Omnipresence vs. the local presence of God

If God is everywhere, then why does He feel so distant sometimes? If He is omnipresent, then why does Church feel so empty and cold at times?

The reality is that there is a distinction between the omnipresence of God and the presence of God. Perhaps a simple way to look at it is to view omnipresence as an attribute of God-part of who He is, while viewing the presence of God as His interaction with us.

Omnipresence is defined simply as being “present in all places at the same time.” If the Creator is greater than everything He created, then it isn’t much of a stretch to imagine God literally in all places at all times. This concept encompasses both the inescapable reality of God’s immersive divine presence, and the secondary notion of Creation bearing witness collectively of His divine character.

I wouldn’t base my theology on the following statement, but according to Ralph Waldo Emmerson, “The true doctrine of omnipresence is, that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb.” While this may be a bit over-simplified, it illustrates in a small way the Bible’s description of how Creation manifests God’s attributes-everywhere, and at all times.

“For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse…” Romans 1:20

How then are we to incorporate the added element of God’s presence as local, and situationally specific? There are many examples in Scripture, but let us briefly look at an example from the book of Exodus (13:21).

“And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so as to go by day and night.”

In this example, God is already universally omnipresent, but He chooses to also manifest Himself as locally present. He gives the Israelites a manifestation of His presence that is specifically for their benefit-in this case, to lead them toward the promised land.

It also appears to be God’s local presence that Jonah tries to escape from:

“The word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai saying, ‘Arise, go to Ninevah the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.’ But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD…” Jonah 1:1-3

Additionally, even in the spiritual realm, God’s presence has a local nature to it:

“The angel answered and said to him, ‘I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.'” Luke 1:19

So, Biblically speaking, God’s presence is BOTH universal and local; the universal aspect is unchanging, but the local aspect does change.

What then would predicate God’s local presence today? It is a question that we do not often think about or talk about, likely, because we assume His omnipresence is what comforts us, accompanies us, and joins us in worship.

The New Testament Scriptures reveal a few nuggets about what it is like to be in the presence of the Father, under the New Covenant established by Jesus Christ:

1. We can be refreshed by His presence after coming to faith in Jesus Christ

“But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Therefore, repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…” Acts 3:18,19

2. We can be “built up” in His presence after yielding before Him

“Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.” James 4:10

3. We can experience the empowering of the spiritual gifts in His presence

Paul the Apostle repeatedly informs his audience that He is exhorting/chastening/preaching, etc. in the presence of God.

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.” 1 Tim. 5:21

“Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless and leads to the ruin of the hearers.” 2 TIm. 2:14

Finally, Paul encourages his fellow laborers for their faithfulness and service in the presence of God.

“We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers, constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father…” 1 Thess. 1:2,3

How then may we find ourselves in the presence of God?

I know some of you are going to cringe at this next statement, but I have seen it to be true, and I believe the Scriptures support this concept. Here it is: I believe that God, oftentimes, waits for us to invite His presence, basically, to want it. If, as 1 Thess. 5:19 indicates, it is possible to quench the Spirit of God, and by the nature of the charge, “Do not quench the Spirit…” it is equally possible to not “throw water on His fire,” then we can affirm some similarities with the presence of God. I believe our part in the process is to believe He wants to commune with us locally, to invite Him to do so, and to allow Him to have His way in the moment.

What is a practical example of this? How about singing praise to God, usually in the “worship” portion of a Sunday morning church service. As a former worship leader, I knew when I was performing “at” God, and I knew when God’s presence was filling the room. It seemed to be completely unrelated to the music itself, rather, it had everything to do with there being just enough believers in the congregation that believed God wanted to meet, invited Him to do so, and yielded themselves to Him. How about you? Do you make worship all about you, or all about Him?

In the classic book, “The Practice of the Presence of God,” Brother Lawrence models and describes how a child of God can actively remain in His presence throughout the day, even in the most mundane elements of life. He models consistent worship in his actions and attitudes, and an expectancy that God will make His presence known.

Guys, this is not just for monks. This is not just for professional pastors. They have no more access to His presence than you and I do. And trust me when I say that Noah and I both experience regularly what I am writing about here. This is not theoretical; it is real life.

For those who want to know more, we highly recommend you read “The Practice of the Presence of God” for inspiration as to how such communion with Him is possible.

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