The Universal Presence
Hiding in Plain Sight
It begins quietly. You're running a bit late for an important appointment and can't seem to find your car keys or your glasses or your cell phone. They're not where they're supposed to be. So, you begin to look around. You search your pockets. You check all the usual places. You ask those nearby if they've seen or taken the missing items. The only response is a bunch of disinterested heads shaking back and forth — no one knows anything. At this point, you're more exasperated with yourself than anything else. You're positive that you put those stupid things right here by the door! But none of them are right here by the door!
Frustration begins to build as you earnestly go from place to place searching for the misplaced articles. You find yourself retracing your steps, going back to the same locations over and over again, hoping that maybe the fifth time is the charm. Soon neatly folded clothes are seen flying across the bedroom, carefully packed boxes are unceremoniously dumped upside down in the hallway, meticulously organized desk tops are swept onto the floor, all in a frenzied attempt to hunt down those idiotic thingumabobs. They've got to be around here somewhere!
Finally you reach the panic stage. What started out as a quick search has evolved into a search-and-destroy operation by a crazed madman. As your distorted voice bellows forth in anguish, you are oblivious to your children huddled behind the couch, silently praying for deliverance. You're blind to the dog running for cover, head low to the ground, desperately trying to make himself as small and inconspicuous as possible. Your psychotic tunnel vision prevents you from noticing the neighbors now gathered across the street at a safe distance, looking at your house as if it were an out-of-control oilrig fire. You are deaf to the approaching sirens of the SWAT Team. You cannot make sense of why FEMA is posting a television broadcast alert for your area. And you are unable to comprehend why the federal Office of Homeland Security has just raised the terror alert level.
You stand there a whipped man, hunched over your bathroom sink, contemplating which method of suicide would be easiest on your wife and kids. You slowly look up from your bottomless pit of misery and into the mirror before you. The reflection you see staring back is only a shell of, what was 15 minutes ago, a man. Your carefully coifed hair is now a wind-tunnel tangle. Your freshly starched, light blue shirt is now stained with flop sweat. Your face is now a bright, puffy crimson, streaked with tears. All former glory and future hope is gone.
Then through the misty fog of your deep despair you spy something dangling from your waist. It is your car keys, still safely attached to your belt for easy access and to prevent them form being misplaced. Amazed, you lift your eyes to see your long-lost glasses perched comfortably above your sweaty forehead. Finally, into your consciousness comes the calm voice of your wife. She's gently talking you back down into sanity, through the cell phone you have been using for the past 15 minutes.
Exaggerated? Pretty much. But doesn't the scenario above partly describe what it's like to search for something, only to discover that what you've been running around looking for has been right there in front of you, hiding in plain sight all along? Nowhere is this fact truer than when it comes to your search for God himself. The Bible teaches that God is right here, right now. In Proverbs 1:20-21, Solomon personifies the wisdom of God as a woman with a clear message: "Wisdom shouts in the street, she lifts her voice in the square; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the gates of the city, she utters her sayings . . ." But what is the response of those around her? ". . . I called, and you refused; I stretched out my hand, and no one paid attention; and you neglected all my counsel, and did not want my reproof . . ." (1:24-25). And therein lies the basic problem for all of us: God is so obviously present while we are so presently oblivious.
As with each preceding chapter, we find a core question imbedded in this fifth chapter of A. W. Tozer's splendid work, The Pursuit of God, which he titles "The Universal Presence." So far, we've had to come face to face with the following decisions: Chapter 1 — Will I follow hard after God? Chapter 2 — Will I pay the price and enjoy the blessedness of possessing nothing? Chapter 3 — Will I do my part in removing the veil that separates me from God? And Chapter 4 — Will I progress in my quest of apprehending God? Chapter 5 will force us to ask and answer this question, "Will I open my eyes and behold the universal presence of a God who is hiding in plain sight?"
In the previous chapter, Tozer challenged us to not let our pursuit of God be distracted by the things we see in the visible world. In this chapter he will challenge us to let our pursuit of God be guided by what God has created in the visible world. These truths are not contradictory, but in fact are complementary. To the person of immature faith, God's creation can become an obstacle that blocks their view. But to the person of maturing faith, God's creation can become an object lesson that sharpens their view. That is, if we can develop our faith in such a way that enables us to see God present in the physical world all around us, we may soon have a faith that is robust enough to enable us to see his presence in the spiritual world around us. Hence, Tozer reminds us that God is everywhere present and is as near to you as the nose on your face — literally.
God In Creation or God Is Creation?
Tozer begins by introducing us to the doctrine of God's divine imminence. That is, "God dwells in his creation and is everywhere indivisibly present in all his works." This truth, while generally accepted by most Christian theologians, has not taken root in the average Christian's heart and become a part of their daily belief and practice. Some Christian teachers even shy away from it because of a fear of being labeled "pantheists." But affirming God's divine Presence is not pantheism. Tozer says, "Pantheism's error is too palpable to deceive anyone." And while his analysis of the error of pantheism is correct, I think he underestimates the power of that error and the hold it has over so many. Half of the world is currently being deceived by it, including all those involved in Eastern religions and all those involved in the Western New Age movements. But Tozer is right when he explains that pantheism believes that, ". . . God is the sum of created things. Nature and God are one, so that whoever touches a leaf or a stone touches God. That is, of course, to degrade the glory of the incorruptible Deity and, in an effort to make all things divine, banish all divinity from the world entirely." By making everything divine, pantheism has made nothing divine.
But, Tozer continues, "The truth is that while God dwells in his world he is separated from it by a gulf forever impassable. However closely he may be identified with the work of his hands, they are and must eternally be other than he, and he is and must be antecedent to and independent of them. He is transcendent above all his works even while he is immanent with them." The Christian doctrine of immanence in no way minimizes the doctrine of transcendence; both of them are true. God is both near to and far above his creation.
So, what does God's immanent Presence mean to us? As Tozer defines it,
"It means simply that God is here. Wherever we are, God is here. There is no place, there can be no place where he is not. Ten million intelligences standing at as many points in space and separated by incomprehensible distances can each one say with equal truth, God is here. No point is nearer to God than any other point. It is exactly as near to God from any place as it is from any other place. No one is in mere distance any further from or any nearer to God than any other person."
In 1975 I wrote a book titled, God, I Don't Understand, and examined eleven major mysteries I'd found in the Scriptures. One of the mysteries I explored addressed the question, "How can God be closer to us that we are to ourselves and, at the same time, be so distant as to seem unknowable?" It is clear that Scripture affirms both of these truths. Yet they seem so incompatible when we try and put them together. In my book I suggested that the solution is not to try and solve the mystery, but to embrace the tension within the mystery. By doing so, I acknowledge to God my finite understanding and his infinite understanding. In fact, being a limited creature means that I should expect to encounter certain elements in God's revelation that go beyond the boundaries of my human comprehension — it is one of the distinguishing marks of the Bible's authority. However, we must remember that a mystery is not the same thing as a contradiction. A contradiction goes against reason; a mystery goes beyond reason. God never asks us to believe anything that is unreasonable, but he frequently asks us to believe things that transcend our reason.
Ultimately pantheism fails because as Tozer reminds us, "'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God' (John 1:1). Not matter, for matter is not self-causing. It requires an antecedent cause, and God is that Cause. Not law, for law is but a name for the course which all creation follows. That course had to be planned, and the Planner is God. Not mind, for mind also is a created thing and must have a Creator back of it. In the beginning God, the uncaused Cause of matter, mind, and law."
His point is that in the beginning (before anything was created, including time) was the logos (Word), and the logos was a personal agent, and the logos spoke reality into existence. That is, before there was a cosmos (creation), there was an uncaused logos who had not yet caused anything to be created. When the eternally existing logos created the cosmos, he brought forth the logos/cosmos (Creator/creation) distinction. Now the transcendent God beyond the universe becomes the immanent God in, but not of the universe. What he has created has his fingerprints on it and those whom he has created have his image upon them. Therefore, we can look at what he has made and discover some characteristics about the God who made it. But even better, we can look at how he has made us and, through his revealed Word, delight in the fact that he has come to seek us out, dwell within us, and soon take us to be with him forever.
What is the Speed of Prayer?
Tozer recalls for us that, "Adam sinned and, in his panic, frantically tried to do the impossible; he tried to hide from the presence of God." David also had some fleeting thoughts of hiding from God. Psalm 139 reveals his mental struggle,
"Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your Presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, you are there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, you are there. Even there your hand will lead me, and your right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, 'Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,' even the darkness is not dark to you, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to you" (Psalm 139:7-12).
David knew that God's being and God's seeing are essentially indivisible. That is, the fact that God had seen David even before he was born, watching the unfolding mystery of his life, also means that God had been personally present throughout the whole process. On the other hand, we dare not assume that God's immanence somehow detracts from his transcendence, for as Solomon asked and then answered, "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him; how much less this house which I have built" (1 Kings 8:27). Here he is referring to the supernatural (beyond nature) heaven, the one that transcends the created "heaven and heaven of heavens."
Tozer writes that, "The approach of God to the soul or of the soul to God is not to be thought of in spatial terms at all. There is no idea of physical distance involved in the concept. It is not a matter of miles but of experience." For instance, what is the speed of prayer? If the speed of prayer were limited to the speed of light, then no prayer ever offered by man would have made it beyond the Andromeda Galaxy, let alone out of the universe. No, the speed of prayer is instantaneous. In fact, the only time indicator connected to God's hearing our prayer is "before." Before we know to ask, he knows what we will ask (see Matthew 6:8).
Tozer asks, "If God is present at every point in space, if we cannot go where He is not, cannot even conceive of a place where he is not, why then has not that Presence become the one universally celebrated fact of the world?" Recalling the patriarch Jacob "in the waste-howling wilderness" (Deuteronomy 32:10), Tozer answers his own question, "He saw a vision of God and cried out in wonder, 'Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not'" (Genesis 28:16). God was obviously in that place, but Jacob had been oblivious to him. Tozer continues, "That is because the Presence and the manifestation of the Presence are not the same. 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."
If God were simply interested in revealing the fact that he existed, there are many options open to him, all of which involve presenting to us some kind of physical evidence. That is, in order to unmistakably authenticate his divine existence for all people to see, he only has to provide something we can see, hear, or touch. But if God is truly interested in revealing himself as a Person, the only option available to him is to do so within an intimate, personal setting, just as He did with Moses. "And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord" (Exodus 34:5). God revealed his very Self to Moses so that Moses' face was changed by the encounter. God must come to meet with us and we must come to meet with him. There is no other way.
Here we see that God wants far more than to make a connection with his creatures. He wants to have individual fellowship with each one of them. It is the only medium for each person to acquire the intimate knowledge of the other. Just as two people become friends, or as a child comes to really know and love his parents, so too God requires extended time and shared experiences with each person in order to be deeply known and loved by the other.
Furthermore, it is this individual intimacy that accounts for why God manifests himself differently to each person. Certainly, writes Tozer, "The will of God is the same for all. He has no favorites within his household. All he has ever done for any of his children he will do for all his children. The difference lies not with God but with us." And because God is infinite, he is capable of engaging in a unique relationship with each person. It takes a rich imagination to begin to appreciate the wonder of having the Ancient of Days, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the Maker of heaven and earth, the Almighty God desire to come spend uninterrupted time with each of us. We gloss over the repeated way he identifies himself as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," and miss the chance to have him declare to the angelic host that he is "the God of ( your name).
God's children vary widely. But Tozer seeks to identify the thread common to all who have an intimate relationship with him. He suggests that the one vital quality that they have in common is spiritual receptivity. That is, something within each one of them was regularly open to God; something within them was consciously made available to God and his good gifts. Tozer writes, "They had a spiritual awareness and they went on to cultivate it until it became the biggest thing in their lives. They differed from the average person in that when they felt the inward longing they did something about it. They acquired the lifelong habit of spiritual response." Or as David put it, "When you said, 'Seek my face;' my heart said to you, 'Your face, Lord, I will seek'" (Psalm 27:8).
How can we cultivate this spiritual receptivity in a way that it becomes the biggest thing in our lives? Before that question is answered, a couple words of caution are warranted. We need to carefully avoid the occupational hazard of the theologian, whether a member of the clergy or laity). This hazard is the temptation of ordering our relationship with God according to a prescribed model (i.e., modeled after a person, modeled after a structured community, modeled after a set of disciplines, or modeled after a idealized image).
Also, we need to be clear on the distinction between healthy spiritual disciplines and unhealthy spiritualized legalism. That is, if we are not careful we might find that instead of entering into a valuable workout for the purpose of godliness, we have gotten ourselves stuck on a law-bound, ascetic treadmill. Paul tells us that ". . . these are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence" (Colossians 2:23). The disciplines were never to be used as ends in themselves. They are simply a means toward the end of knowing God better.
Returning now to the question of how a person cultivates spiritual receptivity, I'd like to offer some suggestions. First of all, it is critical to remember that faith is simply the capacity to receive. That is, it is like an invisible cup that God has given to each one of us into which he wishes to deposit the gift of himself. His desire is that we daily present our "cup of faith" to him so that he can fill it with what is best. In this sense, our walk of faith as Christians is no different from our first step of faith in Christ. It is the humble posture of a person who has come to the realization that their cup is empty and they cannot fill it no matter how hard they try. Thus, they are trusting God to fill it with that which only he possesses. The same way in which we first welcomed God's gift of saving grace is the same way we are to consistently welcome his moment-by-moment gifts of grace.
Following upon that understanding, a person in pursuit of God next needs to make the connection between their faith and the disciplines. If faith is our capacity to receive what we need from God, then this capacity must be properly stewarded. That means that we must daily empty our lives of sin and self and make room for what God will give. Then after emptying our lives, we willingly present them to God to be filled. This repeated movement of faith — that is, the act of emptying and filling — is best developed by the spiritual disciplines. For those exercises are effective in training our hearts and minds and bodies to cooperate together in welcoming God into intimate fellowship with us. Thus, the spiritual disciplines are the means by which we get in shape to receive the everywhere-presence of God. In the end, our muscular faith does not result in our getting more of him, for we already possess all of him, but rather in him getting more of us. By regularly showing up before him we open up more and more of ourselves and find that his Presence has enlarged our heart, enabling us to live a life that becomes more pleasing to him each day.
Disciplines For Our Spirit
A spiritual discipline program is best seen as a training program for those who want to be like Christ. If we truly want to do what he did, we must live life the way he lived it. And that means regularly doing those things by which he learned obedience to his Father's will. We see the effect that such rigorous discipline had when we observe him in the garden just before the cross. Although struggling mightily, he was ultimately able to do what he did not humanly want to do. This was made possible through the same supernatural power available to us, the Holy Spirit, and through the same disciplines available to us, the spiritual disciplines. Therefore, if we practice what he practiced, we too will be able to obey God's will, even in moments when we don't want to.
But such strength of faith does not come without cost, as Tozer has pointedly preached in previous chapters. I believe that spiritual receptivity is best increased by the intentional exercise of the spirit and that it is most easily destroyed by the unintentional neglect of the spirit. No one remains where they are with God. You are either proactively engaged in increasing your receptivity or you are reactively engaged in diminishing your receptivity. And therefore, you are either moving toward him or moving way from him. The pursuit of God has no neutral gear.
Systematically engaging in spiritual disciplines was not especially popular during Tozer's lifetime. However, there has been a resurgence of interest in them, particularly in last few decades. Books such as Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard's The Spirit of the Disciplines are only two of the better-known offerings in this emerging topic. Books in this vein always include examples of the spiritual exercises practiced by the Older Testament prophets, by Jesus himself, by the Apostles, by the early church saints, and by various spiritual masters up to our present day. They include: prayer, fasting, silence, frugality, solitude, worship, service, study, and meditation, to name some of the activities that have a proven track record. And once again, it is important to remember that the disciplines are only a means to an end, not the end itself. That is, no amount of discipline alone is sufficient to grow you into a deeper relationship with God. The disciplines only become valuable to the degree that they expand your spiritual receptivity for God. You can never grow into intimacy with him; you can only grow in intimacy with him.
For example, some people find journaling an effective tool in their spiritual discipline regimen. However, for me it has never done much. And, to be honest with you, I'm not too big on fasting either. I've found it best to practice a range of activities and then determine which ones work best for me. I would recommend that you also customize your program to fit your individual needs. Keep in mind that if a particular discipline comes naturally easily to you, it may only do you a limited amount of good. It is better to identify areas of your life where you struggle and then apply the disciplines there. The purpose of engaging in any discipline is to bring us into a more effective cooperation with the Spirit's work in our life. As an "exercises unto godliness," they help to bring our whole being into conformity with Christ.
Tozer reminds us that,
"The tragic results of [having an unreceptive heart] are all about us: shallow lives, hollow religious philosophies, the preponderance of the element of fun in gospel meetings, the glorification of men, trust in religious externalities, quasi-religious fellowships, salesmanship methods, the mistaking of dynamic personality for the power of the Spirit. These and such as these are the symptoms of an evil disease, a deep and serious malady of the soul."
His point is that, "We have accepted one another's notions, copied one another's lives, and made one another's experiences the model for our own." But he ends with a challenge: "Let any man turn to God in earnest. Let him begin to exercise himself unto godliness, let him seek to develop his powers of spiritual receptivity by trust and obedience and humility, and the results will exceed anything he may have hoped in his leaner and weaker days."
Is your "cup of faith" pointed downward? If so, the God who is present all around you is unable to give himself to you. For you, it is a life of franticly looking for the One who is standing right in front of you. Is your "cup of faith" pointed upward? Then the God who is standing right in front of you is able to fill you with himself. Use this prayer to lay hold of that which has been hiding in plain sight all your life.
"Oh God and Father, I repent of my sinful preoccupation with visible things. The world has been too much with me. Thou hast been here and I knew it not. I have been blind to thy presence. Open my eyes that I may behold Thee in and around me. For Christ's sake, amen."
Related Topics: Spiritual Formation