The Presence: What You Want Most

“God is not a vague abstract principle or force but a living person who fellowships with His people. He is the living and true God, as opposed to all the deaf and dumb idols of this world. Knowledge of Him, therefore, is also a person-to-person knowledge. God’s presence is not something that we discover through refined theoretical intelligence. Rather, God is unavoidably close to His creation. We are involved with Him all the time.” – John M. Frame, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God

The presence of God—it’s both our breath and our destiny, our birth and our belonging. In fact, it’s our very atmosphere (Acts 17:28). You and I are inhaling it at this very moment. We’ve no choice in the matter. Once you breathe, you breathe his presence. Yet, we don’t often feel that presence. We don’t feel the truth, even when we know the truth. And deep down, that bothers us, doesn’t it? We want to know how God is present, not just that he is present. Perhaps if we could grasp how he’s present, we’d live more boldly, speak more faithfully, act more generously. We could learn how to be human beings who truly believe that God is always with us, that the Lord of green fields and golden stars is here, to our North, West, East, and South. More than this, we could embrace the mind-bending reality that this Holy One is inside us. And we would have this truth to combat any lie the devil throws our way.

Spoken Presence

       Scripture portrays God’s presence in many ways, often through what we call theophany, God’s appearing in thunder and fire, burning bushes, and great angels. The ultimate theophany is Jesus Christ—the immortal, all-powerful, and ever-present Spirit wrapped in sinew and skin.[1] What we might miss in all of these theophanies, however, is what joins them. There is something special about how God is present with usIt’s a common thread that unites all of God’s manifestations to us: speech. God everywhere and always reveals his spoken presence to us. He mediates himself through words, and he does that in two ways. If we can grasp this, we’ll open up a door to communion with God all around us.

Creation Speech

        Let’s call the first type of God’s spoken presence creation speech. Not sure what this is? Look around you. The entire created world is a type of speech from God. In Romans 1, Paul tells us that God has revealed himself in “the things that have been made” (Rom. 1:20). That’s everything. Everything in the world reveals God, reveals something about his nature and dealings with us.[2] In this sense, we might say that everything in the world “speaks” of God. Nature is a sort of word from God. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “As the system of nature, and the system of revelation, are both divine works, so both are in different senses a divine word. Both are the voice of God to intelligent creatures, a manifestation and declaration of himself to mankind.”[3]  Nature is not the same type of word to us as God’s verbal revelation (which we’ll get to next). And we should always be careful to set apart the primacy of God’s verbal revelation for our knowledge and salvation. Still, that doesn’t keep us from understanding the natural world as a sort of speech from God.

“In this sense, we might say that everything in the world “speaks” of God. Nature is a sort of word from God.”

       I’ll be the first to admit this is tough to grasp. We’re so prone to believing that the world is “just there.” The world appears to be a neutral, rather impersonal place, doesn’t it? We often feel alone. At least, we don’t feel as if God is speaking to us everywhere, constantly revealing himself in the things that he’s made. We don’t feel a call to divine conversation simply by walking to the mailbox each day. But—please hear this—that is one of Satan’s greatest lies. In fact, I call it “the great lie.” The great lie, delivered in ancient times by a slithering serpent and woven into the tapestry of human history, is that God is not everywhere and always present in his world. But he is. He is.

       Pause with me to consider something about speech. Speech requires relationship. This is obvious with humans, since our relationship is already established by our common nature. Right now, I can literally hear and see my three-year-old scribbling circles into a notebook ten feet away. We have a common nature; we both hold crayons with our fingers and press them into paper the same way. But it’s not like that with God; we bear God’s image, but we don’t share his nature.

       Take another example. When my wife says, “Good morning” to me, I don’t have to work hard to trust that she’s speaking to me. We have a deep relationship—not just one of two humans who share a common nature, but as husband and wife. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which I must trust that she’s speaking to me. When I talk with her on the phone, this becomes more prominent. I can’t see her or touch her, but I can hear her voice, and so I trust, I believe, that she is really speaking to me. There’s an element of trust, of faith, at the heart of language.

       This applies to God’s spoken presence on a deeper level. Because God is a Spirit, I can’t see him or touch him. But he has given us spiritual ears (cf. Isa. 6:9–10) to hear what he says. He’s given us ears to hear what he is saying about himself through the world around us (Rom. 1:20; Ps. 19:1–4). He’s given us ears to hear his revelation. And if our spiritual ears are unstopped by the redeeming work of God’s Son and the sanctifying work of the Spirit, then we’re in the perfect position to trust that he’s speaking to us, and thus that he’s present with us. But our trust, our faith, is required. For we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We won’t accept God’s presence apart from faith in him. And without faith in God’s spoken presence, we’re left with the great lie.

God’s Special Speech

        The second type of God’s spoken presence is the most critical, since it’s the only thing that leads to our salvation and our ability to interpret the first type of spoken presence. This is God’s spoken presence in Scripture, what theologians call special revelation. I’m calling it God’s special speech. God is present in his verbal revelation to his people, the Bible. We’ve always needed this verbal revelation. We needed it even before sin entered the world. God verbally revealed himself to Adam and Eve in the garden, telling them what they needed to do. He told them to exercise dominion and stewardship, to multiply and rule over the world (Gen. 1:28–29). And God even appears to have walked and talked with Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:8).

       This brings us back to the truth that God is present in his word, which is hard to comprehend but clear throughout Scripture. In Adam McHugh’s language,

When we speak a word it rushes out of our mouths and vanishes, but when God speaks a word his very presence is carried along with it. God is never separate from his word. God’s word is saturated and penetrated by God himself—his being, power and wisdom—so much so that you get a word that is presence. It starts to make sense why the Gospel of John refers to Jesus, the eternal Son, as the Word of God. When you have words filled with the very being of God, you have a Word that is God.[4]

God is always present with his words, and he’s given us his words in verbal revelation.

       God’s spoken presence in this verbal revelation underscores something profound but often overlooked: we’re creatures built for communion, and that communion presents itself from the outset of our existence in the call of language—in its ability to bring us closer to each other. It’s a call out of the self and into another, into relationship. For it’s only through relationship that we were meant to live. I love Geerhardus Vos on this point. He says that our being made in God’s image means that we’re always bent towards communion with him.[5] Elsewhere he writes, “To be a Christian is to live one’s life not merely in obedience to God, nor merely in dependence on God, not even merely for the sake of God; it is to stand in conscious, reciprocal fellowship with God, to be identified with him in thought and purpose and work, to receive from him and give back to him in the ceaseless interplay of spiritual forces.”[6] Do you see his focus on communion with God, on relationship?

       But how is God present with us through this verbal communion? It’s difficult for us to imagine because on this side of the fall, our communication can seem void of personal presence. But we must remind ourselves constantly of two biblical truths: (1) Sin has changed things, and (2) God’s verbal communication is of a different quality than human verbal communication. We speak as creatures; God speaks as the Creator. What might this mean in the context of our current conversation?

       Consider this. When God speaks, there’s a mysterious sense in which he speaks himself. This is very strange, but deeply personal. In eternity, the Father utters the eternal Word, the divine Son, in the hearing of the Spirit. We infer this from various passages in the Gospel of John (1:1; 16:13).

“God is always present with his words, and he’s given us his words in verbal revelation.”

        Now, we might naturally wonder what this means, and rightly so. We’re heading into the theological ether, aren’t we? What does it mean for God to speak himself to himself, for the Father to speak the Son in the hearing of the Spirit? We’re at the borders of human understanding here, but we can at least say this: God is a community unto himself. He is, as Herman Bavinck once put it, not an impersonal monad—an impersonal essence—but a fountain of life and relationship.[7] God, in himself, speaks. I love how Douglas Kelly put it: “The fact that the eternal Son of the Father is called Word or Logos, seems to mean, among other things, that there is—and has been from all eternity—talk, sharing and communication in the innermost life of God. The true God is not silent; He talks.”[8] God speaks not only to us, but to himself. Speech is part of who God is, not simply part of what he does. So, when we say that the Father speaks the Son in the hearing of the Spirit, we’re saying that God speaks himself to himself in a community of love and glory. He is his own community. Thus, when it comes to God’s presence, whenever God speaks (which is all the time, in the deeper sense), he is present with that speech, for that speech comes from God, through the Son.

Summary of Spoken Presence

       I know, I know—this all sounds horribly abstract. We went from a comment on our longing for God’s presence to what may seem like a rabbit hole on divine metaphysics. But it’s not a rabbit hole, I promise. If we can grasp this, it sets us up to combat Satan’s great lie.

        When God speaks to create, govern, and sustain the world (Gen. 1; Heb. 1:3, Col. 1:17), that speech is an analogue, an image or echo, of his eternal speech, his eternal Son. There’s a clear correlation between the speech God utters in Genesis and the speech that he simply is (John 1:1). The two are not identical; they’re analogous. The words that God utters outside himself rely for their meaning and stability on God himself.[9] That means those words evoke God’s personal presence. And because these words are always being “spoken,” for God always governs and sustains all things through his speech, God is present everywhere and all the time through speech. That’s God’s creation speech.

       However, what’s even more amazing is that, within a world that’s filled with God’s spoken presence, we’re also personally addressed by God in his verbal revelation, in Scripture. Scripture is God’s holy conversation with his people. Though complex and variegated, the Bible is one long conversation, one long act of communion, one long heart-felt message of fellowship, one embrace of reconciliation. And God is present with his words in Scripture as gracious and loving. You won’t find that in the natural world. Herman Bavinck was clear on that: If you want grace and forgiveness, don’t walk into the woods; walk into the word.[10] It’s there that you will find Christ on every page, as God speaks to reconcile us to himself.[11]

        In Scripture, we might appear to see merely human language. I see the same thing that you see: verbs and prepositions and nouns and adjectives. But that language is composed of words that rest upon the eternal Word for their meaning at every moment. They are words for our redemption, and they are the only words that stamp out a path to salvation with God at our side. So, once again, God is present through language—a spoken presence.

Engaging with God’s Spoken Presence

        If we know that God’s presence is mediated through words—both the words that created the world and the words God addresses to his people—then we’re perfectly situated to receive communication from God at all times. And communication is key to God’s presence. God isn’t mute; he is always speaking. To know him is to know what he says. When we know that, we can listen and respond.

        Listening happens both outside and inside Scripture. Do you ever listen for what the wild world is saying about God? Just on the other side of our glass sliding door is a weathered piece of red oak. It’s resting on the black hose, at the foot of a larger stack of firewood. Because God is everywhere revealing himself in the world that he’s spoken and upholds by the word of his power, that piece of wood is saying something to me about God. Knowing this is the beginning of listening. But it goes beyond this to the content of God’s speech. Whatever properties that piece of wood has, those properties must in some way point back to the nature of God, the one who spoke it. The grain, for instance, is made from longitudinal cells in the cambium, the thin layer of living cells right beneath the bark. Beneath the cambium is sapwood, then the heartwood, then the pith. All these layers tracing back to a center, the marrow of life. All that we see grows around that marrow, the pith. New life must build on existing life. Is that not a reflection of our dependence on God at this very second? We are the life built around the pith of his vitality. Split open a soul the way you would split open a red oak log, and you will find God, the center, the life giver. You will find a mess of a person longing with every muscle and skin cell for unending, unvarnished relationship. At the center of a log, you find the pith. At the center of a soul you find a person longing for other persons. That piece of wood outside my sliding door says, “God is relational . . . and so are you. Stop trying in vain to detach yourself from the pith of God’s person.”  

       Now, I need to filter whatever I think the created world is saying about God through Scripture. Creation speech must be sifted by special speech. But in this case the message of that split red oak comes out clearly from the lips of Jesus. “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from the pith, there is no life, no purpose, no achievement. We can do nothing in isolation from the God who speaks. We are made for a relationship with the God who is a relationship—Father, Son, and Spirit.

       In God’s word, he’s also speaking to us. He addresses us as we read. This sounds strange to us because we’re just parsing words on a page. No one else speaks to us this way. When we read the Bible, it can feel as if we’re reading someone else’s mail. But what if the writer intended us to read that mail? Wouldn’t we then say that this writer was writing to us, too? God is watching you when you read, and he always planned for you to read it. In his Spirit, he’ll be working on your heart to reflect and notice, to receive and respond. That’s because God’s word is his speech to you, not just his speech to the church in general. We have every reason to start our reading of God’s word with the question, “Lord, what do you want to say to me?”

       Listening to God’s spoken presence in nature and in Scripture comes along with responding. We respond to God’s spoken presence with open speech, prayer, worship, and engagement with others. To be a human is to be in constant I-thou relationship with God and others; it’s a life of call and response. God is always calling, but we aren’t so consistent with responding. (Though, not responding is a type of response.) When God speaks, do you speak back? When he teaches something to you in Scripture, do you turn to pray in response? Is your worship of God and your engagement with other people colored by God’s speech to you? These are questions we can ask ourselves on a daily basis as we invite the Spirit to keep working on us, to conform us to Christ’s image as we walk through the world.

       If the presence of God is what we most crave, the solution is spoken for us. Anyone or anything that suggests God isn’t present through his speech comes from a dark place. For the greatest lie humanity has ever faced is the lie that God is absent, and that’s come from the father of lies. We need to assault that great lie with God’s great truth.

Pierce Taylor Hibbs, The Great Lie. Available at Amazon.
Pierce Taylor Hibbs, The Great Lie. Available at Amazon.

Bibliography

[1] For introduction to theophany, see Vern S. Poythress, Theophany: A Biblical Theology of God’s Appearing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

[2] This was my focus in Finding God in the Ordinary (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2018).

[3] Jonathan Edwards, “The ‘Miscellanies’: Number 1340,” in Christian Apologetics Past and Present, vol. 2, From 1500, ed. William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 237.

[4] Adam McHugh, The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015), 94.

[5] Geerhardus Vos, Anthropology, vol. 2 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. and trans. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014), 13.

[6] Geerhardus Vos, “Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1980), 186.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 308–309; Ralph A. Smith, Trinity and Reality: An Introduction to the Christian Faith (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2004), 72.

[8] Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology: Grounded in Holy Scripture and Understood in Light of the Church, vol. 1, The God Who Is: The Holy Trinity (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2008), 487.

[9] See Vern S. Poythress, “God and Language” in Did God Really Say? Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, ed. David B. Garner (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), 102–104.

[10] Herman Bavinck, Prolegomena, vol. 1 of Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 312–314.

[11] Peter A. Lillback, ed., Seeing Christ in All of Scripture: Hermeneutics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016).

Pierce Taylor Hibbs (MAR, ThM Westminster Theological Seminary) is Senior Writer & Communication Specialist for Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books and articles. You can learn more about his work at piercetaylorhibbs.com

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 

Give

Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.