What do we mean when we say we are seeking the presence of God?
In many churches and in their services, and in the minds of many worship leaders and preachers, it is often understood to mean “an atmosphere” or “an experience,” usually revolving around “a feeling”. But is that it? Or is that all?
The face of God
In the Old Testament to be in God’s presence was to be before God’s presence or God’s “face”. It was understood that presence had less to do with what was or wasn’t to be felt and more to do with whom we were to have a close and personal encounter and relationship with. The Presence of God was neither separate from nor an addition to or a subtraction from the Person of God.
In the New Testament we are told that God’s presence and person, God himself, has become manifest “in the flesh and dwelt among us” in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). Jesus Christ who was and is always “at the Father’s side,” or “in the bosom of the Father,” meaning an intimacy beyond surpassing, has come into the world not only to encounter us but to bring us into intimate relationship with God. The glory of God’s presence now shines in “the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:6).
We are, then, not so much seeking the presence of Christ as we are the presence of the person of Christ. The difference is subtle, yet far reaching.
More than a sense
When a person enters a room we can say they are present or that their presence is there. But being present and having a sense of their presence, or of being near to them, is one thing. It is not everything, though.
I can have a sense of my wife, but my wife is more than my sense of her. The more-than-sense-of-her I seek is that of knowing her personally. Her being present makes this possible, but her presence is in no way a substitute for, and in no way could exist apart from, her person.
So we can say that we seek the Person of Christ, not simply his presence or our sense of him.
We might call this our “experience” of Him. But what might this experience consist of? Beauty, truth, and love.
Beauty, truth, and love
(1) Beauty, in that we encounter Jesus as he really is, in his eternal glory, and he captures our mind and heart.
The beauty of the Lord could be said to be the glory of the Lord, all that makes him holy, pure, righteous. The fulness of his essence. He is completely Other and His beauty can both ravish our heart and terrify it.
When someone says, “This is me in all my glory,” they mean they are in that moment as they really are, without veil or covering or disguise. “What you see is what you get.” God unveiled, uncovered, undesguised—revealed—is more than any heart can bear at once. And, yet, the heart can in one glimpse find enough in God that all of its attention and adoration will never run dry.
(2) Truth, in that Jesus encounters us as we really are.
When we encounter Jesus, we come to understand things, being the world or life or circumstances or ourselves, as they really are. For example, his love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness “speak” the truth to us and show or reveal to our minds and to our hearts not only more of what is true about who he is and what he has done, but, in the light of that truth, more of who we truly are, or, as he truly sees us and fully knows us.
(3) Love, in that Jesus, in his beauty and with truth, not only encounters us but transforms us.
We are brought to our senses, awakened, as it were; we are led in kindness to repentance from sin; we are humbled and washed clean; grace teaches us, conforms us, and empowers us to live for God. Our hearts are freed for obedience and constrained by love.
Because Jesus was forsaken by his father on the cross for our sin, we can enjoy the love that is “in the bosom of the Father” forever. As a result and for this purpose we are changed by Jesus’ love and in his love from one degree of glory to another. That is, we not only come to resemble and to reflect more of Jesus little by little, but we also come to delight in him and to praise him more and more.
Of course, when we are experiencing the presence or the person of God, we are not thinking about any of these things, per se, analyzing the experience for beauty, truth, and love. Yet, all of this and more is going on. It is more than an emotional encounter. It’s an encounter that we experience with our entire being. It’s an encounter with a Person and not merely with our own sense, feeling or thought of him.