Although Scripture assures us that God “is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27), have you ever wondered why, regardless of how often or passionately we sing, “Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,” it still feels as if God is relating to us from a distance? Have you ever prayed earnestly, diligently, and sincerely to experience the powerful presence of God, only to be met with divine silence and left in a state of quandary whether this is at all possible?
Until recently, I seemed to have no trouble understanding or being able to articulate the depths of God’s love, mercy, grace, goodness, infinitude, omnipotence, omniscience, and immensity. But when it came to His immanence I was stumped, until I discovered the difference between finite space and spiritual dissimilarity.
I gained a greater understanding of God’s immanence from A. W. Tozer’s book The Attributes of God: A Journey Into the Father’s Heart.* One of the many profoundly inspiring concepts he noted was that this “yearning to be near to God and have God come nearer to us is universal among born-again Christians.” It is the passionate desire of the ransomed heart and redeemed sinner to be like God so that we can enjoy unbroken communication with Him; so that we can hear and feel His divine presence, especially when we come together in fellowship (Heb. 10:24, 25).
This sense of divine remoteness on the part of believers, according to Tozer, may be directly attributed to the fact that we “think of God as coming from across distance to us, when the Bible and Christian theology, all the way back to David, declare that God is already here—now.”
When we speak of distance, we think in terms of space and time, but Tozer adds, “God doesn’t dwell in space, and therefore God doesn’t have to come like a ray of light from some remote place” to be near us.
Why, then, do we feel and relate to God from a distance if He is always with us, as Jesus promised in Matthew 28:20? Again, Tozer said that believers mistakenly think it’s a spatial, geographical, or astronomical distance, when it’s a spiritual “dissimilarity in our natures”—the unlikeness between a holy God and sinners (even those saved by grace) that makes us yearn for God’s presence. “This desire, this yearning, to be near God is, in fact, a yearning to be like Him,” he added.
When we sense or are behaviorally aware of our dissimilarity because of the presence of unkindness, gossiping, hating our brothers and sisters, complaining, criticizing spirits (to name a few), God seems remote. When we remember that Jesus died to remove the root of sin and its fruit manifested in these impediments, and accept by faith that it is done, finished, completed (John 19:30), God seems very near, even dwelling in our hearts.
“Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). This is, unfortunately, because of our continued dissimilarities. For example, sin has almost deprived us of our ability to love one another just as Jesus loves us. The love many believers exhibit is calculating, narrow, and conditional. It isn’t patient, kind, and protective; instead it’s arrogant and seeks its own (see 1 Cor. 13:4-8). How then can we recognize the presence and nearness of Him who gave Himself up to be near and fellowship with us?
God is here, and He is always near. So it’s not His presence, but the sense of His presence, that is absent from our experience. Therefore, we must pray for a “manifestation” of the One who is already—and always—here on earth, dwelling among us full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He makes it possible for all to bridge the gap between God and themselves.
By beholding Him ceaselessly, we will be changed into His likeness and experience the unbroken nearness of God’s presence. Then “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
* Camp Hill, Pa.: Christian Publications, Inc., 1997.
Hyveth Williams is a professor of homiletics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan. This article was published June 16, 2011.