Go to your average weekly prayer meeting, and chances are it won’t be long before you hear a prayer dressed up with mindless filler that means practically nothing. We all know it would be really bad to lead out in prayer by saying, “God: here’s my prayer list: Frank, Jennifer, Andrea, Jimmy. Amen.” So we spruce it up: “Lord, please be with Frank in the hospital tonight. And Lord, be especially near to Jennifer at the funeral tomorrow. Also, dear Jesus, be with Andrea as she travels to Florida on Friday. And little Jimmy, please, Lord, draw him close, as his needs are great. Amen.” The latter prayer has more “suitable” filler that make it more likely to pass ecclesiastical muster than the earlier prayer, but I’m not sure that the two prayers are substantially any different. Both seem to reflect the idea that by letting God know we are personally aware of each situation and requesting God’s ministry of “nearness,” we have offered up a quality prayer. Now, to be sure, prayers for God to be “with” or “near” people are not uniformly evil. After all, such prayers appear regularly in the Bible (see, e.g., 1 Kings 1:37; Rom 15:33; 2 Thess 3:16; etc.). Further, God’s promises to be “with” or “near” people are described in Scripture as highly motivational and encouraging (Ps 73:23, 28; 91:15; Isa 43:2; etc.). So if we make a request for divine nearness with the same sense reflected in these passages, the request is surely unobjectionable. The question, then, is what the Scripture-writers meant when they asked for God’s “nearness,” and how they expected God to answer such requests. Let’s begin with what God’s nearness is not:
- First, it goes without saying that divine proximity is constant. God fills the universe with the whole of his being (Jer 23:24, etc.). So we can’t expect him to answer our prayers by suddenly being someplace where he is currently absent, or by swelling up to more completely fill a space or a human heart. That’s theological nonsense.
- Second, we should not expect God to make an immediate, existential manifestation of himself (whether sensory or extra-sensory) in answer to prayers for his “nearness.” A few years ago Michael Persinger, a “neurotheologian” (?!) attempted to artificially create such an experience with an experimental God helmet that created the illusion of a “presence” in a room. Weird. Really Weird. And yet I’m not sure that his idea is all that far removed from the expectation that many have when they pray for God to be “near.” Sorry, folks, but that’s not how God manifests himself in the world today. God cannot be “felt,” and he certainly is not contained in the little flashing lights on the back of your eyelids or the lightheadedness you feel when you squeeze your eyes really tight while praying. That’s a combination of physiology and a very active imagination.
So what does the nearness of God entail? And if we pray for it, what should we expect to receive?
- Although we have seen that God’s presence thoroughly “fills heaven and earth,” there is a sense in which God is not uniformly manifested in all places. He is manifested “in heaven” (Matt 6:9) in a way he is not, say, in the sewer line. His is ontologically “in” everyone, but his sanctifying paraclesis is manifested in believers in ways that are absent in unbelievers (John 14:17). So it would seem valid to pray that the sanctifying influence and visible fruit of God’s Spirit would be manifested in believers—not such that they have a mystical ”sense of the divine,” but such that they more self-consciously reflect Christian obedience and thinking.
- The Scriptures also speak of God “nearness” in terms of reminders of God’s presence. A timely recollection of God’s gracious and righteous character may motivate a believer (Matt 28:20) or comfort him (Ps 139). Meditation on God’s observation of our day-to-day affairs can motivate proper industry (Col 3:22). Reminders of God’s providence and faithfulness can impel ministry (Acts 18:10). And so forth. Such ruminations on the divine presence need not be described in terms of mystical or existential ecstasy (though the affections surely may be stirred by such thoughts), but in rather ordinary, cognitive terms: I know God is there, and this is eminently satisfying. Not surprisingly, we find prayers to this end contained regularly in Scripture (e.g., Rom 15:33; 2 Thess 3:16).
- God’s nearness to believers, particularly in the OT arrangement, also speaks to God’s blessing in response to obedience. God repeatedly promises to be “with” Law-abiding believers by granting success or abundance (e.g., Gen 39:3, 21). Such statements are more prominent in the OT economy because the covenantal obedience/blessing rubric there is more visible and “earthy”; still, requests for God to “be with” someone in the sense of immediate blessings today are surely not out of order. God, we find, is “with” those who think and act in obedience to God (Phil 4:9) and draws near to those who draw near to him (Jas 4:8)—not in a literal or mystical sense, but by bestowing manifold favors to believers in response to their obedience.
- God’s presence ”with” believers in the biblical record can also reflect God’s exertion of supernatural power to accomplish the extraordinary: military exploits (1 Sam 18:12–14), miracles (Acts 10:38), or prophetic utterances. Requests for God to “be with” us in this sense must be tempered by one’s general understanding of revelatory and other miraculous gifts in the NT era (I understand these functions to be suspended today).
To conclude, then, properly chastened and informed requests for God to “be with” us can be quite appropriate…but not all such requests fall so pleasantly on God’s ears. May God give us the grace to purge our prayers of vacuous and silly notions of divine “nearness” without abandoning the idea entirely.