The Comforting – and Terrifying – Nature of God’s Presence

Someday, someone is going to write prolifically about all the psychological effects of the last year. Effects on our mindset, our children, our view of relationships – surely all these things have been altered in big and small ways. For now, though, we are left mostly to think about ourselves and talk with each other about what’s happening in us – and to us. And in many cases, we are confused. Here’s one example:

The last year has been a period of isolation. We know this even in the terminology we have become accustomed to using. Words like lockdown, quarantine, and distance all are close to home right now, and they all have the connotation of isolation. We do zoom meetings instead of going to the office, we get Grubhub instead of going to restaurants, and we do movie rentals instead of going to the theaters. In all those ways and more, we have been by ourselves over the last year.

And yet we have not. Because as we’ve been doing all those lockdowns, quarantines, and social distancing, our roommates, spouses, and children have been doing the same. People have been around us – the same people day in and day out. All the time. In fact, there are some of us who might even say, ironically, that one of the things we have missed in the last year is actually being alone.

So we have these two dynamics happening at the same time – we are alone, and yet we are never alone. We are together, and yet we are never together. All in all, it’s confusing when you start trying to diagnose exactly what you are thinking and feeling when it comes to community and relationships.

The point of this post is not to solve that issue, but merely to point out that perhaps we see the same kind of duality happening in psalm 139.

This psalm is, of course, one of the best known psalms we have. It’s a song about the pervasive, inescapable presence of God:

Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up;
you understand my thoughts from far away.
You observe my travels and my rest;
you are aware of all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue,
you know all about it, Lord.
You have encircled me;
you have placed your hand on me.
This wondrous knowledge is beyond me.
It is lofty; I am unable to reach it (Psalm 139:1-6).

It’s a comforting passage, isn’t it? That even when we don’t know and understand ourselves, God does. He knows us better than we know ourselves. He is with us always even when we are lonely. Despondent. Sad. When no one else is around, God is there. Surely there were so many moments in David’s life when he drew comfort from that fact, just as we should.

The presence of God is comforting for it means we are never alone.

And the psalm continues:

Where can I go to escape your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I fly on the wings of the dawn
and settle down on the western horizon,
even there your hand will lead me;
your right hand will hold on to me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me,
and the light around me will be night”—
even the darkness is not dark to you.
The night shines like the day;
darkness and light are alike to you (Psalm 139:7-12).

It’s almost like there is a change in tone. As you read it, you can sense perhaps a bit of frustration in David:

Can I get some time to myself? Can I please be alone for a few minutes? Everywhere I go – in the darkness, in the light, it doesn’t matter. You’re always there!

And perhaps we can relate to that sentiment at least a little bit as well. Because with God, there is no private time. There is no let down. There is no secret being kept; no rock not overturned. We are all laid bare before the Lord at any given moment. He knows the real us. Better than anyone else. Better than ourselves. And to make matters worse, this One from whom we cannot hide is the One to whom we must give an account. In a world in which we carefully construct our platforms, our personas, our masks, that is a terrifying thought.

Indeed, the presence of God is terrifying for it means we are never alone.

Both are true. And the place where both realities intersect is the gospel. Because it’s only through the gospel that that the presence of God ceases to be terrifying and begins to be comforting. Yes, it is true that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that everything in all creation is laid bare before Him to whom we must give an account. But it is also true that knowing all that, while we were still sinners, Jesus Christ died for the ungodly.

What an amazing thought for those too afraid to let anyone truly know them – that God already does, and He loves us still. When we believe the gospel, the terrifying nature of a God who knows all is transformed into the comforting nature of our heavenly advocate. It’s at that point that we know that God is not only with us, He is for us in Christ.

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