many occasions when we were distracted, not “all there” mentally or emotionally, even though we were physically there at the time. This blog will very briefly survey the scriptures on God being present or “in the moment” with us in hopes of drawing useful lessons for us as we seek to live our lives fully present with Him and with others around us.
From Genesis to Revelation
The overall arc of the Bible circumscribes the desire of God to be present among His creation and His people. Very early in the Genesis accounts we learn that God put Adam and Eve into the Garden of Eden “to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Not only did He do so, but He also went on a stroll, making His way around the grounds:
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”Genesis 3:8-9
We get a strong sense of God’s immediate presence in the garden and His desire to be among this human couple, concerned for their well-being. Along with this initial impression of God’s heart, the writer of Revelation captures a similar desire in the New Testament’s penultimate chapter as he describes what “a new heaven and a new earth” will look like:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.Revelation 21:2-3
This vision of God himself making His “dwelling place…now among the people” combines with the story in Genesis to frame a larger picture, that in all of His interactions with humankind God wants to dwell among His people.
Examples from the Old Testament
We witness many instances of God’s desire to be present among His people throughout the Bible. Consider, for example, how God led His people out of Egypt and bondage under Pharaoh through the wilderness. He made sure that a pillar of cloud would guide them during the day and a pillar of fire would give them light at night (Exodus 13:21-22). Moses certainly knew that his leadership depended upon the presence of God—he implored God to accompany the Israelites on every step of their journey:
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 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
God obliged Moses, giving him “the very thing” that he had asked for, because He was pleased with him and knew him by name (Exodus 33:17).
Benjamin West artist QS:P170,Q313498
Google Art Projectでのアーティストの詳細, Benjamin West – Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant – Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
A sense of God being with them continues with the Israelites as “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34), completed by Moses and the Israelite craftsmen in painstaking detail, with the ark of the covenant inside. His being with them manifested itself again when Israel’s priests carried the ark across the Jordan River, causing its waters to stand still so that the whole nation could cross (Joshua 3-4). Tragically, the Israelites lost it in a battle with the Philistines, as they mistakenly believed that if the ark, one of the “aids to celebrate his presence,” were simply present, it would have guaranteed victory (1 Samuel 4-5). Later, Solomon was commissioned to build the temple, “a house for my Name” (1 Chronicles 22:10), similarly serving as an aid to celebrate God’s presence:
Later, the temple served this purpose (1 Kgs. 8; cf. Ps 24:7-10). The people eventually took for granted the temple as a symbol of God’s presence and wrongly saw it as a guarantor of divine, protective favor (Jer. 7:1-4). The principal Biblical word for “presence” is “face” (Heb. pānîm: Gk. prosopon). Adam and Eve hid from the face (presence) of God (Gen 3:8); Yahweh promised that his face (presence) would accompany Moses (Exod. 33:14); and the face (presence) of God is the fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11). Whenever displeased with his people, God would withdraw his face or presence (Ezek. 10:18; Ps. 22:1-21[MT 2-22]).
God’s displeasure at His people continued over time and His presence seemed to grow faint as they repeatedly chose not to follow and trust Him wholeheartedly.
God’s Presence in the New Testament
Coming into this world, Jesus embodied God being present with us. The first gospel writer captures this idea succinctly, noting that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah 7:14: “‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:23). John put it this way: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The living and breathing Jesus demonstrated to the world how to live fully in the present, in one place and at one time. We need not think too long or hard to recall Christ’s interactions with individuals, such as the leper (Mark 1), the Samaritan woman (John 4), or the widow at Nain (Luke 7), just to name a few. In each instance, He was fully present, showing a clarity of mind and totality of heart. Jesus’ focus on those immediately around him particularly shines through to me in two examples. First, recall when the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years sought Him out:
As Jesus was on his way, the crowds almost crushed him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years, but no one could heal her. She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.
“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.
“When they all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the people are crowding and pressing against you.”
But Jesus said, “Someone touched me; I know that power has gone out from me.”Luke 8:42b-46
Jesus was fully aware of the needs of those around Him. Even when surrounded by a crushing throng of people, He keenly felt that energy had gone out from Him to a woman who wanted to keep a low profile.
Jesus’ consideration for those around Him reached an even greater height when He was on the cross. There, after hours of suffering and nearing death, the Son of God had the presence of mind to set aside His own situation in order to care for those before Him. First, He prayed to God on behalf of everyone who had brought Him to Golgotha: “‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’” (Luke 23:34). Later, Christ listened to the conversation that the two criminals being crucified next to him were having, promising the contrite one that “…today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23: 39-43). Finally, while hanging on the cross, the ever-present Jesus arranged long-term care for his mother:
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, ‘Woman, here is your son,’ and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.John 19:25-27
Whether as Savior or as Mary’s son, Jesus remained remarkably present until the very end.
And, as if Jesus’ life examples were not enough, God provided even more confirmation of His presence among us through the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus declared that the Holy Spirit would come to the disciples after He left:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.John 14:16-17
To this day we continue to enjoy God’s dwelling with us through His promised Holy Spirit, who guides us, empowers us, and lives among us as we strive to embody a Christ-like community today in Hong Kong.
Our busy lives of appointments and social media commitments make it difficult for us to be fully in the moment at any one time and place. In contrast, throughout the Bible we read of God’s desire to be fully present with us as we are, both as individuals and in community. The Bible reminds us of times when God’s people have displeased Him. Man’s self-reliance and disobedience create distance from God and his presence. As Christians today, we take great heart and draw inspiration from Jesus’ presence in this world two thousand years ago. His example calls us higher, giving us a pathway to being “all there” and “in the moment” in our lives. Finally, the ongoing presence of God through the Holy Spirit strengthens us in our ability to live lives fully present with others today.
Some questions or practical suggestions for you to consider:
1. How can you be more fully present in your daily devotionals with God and the Word? For example, is it a quieter place, a new study plan, or a quiet time without your smartphone?
2. On what occasions are you most emotionally or mentally absent, even when you are among others? Ask those around you—spouse, family, children, friends—who know you best.
3. What decision can you make to help yourself be more present with others at those times? For example, placing your smartphone in another room when you are having a meal with the family removes that distraction.
4. Do you find yourself easily “tuning out” or not listening to one of your colleagues or friends when you are in a group? Seek advice on how to listen to and engage more fully with that person and then, pray to have the spiritual strength to implement that guidance.
5. When was the last time you made an appointment with someone, not to accomplish anything except just to enjoy being with that person?
6. Consider how Jesus discerned the needs of one person in the crowd. Who in your immediate social circle may be keeping a low profile but needs your prayers, time, and love?
7. How can you listen more attentively to the Holy Spirit, heeding the Spirit’s guidance in your daily life?
 Skye Jethani, With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2011), 13-16. Jethani discusses and expands upon his insight, which I have only briefly sketched out in this paragraph.
 Richard A. Spencer, “Presence,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. by David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1081.
 Richard A. Spencer, “Presence,” 1081.
 For more on the Holy Spirit, please visit three prior articles on the subject posted on this blog.