The Search for the Presence of God

Now there are reports of meetings springing up around the country ? in Runcorn, Leeds and Portsmouth ? with local churches eager to see God move in a similar way. If God is on the move in the UK, perhaps it’s time we thought about what we mean when we talk about this more elusive dimension of his character: his presence.

Having grown up in a church that would definitely be described as ‘happy clappy’, I’m not usually fazed by spiritual ‘outbursts’; the odd bit of wailing and arm waving was just part of the landscape of my youth. But one recent Sunday morning, I stood at the back of an old art deco cinema in the south-west feeling very British as I watched people running around in bare feet, hugging at the Communion table and singing in tongues midway through the worship. The church in question was Bath City Church; while they aren’t claiming to be a site of ‘outpouring’, this kind of stuff is normal fare. While others might say their starting point was the community or mission, BCC talk about the presence of God as their primary value; the source from which everything else flows.

"There is evidence everywhere of hunger for more than we are currently experiencing in our spiritual lives"

The presence of God sounds simple enough. It’s a phrase we find repeatedly in the Bible, but how it’s used varies substantially, and when you try to define it, it becomes a rather slippery term. It’s one of those times when prepositions are important. We’re encouraged to go deeper into the presence of God, to dwell in it, to recognise the presence upon someone’s life, or know that it is in you. Anyone else confused?

Rest or pursuit?

When we talk about the ‘presence’, we’re usually referring to one of two things: the presence of God everywhere, and the presence of God within us. So is it something we have to actively pursue, or can we rest in the knowledge that it’s ‘just there?’

In his classic text, The Pursuit of God AW Tozer writes: ‘A spiritual kingdom lies all about us, enclosing us, embracing us, altogether within reach of our inner selves, waiting for us to recognise it.’ Tozer makes the common distinction between the presence of God and the manifestation of his presence ? the general presence of God at work in his world, and the particular awareness of his Spirit at work: ‘There can be the one without the other. God is here when we are wholly unaware of it. He is manifest only when and as we are aware of His presence.’

Some emphasise that the presence of God is not a concept but a person, an aspect of our relationship with God. This is something that Bill Johnson, pastor of Bethel Church, California and international speaker and author on this subject, particularly highlights. Johnson draws upon the verses in Ephesians and Thessalonians that instruct us not to ‘grieve’ or ‘quench’ the Holy Spirit. Like our relationships with each other, it comes as no surprise that our relationship with God needs work too. Bethel is known for its schools of supernatural ministry, and attracts visitors from all over the world ? some curious, others desperate for healing or to ‘catch’ something of God’s manifest presence and take it home. For those not able to jump on a plane, the church’s prayer ministry team offers prayer for healing via Skype.

God on tour

Closer to home, there is evidence everywhere of hunger for more than we are currently experiencing in our spiritual lives. I found the idea of ‘God on tour’ mildly amusing, but Mike Betts, team leader at Relational Mission (part of Newfrontiers), is currently working his way around numerous churches in the UK and Western Europe with a ‘Presence of God’ tour. ‘We’re trying to talk about the presence of God in all parts of Christian life,’ says Betts, ‘everything from being born again and reading scripture, to being able to handle issues of daily life. [It’s] down to earth, practical stuff, as well as laying a foundation of baptism in the Holy Spirit and encouraging people to seek and receive the gifts of the Spirit. We’re trying to de-mystify these things.’

People often ask why the Church in Britain today doesn’t look more like the early Church; do we simply lack the faith in the power of God’s presence to see miracles like those performed in Acts? Betts hopes that teaching people to have confidence in the presence of God will release them to bring New Testament values into Church life. For him, the knowledge of God’s presence with us should have an application in our daily lives. Aside from what the Spirit’s manifest presence might look like in a charismatic worship meeting, there are other consequences for the Church.

Going deeper

We often use phrases such as going ‘deeper’ or getting ‘nearer’ to God, as we would describe our relationships with one another. But if God’s presence is everywhere, then, as Tozer exhorts us, it is our awareness that increases, not our proximity.

So if we pray more, will we experience more of God’s presence? Maybe, but Betts also says, ‘The newest believer and the oldest saint both enjoy the same presence of God. I don’t think there are levels, but I would talk about different manifestations of his presence.’

‘There’s something quite wonderful about the presence of God that you can go as deep into it as you want and yet it’s never forced,’ says Bath City Church pastor Stewart Keiller. ‘There’s an interesting picture in Ezekiel that talks about his temple ? in that picture, at each level of going deeper, there are different rooms you can inhabit. God brings you to the level that you can cope with.

How can we tell if our awareness of God’s presence is increasing? ‘It’s not just thinking about a certain atmosphere in a meeting,’ says Betts, ‘it’s also just trying to help people cultivate an awareness of God, whether they feel his presence or not.’

Feeling God’s presence is where it becomes particularly tricky. Feelings are hard to define, often don’t last and can sometimes be explained away. Johnson writes: ‘Emotions are wonderful, but not reliable indicators of God’s Presence and moving. But there is a feeling that goes beyond emotions, and quite frankly can work regardless of our emotional state. It is the mood of the Holy Spirit Himself that we move as He moves.’

Charismatics don’t have a monopoly on the presence of God. And conservatives are understandably and rightly nervous about branding ‘the presence’ as a hyped-up atmosphere in a time of worship.

‘We’ve got to be careful not to equate a feeling with reality,’ says Vaughan Roberts, rector of St Ebbe’s Church, Oxford, ‘because otherwise it’s quite easy to create an atmosphere, [as if] we’re looking for a kind of high ? a spine-tingling moment. Our songs can express emotion, and to a certain extent create an emotion, but it doesn’t create that presence.’

The phrase, ‘the presence of God’ may seem to be just another way of talking about the Holy Spirit, though we shouldn’t limit it to that alone. ‘I wouldn’t want to isolate the Holy Spirit to the presence of God,’ says Roberts. ‘The Holy Spirit brings Christ present, and Christ brings the Father present ? it’s through the Spirit that we’re drawn to Christ and through him we’re drawn to the Father…Whenever his word is proclaimed or passed on in any way, then God is speaking; as we respond to that, we encounter God.’ Despite their different ecclesiology, Paul Miché, worship and creative arts pastor at Bath City Church, recognises some aspects of Roberts’ view. ‘Sometimes it can seem to be about the experience. Tozer said that worship is something that should be felt in the heart ? it is an emotional thing. I think that’s positive. What we’re trying to do [is to show that] while it is an experience, it’s based on scripture.

A British problem

Sometimes when we look around us, as I did in the art deco cinema in Bath, it can feel as if some people are on another plane of spirituality altogether. But we needn’t worry if others seem to have a hotline to God and we aren’t experiencing much of anything. Roberts suggests this difference is about varied emotional capacities. ‘The authenticity of the encounter is not how it’s expressed,’ says Roberts, ‘different people and different cultures express it in different ways.’

The British are known for their stiff upper lip, a cultural trait which, according to some, might affect the way we experience God’s presence. There’s a fine line between the natural reserve instilled in most Brits at birth, and a cynicism that can get in the way of a more meaningful relationship with God. Rather than being something humorous ? the Eyores of the world as it were ? Betts feels cynicism is a major stronghold in Britain that needs to be overcome. As something that is often seen as integral to our cultural identity, it is a real challenge to separate the good from the bad.

Places and people

If you went to Sunday school, it will have been drummed into you that you didn’t have to be in a church to speak to God in prayer. Nonetheless, there is a school of thought which suggests God might have special places for his presence. Celtic Christianity refers to ‘thin’ places ? places such as the holy island of Lindisfarne where it is suggested that a long heritage of Christian prayer and faithfulness has led to an ease of connection with God. Additionally, there are places that have seen a distinctive outpouring of the Holy Spirit, such as the movement recently seen in Cwmbran or Bethel Church in Redding, California, where miracles of healing are frequently witnessed.

The newest believer and the oldest saint both enjoy the same presence of God

‘We don’t have to go to a particular place; we have to go to a person ? Jesus,’ says Roberts. ‘It might be for our own benefit that we’re more able to focus on his word in special places, but it’s not that God is more present in those places, just that we’re able to focus our hearts.’

Travelling to visit places of spiritual outpouring can be seen as a kind of spiritual tourism ? going to the latest spiritual hotspot ? or as a contemporary extension of the tradition of pilgrimage. Both of these acts can also be marks of faithfulness and devotion; it comes down to the intention with which it’s done. ‘At Bethel [California] there’s been a cultivation of [an atmosphere] that you step into,’ says Andy Glover, who leads Hoole Baptist Church and recently visited Bethel Church. ‘Looking at the story of Jesus’ baptism, there’s a sense of living under an “open heaven”.’ He suggests that there’s something important about intentionally seeking God in a particular place: ‘There’s a pursuit of God that takes place over time; you come into that flow of where people have cultivated God’s presence.

Victory Church, Cwmbran offers to send ‘prayer cloths’ to those desiring healing but who are unable to travel. They acknowledge on their website: ‘Of course these pieces of cloth are nothing more than oil and cloth, but we pray specifically over them and believe that they will form a point of contact for your and our faith.’ It begs the question whether there is something substantially different about what’s going on in Wales from other meetings seeking the presence of the Lord elsewhere in the country.

‘I think scripturally [the presence] is in a person, on a people and in a place,’ says Keiller. ‘I don’t think God is done with places ? it’s the Bethel idea: Jacob says “God is in this place”. The New Testament casts that in a different light; [God] comes in an individual and corporate way ? he not only comes on and in the individual but on and in the corporate community.’

But can you really visit a place where God’s Spirit is manifestly present, and carry the presence of God back home with you? Darrell Tunningley, a former drug addict and convict turned pastor, co-leads Hope Corner Community Church in Runcorn, where they started holding ‘outpouring’ meetings in May. He says that while he was inspired by the outpouring in Cwmbran, he has chosen not to go in person. ‘The Holy Spirit is huge ? why do I need to travel? God can do whatever he’s doing right here. He’s longing for a heart that will respond to him ? he’s looking and searching.’

Similarly, Mark Kelly, leader of Leeds City Church, went to visit the Runcorn ‘outpouring’ but says, ‘We need to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is everywhere. You take the encouragement and the possibilities from what you’ve seen there. You can be jealous in a positive way. When you experience what God does, it’s the testimony that you bring back that ignites the flame. I think it’s rather arrogant to think we take the Spirit.’

‘What’s most important for me was that I had a real personal encounter with God when I was there [at Bethel],’ says Glover. ‘I didn’t want to go…as a spiritual tourist ? we observe, watch and maybe experience it, but it doesn’t make any difference. The biggest testimony for me is that people say to me that I am different. It has impacted my preaching and I’ve been renewed in my devotional life with God.'

Word and Spirit

The gold standard in life and in faith is almost always a ‘balanced’ approach. In this instance, one that weighs and tests a life in the Spirit with the word of God as expressed in the Bible. ‘The stronger we’re built on scripture, the safer it is for us to then follow more “unusual” promptings of the moment,’ says Betts.

But the question of our human involvement remains ? how far does our experience of God’s presence depend on our expectation of what God can do? Johnson writes that ‘Many stop short of a divine encounter, because they are satisfied with good theology. One is to lead us to the other’. For him, the deep experience of the presence of God demonstrates a full understanding of the word of God.

On returning from Bethel, Glover sensed there was a challenge for the Church ? not merely to adopt the trappings of the charismatic movement, but to truly experience the reality of the presence of God in all aspects of our lives. ‘I think sometimes we can adopt the changes that involve a different worship style or music band,’ he says. ‘But there’s a big difference between a block of singing songs, and expressing our worship to God. We’ve got to remember that the kingdom of God is inside us. [It’s not just about] the supernatural, but also stepping into the fullness of the kingdom in terms of justice and righteousness; total transformation across society, this side of eternity.’

Present in Christ

Hebrews 9:24: As he was in his presence before the beginning of the world, Christ now intercedes for us in God’s presence. ‘For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.’

Present in person

1 Thessalonians 3:13: When Jesus returns, the faithful will enter God’s presence as Paul writes, ‘May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.’

Present in poetry

Psalm 89:15: ‘Blessed are those who have learned to acclaim you, who walk in the light of your presence, lord.’ The Psalms repeatedly refer to the Lord’s presence. Here the metaphor may mean guidance and the knowledge of God’s truth.

Present in God’s house

1 Samuel 2:21 says ‘the boy Samuel grew up in the Presence of the lord’, meaning that he lived in the temple.

Presence on the move

Exodus 33: Moses met the Lord ‘face to face’ (v11) in the tent of meeting. When it was time for the Israelites to leave the wilderness, the Lord said ‘My Presence will go with you’ (v14). The Lord’s presence would distinguish them from the other nations on the earth.