“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” Psalm 139:7-12
God’s omnipresence is probably the attribute of his that I struggle the most to comprehend or affirm. I don’t mean that think it isn’t true, but it is the attribute my human brain has the most trouble “getting a handle on” when compared with his other attributes. When I have read passages like Psalm 139:7-12 in the past, I often come away feeling like, “Well of course God is not bound by space and time.” But I make the mistake of concluding – in the back of my mind – that this means his presence transcends created reality to such an extent that he is somehow unreachable, unknowable, and too distant from my sin and suffering to make any real difference. This is the opposite of how Scripture portrays the meaning of God’s omnipresence.
The term ‘omnipresence’ is not found anywhere in the Bible, but the concept is threaded all throughout the whole picture of God as he is portrayed in Scripture. The word itself is formed from two separate words: “omni” (meaning “all”) and “present” (meaning “occurring” or “existing in a place”). When used as an attribute of God, this means that he is all-occurring or all-existing. He is intangible. He is immaterial. He is not even a force or a form of energy – like gravity, for example, which is often (wrongly) called omnipresent. The boundaries of space and position do not contain him, whereas they apply to all of creation in some way.
Omnipresence is an incommunicable attribute, meaning it is not an attribute passed on to us as image bearers. I cannot exist both in Washington, D.C. and London at the same time. Sure, I might leave some DNA there. I might make a comment on social media that can be read and experienced by someone who is located there. But my actual presence is limited; I can only be in one location at any given time. You are the same. Yet God in his omnipresence is not like this, and the Scriptures testify to this magnificent truth over and over – in more than one genre and in both the Old and New Testaments.
“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” 1 Kings 8:27
“‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the Lord. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’” Jeremiah 23:24
“And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” Hebrews 4:13
So, what does this attribute actually look like? How does it play out in the story of redemption? It’s easy to approach these kinds of attributes that are hard to comprehend as though they have no real bearing on our lives, but this isn’t the case. Even in the handful of verses already mentioned, we can see how the magnitude of God’s presence has three main effects in the lives of his people.
1. It gives us humility.
There’s a tendency in human beings – especially those who operate in pragmatic, works-based cultures – to think of their relationship with God like it’s a transaction. God provides in our need of salvation, and in return, we provide in his need of glorification. This is utter folly. Everything we do that makes a difference in his kingdom is only effective because he has allowed it to be so. Acts 17:24-25 puts it perfectly: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”
It is not up to us to conjure up God’s presence in the world, so to speak, but rather to proclaim (and display) both his greatness and goodness. Because he is sovereign and all-present, he alone has the power to save and to work together all things for his glory and the good of his people (Rom. 8:28). We need not fret over the success of this endeavor as though he has left us alone to do his bidding. He is here, and he can accomplish it all as he sees fit.
2. It brings us comfort.
When we experience suffering, it’s natural for us to feel as though no one really understands what we’re going through. Often in the moments when we are alone, when the tears are flowing and our hearts are silently proclaiming the heights of our misery, we wish that someone could be there to share in our experience and see the true state of our soul. This longing is met in the reality of God’s omnipresence. No matter how cliche it sounds, it is true: As long as God is still God, we are never alone, and he will never cease to be himself.
3. It convicts us of how heinous our sin is.
The fact that God is always present with us means that we are never alone in our suffering; it also means that God is always present with us when we are in sin, and this is a fearful reality to behold. We often hear people say that “God cannot be in the presence of sin” as though this means whenever we sin, God runs away for a time so as to not be tarnished by evil. This, too, is folly, and it is inconsistent with the whole testimony of Scripture and the full concept of God’s presence. If this interpretation were true, it would mean that hell is place where people simply go about their business of sin without the weight of God’s existence, or the reality of his being. Rather, the presence of God in hell is the presence of his justice and his wrath. There is nothing of his common grace there. We should be careful not to imply that hell is a place where people know nothing of the face of God. Its inhabitants see his face – but they find nothing of his grace and kindness there. Just trying to comprehend such an experience makes me shudder. (For more on this controversial topic, see this explanation given by John Piper).
On earth and in the lives of believers, God’s presence in the midst of sin looks differently. The fact that we cannot hide our sin from him should break our hearts into a state of godly fear and obedience. Before you pick up your phone to look at pornography, remember you are in the presence of the most pure and perfect Being who ever existed. Before you act out in frustration against your children or spouse, remember their Maker stands in your midst.
The gravity of God’s constant presence provides a weight to our sin which ought to administer strength in times of temptation…as well as overwhelming gratitude in the face of his grace and forgiveness. The truth of his omnipresence shapes the Gospel to the extent that we would have real grounds for hopelessness without it.
Our God is here. He is near, and he invites us to know and love him. Rest and rejoice in that.