What do people mean by ‘coming into the presence of God’?

I recognise the concept of God’s presence means somewhat different things in different traditions. But I struggle to shake the sense that a lot of ‘coming into God’s presence’ language stems primarily from some iffy theology surrounding the presence of God.

For some folks, there is a belief that we must ‘invite’ the Holy Spirit to join with us when we meet, as though he might not turn up if we don’t. Seemingly our desire to feel/know/see (I don’t know) the Spirit is the determinate factor in whether he shows up at all. The relationship between church and Spirit on such a view resembles a cat faffing around with a jack-in-the-box. Whether the Spirit shows up or not remain, over and again, a genuine surprise that is ultimately caused by our cranking the handle properly.

Alternatively, you have people who believe that the Spirit shows up because of the room you are in at the time. They reinforce the idea by calling their main meeting area things like ‘the sanctuary’, which seems like a farce when your church happens to meet in a school cafeteria or some other 6-day-per-week worldly venue that we sanctify for a couple of hours each Sunday merely by showing up. It’s a much easier line to maintain when you have your own building, for sure. It is a view summed up in a couple of lines from the sitcom Frasier:

Frasier attempts to reassure Daphne’s mother (Gertrude) that a civil ceremony does not mean a Godless union

Frasier: For if you truly believe in the omniscience and omnipresence of the Lord, then surely are we not always in His presence?

Gertrude: No, He lives at the church!

Others of us land hard on Matthew 18:19f. The Lord is especially with us when two or more of us are gathered together in his name, they aver. So, the Lord is with us particularly when we gather together as his people, we think. You can see why I don’t think those verses make that point here.

The real question to ask is, what do we really mean by the presence of the Lord? There are two senses in which we might talk about God’s presence. The first, summed up by David in Psalm 139, is the omnipresence of the Lord. That is, the fact that God is everywhere. Now, it is fairly obvious that this is not what anybody is really talking about when they talk about the Spirit showing up and feeling the Lord’s presence. Everyone accepts that if the Lord is everywhere, there is no reason to particular feel anything different anywhere we may go. He is there regardless!

The second, which is what I suspect people are alluding to, is God’s special presence. They really mean God showing his shekinah glory. This is referring to God’s special, covenant presence with his people. God dwelt among his people, under the Old Covenant, by his special presence in the tabernacle and later the temple. One the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies and be in God’s special presence. God’s presence in the tabernacle and temple were signs of God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. There was a special way in which he was present in Israel that he was not present everywhere else (even though he was present everywhere else).

But under the New Covenant, we have the greatest of High Priests in the person of Jesus Christ. He can enter into God’s special presence and has opened up the means God to dwell among us. In fact, he has done more than merely allow God’s special presence to dwell among us, it now dwells in us. The Holy Spirit takes up residence in the hearts of God’s people the moment they repent of their sin and put their trust in Christ. That is why the apostle Paul can rightly call us, temples of the Holy Spirit. Christ was the true temple in whom God’s special presence rested and, as those united to Christ, we are now God’s temple in whom his special presence, by his Spirit, dwells.

Here, then, is the conundrum regarding this talk of God’s presence. If God’s special presence is already within us, God’s covenant relationship between himself and his people is sealed by the Spirit taking up residence in our hearts, what other presence are we hoping for? How can God be any more specially present with us than, as he is, dwelling within us?

But then we are forced to ask about this idea of coming into God’s presence? Leaving aside the first sense of presence, God’s special presence is always with believers. Jesus told his disciples that he was with us until the end of the age, that he would never leave nor forsake us. Given that Jesus is currently in a body, in Heaven at the right hand of the Father (and he made that promise just before he physically left his disciples yet they didn’t think he was lying), this is true by Christ’s union with the Spirit who now dwells within his people. But if that is true, what presence are we any more coming into than usual? The same Spirit that dwells within my heart on a Sunday morning in church is the same one dwelling within my heart when I walk to the shops, eat dinner with my family or do anything else. If Christ, and his Spirit – and God’s special presence – is with me all the time, what exactly are folk hoping will happen on a Sunday morning that is any different?

It is largely for these reasons that I struggle to see the case for wearing special clothes in church, like suits and ties and that sort of thing. If I must wear such things in the presence of God, unless I’m sleeping in my suit and tie, I’m falling foul of this every time I put on pyjamas as I go to sleep. It is similarly, for these reasons, that meeting in whatever building we are able is of absolutely no importance whatsoever. The Lord is specially present with us whether we meet in a purpose-built church building, a school, an old pub or anywhere else. It is similarly for these reasons that I do not worry whether the Lord will show up on Sunday because I know he is with me regardless. I likewise don’t worry too much how I feel on a Sunday morning – that’s not to say how I feel doesn’t matter at all (that’s another post for another day) – but what I feel doesn’t determine what is true and the Lord is with me whether I feel his presence or not!

So what, exactly, are folk hoping for when they seek God’s presence? What do they lack by the Spirit of God dwelling in their hearts? How much more special do they want?