I cannot begin to estimate how many times I have attempted to encourage someone with the assurance of God’s nearness: God is with you. God is near. God is among us. As a Christian, it is an astonishing attribute of the God I profess, a comforting attribute which voices long before my own confessed: “God is our refuge and strength,” writes the psalmist, “an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). “The Lord is near,” the apostle tells the Philippians, “Do not be anxious” (4:5-6). That there is one who draws near is a vital part of the story of Christianity, one in which Christians understandably draw hope. But it is not automatically hopeful to everyone. I was reminded of this when my assurance of God’s presence in the life of a struggling friend was met with her honest rejoinder: “Is that supposed to encourage me?”
Nearness in and of itself is not assuring. I had forgotten this in my well-meaning, though knee-jerk truism. An essential ingredient in the assurance that comes from nearness is the person who is drawing near. The degree of comfort and assurance (or instruction and conviction) we draw from those near us is wholly contingent on who it is that has drawn near. For some, that God is near resembles more a threat than a promise. My friend’s perception of God at that moment was perhaps closer to Julian Huxley’s than King David’s. For Huxley, God resembled “not a ruler, but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire cat.” For David, God’s nearness was clearly thought his good (cf. Psalm 73:28).
So who is it that Christians believe is near? And what does this even mean?
In Christian theology, the attributes of God are qualities which attempt to describe the God who has come near enough to reveal who God is. These attributes cannot be taken individually, removed from one another like garments in a great wardrobe; they are not traits that exist independently but simultaneously, at times in paradoxical mystery. God is both near us and “among us” as Isaiah writes; God is also far from us and beyond us—in knowledge, in grandeur, in immensity, in position. “Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Can anyone hide in secret places so that I cannot see him?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?”
Further, the one who dwells both among us and in the highest heavens is also according to Scripture good and wise and holy. The God of whose nearness Christians speak is infinite in being, glory, blessedness and perfection; all-sufficient, eternal, unchangeable, incomprehensible, everywhere present, almighty, knowing all things, most wise, most holy, most just, most merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth.(1) Like this God there is no other; God is wholly other.
After the candid response from my friend, I realized how important it is to attempt to clarify what I mean—and whom I speak of—when I say that God is near; and my attempts will remind me that this is never a simple, casual knowledge understood. My friend needed not only to know that God is near but that God is merciful, not only that God is holding her and her situation, but that God is good. She needed to hear the “who” behind the promise, beyond the attribute. And I needed the candid reminder that the attributes we can study, the biblical promises we cling to, the words I count on to comfort or restore, are pale in comparison and meaningful only because of the one they describe. The promise that God is among us is only promising because it is this God who is among us.
Christians around the world are beginning to contemplate again the mystery of the Incarnation, the divine drawing near in human form. Whether you are a believer or a skeptic it is a claim worth deeper inquiry. Who is it who comes near, who rends the heavens to stand beside humanity, who stands at the door and knocks? Who is this God among us?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who attested to the nearness of God though confined to a jail cell, depicted the one beside whom he lived and before whom he prayed as a quiet voice, gentle, persuasive, and patient. He prayed:
“Lord Jesus, come yourself, and dwell with us, be human as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, Thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death. Come with me in my death, come with me in my suffering, come with me as I struggle with evil. And make me holy and pure, despite my sin and death.”(2)
What if it is this God who hears our prayers, the one who walked in Jerusalem, the Christ who came among us? What if it is this God who is near?
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) As excerpted from the Westminster Larger Catechism.
(2) Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christmas Sermons, Ed. Edwin Robertson, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 22-23.