‘Am I only a God nearby’, declares the LORD, ‘and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD.
Omni, from the Latin meaning ‘all’; the entirety of God’s being is always and everywhere fully present. To put it negatively, there is never any aspect of His creation from which He is in any sense excluded. It was the attribute Jonah ran headlong into when he fled in the direction of Tarshish and learned the hard way that ‘if I make my bed in the depths, you are there’ (Ps.139:8, cf. Jonah 1-2; as did the Arameans, I Kings 20:23-30). He is as fully present in the midst of the darkest depravity of human sin as He is in the bodily form of Christ (Acts 17:24 & 27; Col.2:9). The experience of that Presence is variable, but the fact of it is not. Christ fills everything in every way (Eph.1:23). We are limited in time and space (though perhaps not as limited as we are used to thinking, e.g. Eph.2:6). His being knows no limits, and cannot but know no limits.
But we mustn’t limit our thinking to God’s presence within Creation. He is always and everywhere fully present beyond the boundaries of creation also. After all, ‘in [Christ] all things were created…and in Him all things hold together’ (Col.1:16-17). The Christ who is fully God made space within Himself to house creation. As an aside: the question of how God can be present within creation pales into insignificance compared to the question of how creation can be present ‘within’ God. This may help us to understand why it is the Son who is Mediator, and who becomes Incarnate. His relationship with the creation seems unique within the life of God.
But if God is always and everywhere fully present, then what do we make of language that speaks of God coming (John 14:23), or the Spirit being sent from one place to another (Jn.15:26)? Even our most foundational beliefs and ways of speaking as Christians can seem confused in the light of this idea of God’s omnipresence. How can God’s Presence ‘go’ with Moses (Ex.33:14)? How can we be separated from a God who is at all times present everywhere (Is.59:2)? How can He be far from the wicked (Prov.15:29)? If Christ is omnipresent, what does it mean to speak of the ascension, or His return in judgement? How can return to where He already is? If Christ is omnipresent, how can we think of Him being limited to one place and one time either prior to or in His incarnation (Gen.32:22-32; Col.2:9)?
Psalm 139 is the classic passage that celebrates and reflects on the omnipresence of God. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence (v.7)? The relentless presence of God is ‘knowledge too wonderful for me’, and yet is the foundation of a great symphony of praise and practical comfort. We saw in our last study that God’s relationship with Time is fundamentally different to ours; so too is His relationship with Space. That the Living God cannot be contained within the confines of creation is one of the most basic axioms of Biblical religion (I Kings 8:27).
Although God is omnipresent, dwelling both in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit (Is.57:15), He does manifest or reveal that presence in specific ways and in specific times and places for specific purposes. He is always and everywhere fully present, but not always for the same reasons. In one place He reveals His glory and makes His presence known to His people to bless, or to empower; in another that same presence is manifest to provoke repentance; in another, it is hidden, the sense of it withdrawn as He recoils from sin and prepares for judgement. There is no sin against a God who is not present.
In fact, there is nothing that happens where God is not present. That said, older Christians of a previous generation spoke of the Practise of the Presence of God; or of living ‘Coram Deo’ (latin: Before the Presence of God). They were not suggesting that there was the option of NOT living before the presence of God. Rather it was cultivating the conscious awareness and experience of that Presence. Drawing Him out as it were, so that His omnipresence was ‘felt’, and His glory made manifest to bless, comfort, empower, strengthen and provide.
This was the longing and aspiration of God’s holy people for generations. Is it ours, or have we become so used to living and worshipping without the manifest presence of God that we have given up even believing it is possible?
How would your life change if you cultivated a conscious awareness of the Presence of God? How would you cultivate the sense of God’s presence throughout your life? What would we lose as Christians if we weren’t practising the Presence of God? What do you mean when you say you don’t feel God’s presence?
In the light of the above, how would you interpret a passage such as Gen.4:16, or Gen.11:5? In what sense can we talk about Jesus being forsaken by His Father on the cross (Matt.27:46)? …or about Jesus being with us in the Great Commission (Matt.28:19-20)? Does it matter how we interpret such passages?
How does this belief about God affect our discipleship?
In hell, are people in the presence of Christ, or out of it (Matt.7:23; Rev.14:10)? What difference does it make to you?
How does this attribute connect with other attributes to shape our vision of God?
In what way – if any – is God present when Christians gather to worship in a way that He isn’t present at any other time? Does this affect your attitude to Church?
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For Further Reflection
Considering the attributes of God through an intrinsically Trinitarian lens is always a critical question for Christians. We are not idolatrous monotheists, and our vision of God is not a simple unitarian one. Our talking of God must never lapse into something that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in a mosque. So it is never enough for us to speak about ‘God’ being something. We will want to ask, ‘What does that mean for the Father enthroned in heaven (Ps.47:8)?’; ‘What does it mean for the Incarnate Son of God to be limited to one place and one time either prior to His incarnation or subsequent to it (Gen.32:22-32; Col.2:9)?’; ‘What does it mean for the Holy Spirit, indwelling the Church (Eph.2:23)?’
What do we understand by their localisation in specific places or arenas, and how must these localisations be qualified by the Bible’s teaching on the omnipresence of the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit? In the answers to questions such as these there awaits a deep worship.